Each week, a handful of elite Charleston sommeliers gather in a downtown restaurant for a blind taste test. Each brings a cloaked bottle of wine and, in turn, pours it out of sight of his colleagues. The glasses are then delivered for consumption, and rounds of deductive tasting begin, with noses diving into glasses, palates being bathed and eyes studying the mystery wines for color and clarity. The sommeliers’ sharp senses discern the telltale clues of each glass, enabling them to pinpoint the wine’s grapes, region and vintage. They are Sherlock Holmeses with corkscrews, and among them is Charleston wine entrepreneur Brad Ball ’04.
Ball counts himself in rare company during these gatherings. Of a wine-tasting colleague from Charleston Grill, for example, he marvels that the man has a “wolf nose.” Yet Ball can more than hold his own in the wide world of wine. He opened Social, a wine bar and restaurant on East Bay Street, in 2007 and is also the founder of La Wine Agency, which works with artisanal winemakers in Chile, Germany and France to produce six lines of wine – pinot noir, chardonnay, sparkling wine, syrah, Riesling and sauvignon blanc– specified to Ball’s tastes.
These collaborations, as well as his wine-buying duties for Social and Poogan’s Porch (the classic Queen Street eatery owned by his family), require Ball to travel abroad a few times a year to make vineyard visits. Believe it or not, he says, it can be exhausting to drink great wine in foreign countries for two or three weeks straight. Most of what he drinks, he spits out. The hours are long, the pours unceasing and the appointments never ending. No matter how many drinks he is plied with, at the end of the day, it is all about business.
In fact, it was all about business from the very beginning. He thought the wine menu at Poogan’s Porch could be improved – and, as he says, “I think I irritated my parents enough that my mom finally turned to me and said, ‘Why don’t you do it?’”
So he did, and, in the process, the philosophy major embarked on a wine education that included earning an M.B.A. at Bordeaux Management School in France. Now Ball manages an annual $500,000 wine-buying budget for Poogan’s Porch and Social, oversees Social’s restaurant operations and is up to his neck in planning for the expansion of La Wine Agency, founded in March 2011. In its first year, La Wine sold more than 5,000 cases of wine in five states. In 2012, La Wine plans to expand to 13 states and offer three more varietals. The difference between retailing wine at restaurants and being a producer is vast, Ball says, and he’s spent much of the past few months learning the ropes of international logistics and navigating red tape associated with customs and permitting.
“It’s a funny game of hurrying up to sit and wait,” says Ball. “It’s nothing like I expected.”
Also in the works is the retail website and blog WineAwesomeness, where Ball plans to introduce some of his favorite wines to the younger generation of wine enthusiasts. Meanwhile, he keeps meeting with his Charleston wine colleagues to improve his tasting abilities and work toward becoming certified as a master sommelier. Anything wine related, it seems, can capture Ball’s heart and business interests.
“For me,” says Ball, “it’s just a sheer fascination.”