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An Interview with Brad Ball

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An Interview with Brad Ball
Photo by Tim Hussey

OWNER & WINE DIRECTOR OF SOCIAL RESTAURANT + WINE BAR

Social Restaurant + Wine Bar in Charleston, South Carolina has a great reason to celebrate: they recently received Wine Spectator’s Best of Award of Excellence for its exceptional wine program. Brad Ball, the owner and wine director, is to be credited, having curated such a distinguished collection.  He has spent the last five years creating a selection with vintage depth and excellent breadth over several wine-growing regions. Brad spent a few moments with us to talk about the process of building such a select cellar and outstanding wine program.

The Local Palate (TLP):  First off, Congratulations on winning Wine Spectator’s “Best of Award of Excellence!” You’ve clearly taken great care of the cellar and wine program at Social. Can you tell us how the program has evolved since you opened and the steps you’ve take to get where you are now?
Brad Ball (BB):
Building a cellar is expensive and a rather time-consuming process.  When we initially opened our doors, we had roughly $30,000 in inventory with just a few hundred selections and now have well over $100,000 and nearing nearly 700 selections.  It takes time to build the capital to continually reinvest in such an endeavor.  Additionally, we are closing in on our sixth year of business, so we have been able to buy highly allocated wines from our favorite producers year after year, adding vertical depth to our program.  I am really stoked with the development of the program and with the addition of Christian Broder, a wine bad ass in his own right, at the GM spot, I think we can propel this to the next level.  Personally, I can’t wait to see where it is in another five years…now we just need more cellar space!

Other favorites are our vertical of Château Musar, the famed Lebanese estate under the iconic Serge Hochar.  The wines are just devastatingly awesome and we have bottlings back to ’81, my birth year (purposefully!).

TLP:  Are there any wines, or producers, in the cellar that you are particularly proud of?
BB: We have a lot of the big names, but a lot of times it’s some of the cooler, funkier stuff that really excites me.  For example, my new favorite Riesling producer is AJ Adams from the Mosel.  It was an epiphany for me when I tasted his wines in Germany last summer…they were some of the best wines of the trip.  He is reinvigorating an area that is very under the radar and lacked any quality-conscious producers, so the pricing is very strong.  We stocked up on his 2010’s and just special ordered cases of his 2011’s.  He will be a producer that we will continue to focus on.

I really could go on and on.  I have spent so much of my life studying wine and the Social cellar is a culmination of this effort.  We typically avoid big box brands and really try to focus on those artisinal producers who are involved in every stage of production.  It’s really a labor of love for us because the quantities are small and dealing with inventory issues is never ending, but it is totally worth it…we wouldn’t have it any other way.  It’s what drives us as wine geeks.

TLP:  What do you try to keep in mind when you are selecting wines for the restaurant?
BB:
Ha!  Wish I had a great answer, but the truth is we cater to the 0.00001% of the world who are wine geeks like us.  From a business perspective, this makes no monetary sense.  Obviously, we try to fill every category but unfortunately, if you want Petit Syrah from California, we have one offering.  Yet, if you want red Burgundy, we have over 60.

Thematically though, I think it does make sense.  Our über-talented chef, Jesse Sutton, is fundamentally rooted in the French and Italian traditions, which is also my background.  The fact that our list is very old world-centric ties directly into the food we serve.  We literally will take a wine and then create a dish to match…there are very few restaurants in the world who take that approach.

TLP: Do you have any advice or suggestions for people curating their own collection at home?
BB:
Of course!  I have an opinion on everything wine related! Don’t necessarily go for the trophy wines.  We have them…DRC is a perfect example.  However, if you do your homework, there are wines that are just as epic that won’t cost $1,000+ per bottle.  As opposed to buying Screaming Eagle or Harlan, look for Dunn or Phillip Togni.  From an investment standpoint, those brands are pretty much tapped out, while other ones have the potential for their prices to increase significantly.  For example, first-growth Bordeaux has dominated the auction blocks for years, but Burgundy has been consistently outperforming them in 2012.  “What’s next” is the question you should be asking yourself.

TLP: What are your top three wines of the moment? And what do you like to pair them with?
BB:
Jean Lallement, ‘Millésme’, Verzanay, Grand Cru, Champagne, 2006. So, I’m a sparkling wine freak and will drink it all day everyday with no real excuse except for that it’s Tuesday.  I popped this bottle for a special occasion and was just blown away…it really doesn’t get much better than this for sparkling wine. I think Lily Bollinger, from the super famous Champagne house, summed it up best with: “I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and I drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it, unless I’m thirsty.”

Paolo Bea, ‘Arboreus’, Umbria. This maybe the world’s coolest wine.  From the biodynamic farm of one of Italy’s greatest producers comes this wine made from Trebbiano vines that are actually trained up trees…craziest thing I’ve ever heard and the pictures are just wild.  This isn’t just a publicity trick…the juice is ridiculously sick!!  Chicken, when done right, can be glorious and this wine is the perfect compliment.

Arnot-Roberts, Syrah, North Coast, 2010. For an old-world dominated wine program, it is blasphemous that I’m including a California producer…unless they are producing the coolest wines in the country based on a French template.  I was just at their winery a couple weeks ago in Healdsburg and I can truly say that I was blown away.  In a blind tasting, it would be difficult for me to call these wines new world.  They are balanced and nuanced and this particular bottling reminds of me of one of my favorite appellations, Côte-Rôtie in the Northern Rhône…for a third of the price.  Pair it with roasted lamb.

Mentioned in this post:
Brad Ball