I’d say you’re not doing too shabby if you marry someone with the same passions as you. Better yet, if your passions complement each other and allow you to run a successful urban bistro on Greenville Avenue. Husband-and-wife team Courtney and Brian Luscher have owned The Grape since 2007. He’s the owner and head chef and she is the general manager and sommelier. The quaint, cozy restaurant is filled with charm, authentically framed canvas paintings from the restaurant’s original interior, and 24 bottles of wine by the glass. I recently sat down with the couple, wanting to uncover just what goes into picking out the best wine for a meal or happy hour and secretly hoping to walk away with a few alternatives to my usual Three-Buck Chuck at Trader Joe’s.
RH: So, like always, first question for both of you: coffee, cocktail, or wine?
CL: Well, for me it’s wine. (Laughs.) That’s a no brainer for me.
SL: Well, it depends on what time of day it is.
RH: If you were going to be going out into the city?
RH: Ok, so I know this might be a silly question, but red or white?
CL: I think I know what he’s going to say. I love red, but if I had to choose between the two, if I could only drink one for the rest of my life, I’d choose white.
SL: I think it really depends. When we go out, we always start out with a glass of sparkling wine. If we’re out for dinner, I’m always starting with a glass of white. So if it’s white or red, I don’t know. If I had to choose, is that the question?
CL: Yes! See if we were on the dating game, I would say red!
RH: Courtney, what is your favorite type of white wine?
CL: Outside of bubbles or sparkling or Champagne, which I love, I love Sauvignon Blanc. Anything in that world or wine. I love them all. I love a great Sancerre. I love a nice quality New Zealand Sauv Blanc. There are some great California Sauvignon Blancs. I definitely love all of them, but for me it comes down to knowing the producer. I get much more jazzed about it. I will almost always pick based on that.
SL: I’ll almost always pick based on what we are eating. And I’ll think about the region instead of the producer because that is much more what she does. For me, I know the flavor pairing that I am looking to have. If I’m going to have a Sauvignon Blanc, is it going to be from New Zealand, from Loire Valley, or is it going to be from central coast California or maybe Napa or Alexander Valley? That is how I’m going to pick a wine.
RH: So how does a producer change your choice in a wine?
CL: I get to taste a lot of wines, which is great, but for me the producer helps. You can say, “Oh, I love a Pinot Noir,” but think about how many regions you have to choose from and how many people are making that wine. So, if I know there is a premier producer of a Pinot Noir, say Domaine Serene out of Willamette, Oregon, I know they are going to be consistent because I’ve tasted it. So I will choose that Pinot.
BL: Think about a clothing designer. If you’re looking for quality and design, you go to a specific place. With producers, what do they have to present? What does their style typically involve? Then knowing those producers, you can go more in-depth with what I was talking about within a region. When it comes to Burgundy, through, there are so many producers. There they are only divided by rows of vines.
CL: A family will own one row.
BL: Because a family owned a vineyard 500 years ago and when they died, by law, it got divided between the two sides. And then, over the years it became, “So this row right here is mine and this one and half of that is yours.” So it’s not necessarily about always knowing the producers because it can be so infinitesimal.
RH:.So, have you guys traveled a lot then?
CL: Oh, I wish I could say, “Yes!” to that question.
BL: Not as much as we’d like.
RH: Where have you gone that has influenced what you are doing here, whether it is a wine that you might bring back or a dish that you might change?
BL: One trip, really.
CL: Yeah, it was our honeymoon.
BL: We spent about a week in and around the Napa Valley.
RH: So what would be your ideal wine and meal pairing?
CL: Well, I think our cheese and charcuterie is phenomenal. It’s something that the Grape has definitely been known for. Brian makes all of his own charcuterie here. That and a glass of dry rosa or some bubbles, and I am a happy, happy camper.
BL: When I come in, I’m going to relax and have dinner, but I’m also checking things out. So, I’m ordering things that I think we’ve had inconsistencies with or haven’t been perfect. Then, I ask the server to pair a wine with it and see what they say because it would be really easy to just bring me the $21 glass of Stag’s Leap, which I’m very fond of. I could also be satisfied with a California Cab with every single red meat meal there is, but I want these guys to show me some new ones.So when you talk about food pairing and wine pairings, I’m putting that on the staff.
RH: Where is your date spot?
BL: Well, it depends on what a date spot means.
RH: Getting away so no one will recognize you.
BL: (Smiling) I kind of like being recognized. That is one of the few perks that we have in this business. Working from open to close every day, and it’s your livelihood because it is your business, so when I go out, I want someone to say, “That’s Brian and Courtney…”
CL: “…they don’t get out much, let’s take care of them.” More of that then us saying, “Hey, it’s Brian and Courtney Luscher we’re coming into dinner tonight. Hint. Hint. Hint.” We never do that. But our go-to special occasion spot is The Mansion. Birthdays, anniversaries, if we’re celebrating anything special we go there. We’ve ventured out to a few spots, a few high-end places but between Bruno and the staff there, we just love it.
RH: So, if someone where to walk in here, they are a wine new-be and they don’t really know much, what would you recommend to them at first?
CL: Well, the first thing, I love that by the way.
BL: And she’s done a great job of training her staff to love that moment.
CL: My first question is usually, “Well, what do you like?” because most of the time, someone has had something. Your goal is to find something that this individual enjoys. We have 24 wines by the glass, that was one of my goals, to have a huge variety. So ok, “Taste this. Taste this.” I’ll pull up three or four samples for someone to try because I want to get an idea of what they like. Do they want something more full-bodied, creamier like a chardonnay, something with more crisp acidity like in a Sauvignon Blanc, do they like something a little lighter on fruit like Pinot Grigio?
BL: Or are they a White Zinfandel, which there is nothing wrong with that, we don’t have that, but we can point someone toward something similar.
CL: Let me pour you this Riesling. Let’s go. I will always start in Sauvignon Blanc style, whether it is a Sauv Blanc or a cool little French white blend or an Albarino from Spain. Those tend to be in the middle, and I think those tend to be somewhat public friendly. I think somewhere in that neighborhood you can find the direction someone wants to go in and why.
RH: So I’m a Sauvignon Blanc person. What would you recommend if I were to try something different?
BL: Starting by talking about maybe an Albarino or a Vinho Verde.
CL: Or a little Picpoul de Pinet from the Languedoc region of France. That is super fun. It’s a dry minerally kind of citrusy floral. It would be, “Great, you like Sauvignon Blanc. I’m going to pour you a little Picpoul, a sample of this Domaine du Tariquet, which is this white style blend, and I’m going to pour you an Albarino.” And even though they are similar in the wine-world discussion, they are so different. It’s fun.
BL: What I really respect about what Courtney does with her wines by the glass is the great variety. We don’t carry 600 labels. We have 200, and with that number you can’t have 40 whites just from Burgundy. You only get two. So which ones are they going to be and she’s like, “Well they are going to be good.” There are no losers.