The price of wine
Jaye Price of Castleberry Hill’s Wine Shoe knows his grapes and his people
I wandered into Castleberry Hill’s Wine Shoe for the first time a few years ago, in search of anything but a bottle of oaky, oily Chardonnay. I was likewise weary of my standby Sauvignon Blanc, Albariño, and Sémillon. Having been spoiled from years of living just a stone’s throw from St. Helena, California, in the heart of Napa Valley, I often grumbled at Atlanta’s wine scene, fancying myself a Paul Giamatti stranded in a sea of Merlot (but in my case, Chardonnay). Upon entering the shop, I explained my dilemma to proprietor Jaye Price. With a warm smile and a complete lack of hesitation, he recommended—oh no!—a Chardonnay. I tried to be polite as he insisted that the terroir of this French-produced wine was a world away from what I despised in the California varietal. I bought the bottle and imagined that I would taste it, hate it, pour it down the sink, or pawn it off on unsuspecting guests, and never return.
Two weeks later, however, I walked back into Wine Shoe in search of a second bottle. Price greeted me with, “Hey! We’ve got a new French Chardonnay in that’s got a compelling minerality. You’re going to love it!” I looked behind me; surely he was talking to someone he knew. And how did he know I’d even liked the first bottle? How did he even remember me after one visit two weeks prior? And that’s when I realized: Jaye Price knows his grapes and his people.
Price takes up big, energetic space. By contrast, his business, Wine Shoe (named due to a city typo on their business license), is an unassuming little spot, tucked between repurposed industrial lofts and well within the fiery, postmodern shadow of the new stadium. Price’s passion for wine, music, the arts, and Atlanta fills the shop, and it’s easy to imagine his other life as a musician: middle school music teacher, regular performer, and composer. He radiates enthusiasm, and the shop’s warm interior matches his personality.
Growing up in Anniston, Alabama, didn’t automatically grant Jaye wine-insider status. As he tells it, “Back in the day, I was playing saxophone with a group called Jazpects here in the city. We would play these house-band gigs for fancy functions, you know, just a ‘stand in the corner and play standards’ kind of thing. One time at the end of the night, the people who hired us didn’t have the money to pay us, which can happen to musicians, and you gotta figure something out. We were like, ‘We’re leaving here with something,’ so I got paid in wine — good wine. Now, at the time, I didn’t know anything about wine, but I took it home and really tasted it, and I thought, ‘This is interesting.’ And so I set out to learn more.”
From there, Price got a gig at the since-shuttered shop WineStyles working under George A. Gore, one of the first African-American sommeliers in the U.S. “I was just George’s pour-guy, plating up cheese for pairings, cleaning up after the tastings, but he took me under his wing, made me taste, taught me how to pay attention to craft and production. And that’s where I got my wine education, learning from George.” After this unofficial apprenticeship, Price took a job in wine distribution, but it wasn’t his calling. “I wanted to get back to sharing the tasting of wine with people,” he says. “Real people, people who know about wine, and people who are just learning about it. Those are my people.”
Price came to Wine Shoe in 2011 under the store’s original owner, Nora Wiley. He immediately began upping the shop’s educational outreach, allowing customers to experience the pleasures of wine without condescension or presumption.
While I was interviewing Price for this piece over a bottle of Venta Morales Organic Tempranillo, this spirit of education and inclusion was in full effect. One young woman, so new to wine she was worried that she didn’t even own a corkscrew, came in looking for a bottle of “something red.” Price steered her to an easy-drinking, medium-bodied Grenache. Then another customer from London called to confirm his private tasting during his upcoming visit to Atlanta, going over the details of his preferences with Price in advance. “Is this normal?” I asked. Price laughed. “Well, I don’t always have international guests calling, but yeah, this is what wine can bring together.”
He continues, “Maybe it’s because of my background, but I think of wine like I think of music. It has region, style, notation, time period. It allows us to enter into a new world. Wine, particularly here in the States, lets us travel; it lets us experience new places, new times. As an analogy, people say things like ‘I don’t like rap music’ or ‘I don’t like country music.’ But how do you know? Have you listened to it all? I think of wine in the same way. You might think you don’t enjoy a particular grape—”
“Like Chardonnay?” I interjected.
“Exactly! Like Chardonnay! But you’ve got to taste, to listen, to get past your generalizations and preconceived notions and try new things.”
I suggest that wine can be intimidating. “Here in America, it’s a class marker, for sure,” Price agrees. “And that’s why I find the education component of my job so important. And I’m also still learning. People come into the shop all the time who have knowledge I might not, and I always admit what I don’t know. I can learn from them, too.” For Price, this learning and growing together is what will build Atlanta’s wine future, which he sees as driven by the city’s increasingly strong culinary reputation. But he’d also like to watch Atlanta’s wine scene evolve into a space where the wine can stand on its own.
To that end, Price also strives to bring variety to the city’s vino-scape. “People don’t often think about it, but the best winemakers are, essentially, small humble farmers. It’s the folks who know their vines, their fields, who have spent thousands of hours on their craft. They don’t have to be big producers with famous names. I try to stock the shop with as many small-batch wines as possible.”
The average Wine Shoe wine is not going to be found at any area grocery store. But that doesn’t mean every wine has a high price point. The shop offers standbys and surprises, affordable options, and bottles for special occasions. There’s something for everyone.
Thanks to Price, over the past few years, my own California-induced snobbery toward the city has faded. The wine club at the shop invites local distributors in for tastings with members before they select their wines for the month. It’s easy, social, and brings together a wide swathe of the city, from retired Spelman professors to young professionals in from OTP. Starting in January, Price assumed ownership of the shop. Now, he’s looking to open up even more educational events and pair his knowledge of music with his knowledge of wine.
But what is this man who seemingly does everything — playing music, scoring films, teaching kids, owning a wine business — drinking now? I ask. He takes a sip from his glass, smiles slyly, and says, “Don’t let anyone tell you what to drink.”
Point taken, Price. Now, I’ll have a bottle of that French Chardonnay.
Wine Shoe, 339 Nelson St SW. 404-220-9042. www.wineshoeatlanta.com.