Food » The Soul of Wine

Jay Murrie's Italian reds pair well with grilled food and bug spray

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Terroir: a powerful but elusive wine term. It has no direct translation, but terroir ultimately means something close to sense of place.

Which place, though? We assume terroir has to do with where the wine came from, but in most of the world, we drink wine where we live, not where it came from. The Triangle has a strong locavore culture (food terroir) and adventurous, liberal, earthy, value-conscious wine drinkers to go with it. And lots of warm weather. Strike that: hot weather.

Heat is a challenge for red wine, which isn't by nature cold, crisp or refreshing—the opposite of what you generally want in a summer beverage. But there's really no substitute for the pleasures of red, and if you love it, nothing will stop you from drinking it. You just need to find red wine that pairs well with sweat, bug spray, grilled food and condiments.

Enter Jay Murrie.

If you've bought wine in Chapel Hill over the last decade or so, chances are good that you bought some from Murrie. He ran the wine department of A Southern Season for several years, then co-owned 3 Cups before leaving in 2011 to start his own wine wholesaling business.

The company's name, Piedmont Wine Imports, is a double entendre of the terroir type. Piedmont Wine Imports' portfolio, which is entirely Italian—there are plans to expand into France—features many wines from northern Italy's esteemed Piemonte region, for which Murrie has an abiding fondness. He has taken family trips there, and to other parts of Italy, for years. It was during one of those vacations, in Tuscany—Italy's other top winemaking area—that Piedmont Wine Imports was born.

"It was around harvest season," Murrie recalls. "I went for a run with a friend through all these Sangiovese vineyards. I was telling him about all the things we were running past: the vines, the people picking grapes. He said, 'Why aren't you importing this?'"

Murrie laughs. "I had no good answer." Soon after, the friend who posed the question became a business partner, and Murrie became a certified importer.

Piedmont Wine Imports' website makes it clear that Murrie is more than a (really good) salesman. His producer and vineyard profiles, and his travel and tasting notes, which he also published while at A Southern Season and 3 Cups, reveal an intrepid, unpretentious, engaged, engaging and drily funny writer—and, of course, a devoted and expert wine drinker. (In person, Murrie is much the same). Perhaps no wine merchant in the Triangle knows so much about so many wines, while crowing about it so little.

Murrie's writing is, subtly, about a good deal more than wine. His notes, taken together, propound a holistic, sane worldview that is both ambitious and unassuming. It's derived from—and promotes—drinking, of course, but in spirit it's sober: Enjoying good, healthy wine is part of living convivially, responsibly, patiently and fairly.

Murrie imports wines from only small, mostly family producers who grow their own grapes on their own farms. They work organically and biodynamically. Some make so little wine that Murrie must buy every single bottle in order to make selling it to him it worth their while. He is committed to paying his growers a fair wage. He wants to get along with them. "Do we like these people?" he asks himself about potential partners. "Are they jerks?"

Murrie's thinking is personal and deeply local. That goes not just for the vineyards and farms of Italy he so loves to visit, but also for the Triangle. Murrie seeks out for his portfolio "reds that show well at warmer temperatures," he says, adding: "My climate defines my diet, and my diet defines what I drink."

So does his budget. "I didn't want to import esoteric wines for rich people," Murrie says, combating the inherent injustice in luxury. (Still, 3 Cups in his tenure featured plenty of the unusual and sometimes expensive wines he loves, including the Piemonte's famous, costly Barolo.)

Murrie imports just one Barolo, a relatively cheap one, and only because the producer, Da Capo, asked him to take a small amount in order to guarantee a much larger quantity of their fresh, young, cheap Barbera—one of the most widely planted grapes in Italy—which was what Murrie really wanted.

"We wanted wines that a normal person with an average, median income would buy for 12 bucks, 15 bucks," he says. "We want to improve the quality of everyday wine. It gets more people consuming a healthy product, and it explodes some of the snobbery and pretension and bias around wine. It's frustrating to me that only a small group of relatively well-off people get to know what articulate, delicious wine is. I can sleep well at night selling $15 Chiantis."

Likewise, you should be able to sleep well in summer, hangover-free, after drinking one of Murrie's cheap, low-alcohol, unadulterated, nimble but sometimes surprisingly complex reds. They can even refresh you, especially if you throw them in the fridge for 15 minutes while the grill is heating up.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Summer wine."

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