The only surprising thing about Cave Taureau, the new wine shop in downtown Durham, is that it hasn't always been there. The warm and rustic store, with its inviting old floors and painted pressed-tin ceiling, feels like a place long and deeply lived in.
No wonder. The three owners—majority partner and store manager Noel Sherr, who moved here from New York in 2010, and minority owners Wes Rountree and Nathan Vandergrift—share a history that goes back more than 15 years. Cave Taureau grew naturally from a friendship decanted through a mutual love (and professional purview) of a particular kind of wine: authentic, pure, minimally adorned, natural and timeworthy.
As Sherr puts it over a congenial, banter-filled lunch at Rue Cler, Cave Taureau is a "wine shop as the autobiography of what we've been drinking all these years."
It's clear what sort of wine that is from the moment Vandergrift is seated. He grabs Rue Cler's concise yet complete wine list and makes a beeline for Clos de Roilette Fleurie 2011, a young, vibrant, inexpensive yet deeply satisfying Gamay that rewrites the book on Beaujolais. He and Rountree both order the coq au vin to go with it: honest food for an honest wine.
The Fleurie ($20) is available at Cave Taureau, whose Old World feel accommodates an Old World proclivity, but Sherr also gives attention and space to the emerging populist vanguard in American winemaking. Prices range across the spectrum, a pleasant $10 Pinot Grigio as well as a great Cabernet Franc, Bernard Baudry's Croix Boisée Chinon: "the cheapest great wine on earth," Vandergrift exclaims. It retails for $40.
The honorable phrase "natural wine" is often degraded by cliquish rhetoric and opportunistic marketing. Yet the plainspoken, unpretentious commitment of Cave Taureau to these wines gains depth and clarity when you consider another commitment shared by two of the store's partners. Sherr's wife, Marie, who will also staff the shop, and Rountree's wife, Sage, are highly trained and regarded instructors of Pilates and yoga, respectively (Sage owns Carrboro Yoga Company). To outsiders, much mystification and even suspiciousness tends to surround these practices; yet at heart, they are dedicated to simplicity of movement, the deep-core strength and the unassailable principle that bodily health promotes peace of mind. People who practice yoga and Pilates speak of clearing away psychic debris and distraction, of reconnecting to their elemental, indeed natural, selves.
Is it a coincidence that Sherr and Rountree are married to women with such similar afición? There is an apt analogy there for natural wine, which begins with putting the vine in the right aspect and position to make the fruit (and thus the wine) it inherently wants to make: a wine with backbone, beauty, balance, integrity and flexibility.
Ultimately, natural wine is not at all about ideology or ingredients. It's about sweeping away the brush of confusion and mystification that makes going into a wine shop so daunting for so many of us: confusing labels, dodgy salespeople, bewildering prices. When you walk into Cave Taureau, you're likely to find one of the Sherrs at the long, old woodworkers' table that serves as the checkout counter (bought at Revival Antiques in Raleigh). There will probably be a bottle open on the table for you to try, and also "something in the store for everyone," Noel says—adding, with an eye-twinkle: "It just may not be something you've had before."
"Terroir" is the rather slippery byword of natural wine, but its secret is the same as real estate's: location, location, location. What Cave Taureau sells—wine only, plus a single beer—is only slightly more important to its owners as where they're selling it. Vandergrift notes that locals "are eating at restaurants where the wines are interesting," and that many of those restaurants are in downtown Durham. Cave Taureau is intended as a crossover retail complement to places such as Rue Cler and Mateo Tapas (expect partnered wine dinners), where the menus both drive and are driven by what Vandergrift calls "a major national following for this sub-genre of wine," which has a burgeoning local following.
As Durham grows, largely at its stomach—"what's put Durham back on track is food," Vandergrift says—the store owners are making what Sherr calls "a vanguard move ... to plant the flag for Durham retail. We're excited about the notion of a vibrant retail scene downtown." That, the city boy Sherr notes, is what gives urban life its urbanity. Cave Taureau is as much about championing Durham as it is about championing natural wine.
The large number of people who wandered into the store in the weeks before it opened delighted Sherr. "Wine is about people," he says, and he announces his goal as directly as the wines he loves announce themselves: "We want to be downtown Durham's neighborhood wine shop." That means helping to conjure the very neighborhood itself, which is just beginning to blossom after many withered decades: coaxing old vines to bear new, hard-won fruit. In downtown Durham, everything new is old again.
As lunch at Rue Cler winds down, Vandergrift drives home that long and cyclical viewpoint on time. He pushes back from the table and raises his arms to make a pronouncement: "My hope is that Noel's grandchildren will own this shop."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Au natural."