Blogging since 2005, the Memphis-based writer and wine aficionado Ben Carter spends his workday in quality assurance for a large corporation — and his nights blogging about wine. In just eight years of writing, Carter has had numerous mentions in local and national newspapers, including a recent mention in the Wall Street Journal as a favorite read by internationally acclaimed wine writer, Lettie Teague; a 2012 finalist for “Best Wine Reviews on a Wine Blog” at the Wine Blog Awards and a winner for “Best Wine Reviews Blog” by HomeWetBar.com and most recently, Benito’s Wine Review was chosen as the Favorite Wine Tasting Blog by Millesima USA 2014 Blog Awards.
Benito’s Wine Review boasts approximately 30,000-plus viewers a month and more than 1,000 posts since it was launched in 2005. From pairing a Yuengling with a turkey sandwich to Christmas dinner suggestions, there’s always something to learn from Carter’s blog, especially this time of year. Click’s resident wine expert, Julia Crowley, considered one of the top wine writers in the world and author of WineJulia.com, sits down with Ben Carter to talk wine, writing and his favorite local haunts.
Julia Crowley: What’s the wine scene like in Memphis?
Ben Carter: It’s certainly evolving. There is a small but passionate group of collectors, writers, distributors, retailers and enthusiasts who bump into each other frequently. I’d imagine that it’s the same as any city with a subculture of stamp collectors or model train fanatics — the wine lovers did not have great numbers or really define the city. However, unlike other hobbies, wine is getting a lot more popular and socially encouraged, though we still can’t purchase wine on Sunday and if you drive 50 miles, you’ll encounter dry counties where no alcohol is sold.
JC: Before writing about wine, did you attend local wine tasting events in Memphis?
BC: One of my father’s childhood friends from when he first moved to Memphis is a man named Mike Whitfield, who got into the world of gourmet food and wine in the 1980s and then became an educator for a local distributor. In the early 2000s, I had the chance to attend tastings with him where, for the first time in my life, I could try a dozen wines and learn about them. Building upon that, I started attending every free wine tasting I could, which sometimes meant sampling 20-30 wines each weekend hosted by different stores. At the time, wine shops could not hold tastings in-house, so they had to work out a deal with a nearby restaurant or hotel. Many of those tastings were conducted in a small dining room directly above the kitchen of a Mexican restaurant. Tasting wine is easier than getting into, say, French films of the 1960s. You can go through a dozen and help educate your palate in an hour rather than devoting an entire weekend to a movie marathon. One thing I always encourage is for people to be honest when they don’t like a wine. It doesn’t mean that you’re stupid or wrong — it’s just not working for you. My own tastes change over the years and with the seasons. Years ago, I thought that Alsatian wines were boring and now I find them fascinating.
JC: What encouraged you to create your wine blog?
BC: If there had been an online wine database app in 2005 and smart phones were around at the time, the blog would have never been created. I really just wanted an easy way to list all of the wines I’d tried with links to the wineries, prices and brief notes. I chose Blogspot.com, which had been owned by Google for two years. Unlike an Access database I could only read at home, I figured that I could access the notes anywhere with an internet connection. Note that since I didn’t have a laptop at the time, this meant that I was still writing the wine details in spiral notebooks, on the backs of envelopes, or in the margins of tasting sheets. I still prefer to work that way, though I compose most of the story/background/ramblings on the computer.
JC: Where are your favorite Memphis wine spots?
BC: One thing about being a wine writer is that at some point, you start getting more samples than you could ever possibly consume, and when you’re driving home knowing that there are a dozen bottles that need to be opened and described and photographed, you’re not really tempted to stop and buy a bottle. That being said, I do have a few favorite shops when I’m craving something that hasn’t shown up at the house or when I need a gift. Kirby Wines and Liquors, Great Wines and Spirits, and Joe’s Wines and Liquors are my top three and the ones that I most frequently recommend to friends and colleagues, because they’re great at accommodating everyone — from the novice to the serious wine enthusiast. I’m friends with the managers of all three and usually I let them pick something for me after a brief conversation. They know what I like and will point me toward little treasures that I would have otherwise missed.
JC: Can you tell us a little bit about the wineries of Tennessee?
BC: Winemaking started in California in the 1600s, but even just before Prohibition, some of the most popular grapes were Mission and Charbono, which mostly exist as curiosities today. California didn’t start making world-class Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon until the 1960s and 1970s. That’s 400 years to dial in the right combination of grapes, soil and production — still, a blink of the eye compared to thousands of years in Greece or Italy. Aside from small, rural production in the 19th century, the first modern and legal Tennessee winery opened in 1980. Most of our wineries produce French-American hybrids that are going to be foreign to most wine shoppers and even many wine bloggers: Vidal Blanc, Seyval Blanc, Marechal Foch, Traminette and Chardonel, as well as indigenous American varieties like Catawba, Muscadine and Concord. The hybrids and natives are best suited to our environment but can have rough edges and are often made in a very sweet style. We also have a long tradition of fruit wines like strawberry, blackberry, apple and pretty much anything sugary and acidic that will ferment safely. I love a really good Muscadine wine but I’ve found that the unique aroma is almost solely loved by those who grew up picking and eating the big, musky grapes that grow wild around these parts.
Find Ben Carter’s wine blog, Benito’s Wine Reviews, at wine-by-benito.blogspot.com
Swirl, Savor and Share
Tennessee wine writer extraordinaire, Ben Carter, sips and writes for thousands of readers
Story by Julia Crowley