Rose-colored glasses: Robert Harllee's wine-tinted world
Wine expert and self-described "Middle-Earth geek" Robert Harllee is taciturn by nature. But let him go off on a tangent about his favorite subject- wine– and you'll likely get a passionate soliloquy reminiscent of Virginia Madsen's "a bottle is alive" meditation in the recent hit film Sideways.
"There's history and romance in wine," Harllee says. "It's a beverage and a story, and in it you taste the time, the place, and the influence of people. A bottle of wine is a living thing."
Yes, he's seen the movie. But Harllee's been talking about wine like this since 1986, when he opened the Market Street Wineshop. A sign of his commitment and success was the second, uptown store on Rte. 29 (next to Whole Foods) in 1997.
Mid-'80s Charlottesville bore little resemblance to the booming wine zone it is today. "There were only a couple of wineries and no place to buy good wine," he recollects. Which is why, after cobbling together a 10-page business plan on his DOS computer, Harllee decided to abandon history scholarship (he was studying for a PhD at UVA) to become one of Charlottesville's pioneering wine merchants, educators, and storytellers.
Ask him about a specific bottle and he'll likely know the name of the family who made it as well as the specific town or even hillside where the grapes grew. If you let him, he'll tell you a wonderful story.
Much like Miles in Sideways, Harllee is anti-Merlot. In other words, he's anti-industrialization, anti-mass production. "My idea of hell is drinking the same wine every day," he says, "It'd probably be a very okay California Chardonnay."
Harllee, too, roots for the underdog. "I'm waiting for them to make a film about Riesling," he says.
Among his many theories about wine is his "Calvinist Theory of Riesling." It goes something like this: People think it's sweet and that they're not supposed to like sweet wine. But in a perfect world we'd fight like tigers to get Riesling.
Harllee is also a big promoter of rosé, another oft-snubbed and misunderstood wine. Just last month, he orchestrated a fierce taste-off at his shops called "War of the Rosés," which resulted in more than a few converts.
When he's not behind the wooden bar at his tucked-away Market Street store, he's likely upstairs in his office, researching vintages, planning wine dinners for Escafé, or writing about wine for In The Kitchen monthly and his own website. "One day, I hope to take all the stories in my head, organize them, and put them onto the web for people to access," he says.
Until that moment comes, you'll have to get the stories from the sage of syrah himself.
Why here? Originally, to do a PhD in history at UVA
Worst thing about living here? Expansion of Downtown
Favorite hangout? My shop and Vinegar Hill Theater. If I don't see two movies a week, I get the shakes.
Most over-rated virtue? Congenital optimism
People would be surprised to know: That I'm 47 (wine is a great preservative).
What would you change about yourself? Become more organized
Proudest accomplishment? Market Street Wineshop– my employees and the service we provide to people
People find most annoying about you: My cash register runs on MS/DOS. "Use the F7 key!!"
Whom do you admire? Wine importer and writer Kermit Lynch
Favorite book? Lynch's Adventures on the Wine Route
Subject that causes you to rant? Politics (when certain people come on the TV)
Biggest 21st century thrill? Dinner at a castle with winemakers in Piemonte, Italy
Biggest 21st century creep-out? Landing in France on September 11, 2001 and thinking I'd never go home
What do you drive? 1992 Toyota Camry with "Syrah" on the license plate
In your car CD player right now? Don't have a CD player (1992 Camry...)
Next journey? Tuscany in September
Most trouble you've ever gotten into? Sawing through the stock of my granddad's rifle when I was a kid.
Regret? Can't think of any (congenital optimist)
Favorite comfort food? Wine
Always in your refrigerator? Rosé
Must-see TV? The Daily Show
Favorite cartoon? Three Stooges
Describe a perfect day: South of France or Tuscany in May or October, visit a winery, picnic with winemaker's family and their dogs, nap, out to dinner
Walter Mitty fantasy: To sing and dance like Danny Kaye.
Who'd play you in the movie? Owen Wilson, not Donald Sutherland
Most embarrassing moment? Can't think of one
Best advice you ever got? From Dad to be cautious: "99/100 times you'll make it, but that last time is a bitch."
Favorite bumper sticker? "Dick Nixon before he dicks you."
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO