Earlier this week, I sat down with Lamar Brown, engineer and corporate drone by day and wine connoisseur and entrepreneur by night. His cozy shop just off King Street in Old Town Alexandria, Carafe Wines, is the city’s only “micro-winery,” allowing customers to sample and then bottle their own wines. With grape juices shipped in from vineyards in Chile, California, New Zealand, Italy, France and Washington, to name a few, it may not be the most green method, but he’s created a truly unique niche for delightfully aged wines made right in good old Alexandria.
Having lived in Northern Virginia for 10 years, Lamar had a vision to take his extreme interest and admiration for good wine to the next level. His dream was realized two years ago, and now, he proudly allows his customers to make their own wines and their own private labels.
Nestled between a gorgeous marble bar and a bustling fireplace, I sampled the Rosso Miscele Reserve, a Tuscan-styled wine vented from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and later a dab of the Merlot Reserve, a full-bodied wine with hints of red cherries, toasted oak and herbs. Then we sat down to business and focused on Lamar’s storied history with wine, the DC area, and, of course, what wine pairs best with Matchbox sliders.
What inspired you to start Carafe Wines?
Actually, a love of wines, to be honest. And I saw a cool niche. The whole wine making experience actually originated in Canada. I ran into it there, and I worked with a lot of Canadians to bring the concept to DC. I did some research, and DC area is actually the second most wine-centric area in the country outside of California. So, we sell more bottles per capita than anybody. I thought people would get a cool kick out of being able to make their own wine.
So, why do you think DC is the number two area for wine purchases in America?
Stress! There are a lot of politicians. There’s a lot going on. I would definitely say the amount of events that are thrown here: parties, dinners. There are a lot of people working on Capitol Hill or working for the government, and I think a lot of that has to do with the environment they’re in. There’s always a function around. There’s always alcohol, and not necessarily always a party. Just get-togethers, or luncheons, you know. I’ve seen a glass or two of wine being poured at a government lunch.
Do you work with any of the Virginia wineries?
Actually, no. Ironically we don’t have any Virginia juice here. It’s not that I don’t necessarily want it, but part of the uniqueness here is that you can make a wine that’s not grown here. You can make yourself a wine that isn’t a Virginia wine from some of the more renowned regions.
If you were going to drink wine at a restaurant or a bar, do you have a go-to spot?
In DC as a whole, there are so many places that are popping up. Wine and bistro bars are a huge new thing, like Cork and Proof. I know there are a lot of restaurants that have changed their wine list to adapt to this new trend of wine in bars. So there are quite a few places you could go to get a decent glass of wine now, which wasn’t the case when I first moved here.
Do you have a favorite food to pair your wine with?
I do not have the time to cook anymore, but I can easily pair wine with my food. If I’m picking up even fast food – well, not a Big Mac, but a maybe dinner from a good take-out place, like some Asian food – then I can easily pair it.
So, what do you recommend with Thai food?
I would pair Thai food with a good white. A nice, crisp wine, like a nice Gewürztraminer, goes very well with Thai food because it’s crisp, not too sweet, even just a little spicy. Or you can have a nice, drier Riesling, which goes great. So, those types of things I can easily pair it with, but it’s a little tougher to pair a Big Mac and a large fry with a Zin.
I know you love Matchbox. What would you pair with their sliders?
A good Syrah. It goes great with the sliders. And I should know!
What would you change about DC if you could change anything?
Traffic, hands down. It is terrible, even on the weekends. So if you live in the city, you’re lucky. I would like to move somewhere that is much more metro accessible.
What makes an excellent wine?
It all depends on the individual and on your palette. What’s excellent to me may not be excellent to you. It depends on how refined it is and exactly what you like. When it comes to wine, there is no right or wrong. What I would say is an excellent wine: it has a lot of character; it’s spicy; it’s bold. You may look for hints of citrus. You may only like white wine. You may look for subtle notes of honey. It depends on what you like, and I wouldn’t try to force my opinions. If someone asks, I would never tell them, “This wine is terrible,” because if you like it, it’s not terrible. And that stigma goes with wine, too: “It has to be a certain way,” or “it has to be this vintage.” No! If you like it, its good.
Why Old Town?
I felt something like this goes with the area. The way that the community is: the structure, the history, the look, the foot traffic. Initially, the first thing I thought of was Old Town, Alexandria. This concept definitely has to be in a certain area that goes with the vibe. And there are a lot of great restaurants in Old Town, and to me, it just fit.
Do you get a lot of foot traffic?
Yes, we have a sandwich board and a metal sign that we usually put out on King Street on the corner. Every evening we offer complimentary tastings. So, we usually put the sign out every night from 5-8 p.m. for a red and a white sample. You can’t buy a glass, but we can offer flights! Three 3 oz. pours (samples of anything on our wine list) go for $10 plus a free wine glass. And when it’s busy, we usually have cheese.
Why do you love DC?
The people. The diversity. There’s not too many cities you can go to where you see everybody, literally everybody. You hear a lot of different languages. It’s the people. They make this city. From all states, all nationalities, you name it. Constantly adapting and changing.