A new retail shop and wine bar opened up in Charleston, South Carolina, this week. The buzz around Graft Wine Shop & Bar, however, has been building for months—ever since word got out that two of the community’s esteemed, up-and-coming wine personalities would be at the helm of the new venture.
The owners, Femi Oyediran and Miles White, met about 10 years ago while working at Charleston Grill. The two had a love of music in common, and became fast friends. Oyediran was a musician, music promoter, and DJ, who in 2008 was working at the Grill to offset his musical career with a steady flow of cash. White grew up surrounded by music; his father had played the drums and he started playing guitar when he was 12 years old. The Grill was White’s first restaurant job; he worked there while attending the College of Charleston.
Around that time, Oyediran had begun to rethink his career, leaning more toward wine than music. At the Grill, various mentors, including the wine director, Rick Rubel, offered to teach Oyediran more about wine. White, too, had aspirations of becoming a sommelier. Soon he, Rubel, White, and others were doing weekly wine tastings. The friendship between Oyediran and White grew along with the two young men’s knowledge and passion for wine.
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Developing the Concept
White left the Grill in 2010, moving on to pursue hospitality studies in Switzerland—and later to study wine at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, California. He also embarked on a four-year sojourn in which he worked three harvests at Antica Terra winery in Dundee, Oregon, another in Western Australia, and he worked in various restaurants in Charleston and other locales in between, including a year-long stint as a server at The Modern in New York City. “After all of that traveling,” says White, “I realized that my family and friends were the most important thing to me—and Charleston was ripe with opportunity.”
White and Oyediran remained friends over the years. One day in January 2016, they met for lunch, and over a long talk, conceived the idea for Graft. The two were eager to do something with wine that was entirely theirs. And Charleston, they felt, was in dire need of a place where people could gather together and enjoy wine in a relaxed, comfortable atmosphere—especially one where conversations and passions beyond wine were welcome.
“Miles and I realized that we have a rather different perspective—or vibe—when it comes to talking about wine, drinking wine, and sharing it with our friends,” says Oyediran. “We wanted to create a place to exemplify that.” For the duo, a welcoming, non-intimidating space where customers would feel more like they were in a friend’s living room than in a stuffy, pressure-inducing environment, was essential. White also hoped to capture a feeling he had in both Oregon and New York City, when people would get together and be excited to drink bottles of wine. “It was more about sharing and less about showing off,” he says. “More [about the] experience, less about the intricacies.”
It took about two years for Graft to finally take shape, though ample support for the budding business was never in doubt. Funded mainly by the duo, as well as some “outside investors,” including friends and family who enthusiastically supported the concept, Graft found strong backing within the local Charleston community as well. Oyediran notes the “immense amount of support” from the Charleston Place Hotel, especially the general manager of the Charleston Grill, Mickey Bakst, as well as Rick Rubel.
“I think from a community perspective, Graft was just a no-brainer,” says Oyediran. “People familiar with us, especially those that know us outside [the world] of wine and food, found [the concept] easy to get behind.” He describes the space as casual but sophisticated, comprising 1,200 square feet occupied by tall shelving, a marble island bar, and small tables scattered along the west wall. “The decor is certainly a tribute of sorts to our love affair with music,” says Oyediran. There are references to music throughout the space, including vinyl albums displayed alongside wines, two paintings, of Prince and Sade (done by Mado Smith), in the bathroom, and even Notorious B.I.G.’s infamous quote, “It was all a dream,” rendered in neon.
Filling a Niche
Recently, a number of high-quality wine shops, like Monarch Wine Merchants and Edmund’s Oast Exchange, have cropped up around the city, says Angel Postell, the director of BevCon, an annual beverage industry–only event that originated in Charleston. “There was a void for so long,” she says, “so this is an exciting time in Charleston for the beverage industry to keep evolving.”
Postell sees Graft as a natural extension of this evolution, citing White’s and Oyediran’s reputations and creative talents as a reason for her high expectations. “I am personally very excited about Graft’s opening,” she says, adding that the venue’s long hours of operation—from 11 am to 11 pm—and the fact that it’s both a store and a wine bar make it a great place for meetings and drinks, especially in the middle of the day. “The space is very cool, and it’ll be an instant hit, especially with the food and beverage [community]—and more specifically, the wine community.”
Another local, Harry Root, the owner of Grassroots Wine, a wholesale and importing outfit based in Charleston, is also looking forward to Graft becoming a neighborhood institution. “Miles and Femi,” he says, “bring their friendship to the floor with great wine, fun music, and a casualness that belies their thoughtful wine selections and personal fervor about getting the most enjoyment you can out of a bottle of wine.” He describes the shop as a social retail space, notable for its unique vibe and warm atmosphere. “Graft fits the bill for fun-loving Charlestonians.”
Aaron Sigmond, a writer, editor, and publisher who splits his time between New York and Charleston, also sees Graft as a great addition to the area. “Charleston is a world-class culinary destination,” he says. “To maintain that status, you constantly need an influx of fresh blood and ideas to help propel the environment.” Sigmond also mentions Monarch Wine Merchants, located not too far from Graft, highlighting the shop’s unique tastings and sommelier selections as direct competition. “I’m a big proponent of competition,” he says. “It keeps everyone fresh and on their toes. The more the merrier, right?”
White believes it’s time for wine to take its place in the city’s beverage scene. “If you look at Charleston from a historical standpoint,” he says, “beer has exploded, cocktails have exploded, but wine has always been kind of pushed to the side.” It’s been overshadowed by the stereotypical notions that wine is somewhat snobby—and expensive. “Femi and I know that that’s not the case,” he says. “And it shouldn’t be the case. Wine can be beautiful and affordable, delicious and fun.” Demonstrating that is precisely what he and Oyediran aim to do with Graft.
Bringing Graft to Fruition
“We want Graft to show that we love great wine, but we also want it to express our interest in other things,” explains Oyediran. His affinity for funk, hip hop, and 1980s roller disco are reflected in Graft’s music selection—as is White’s love of hip hop, latin jazz, and electronic music. “People love an atmosphere where they can appreciate good music, good sound, and other cultures outside of just wine,” Oyediran says. This comfort level often leads to customers’ letting down their guards, so any sort of intimidation they might feel around wine is more likely to dissipate.
This idea of bringing their unique philosophy to an existing wine culture is what led to the choice of the name Graft. “Grafting is one of the first, basic steps for planting vines,” says Oyediran. “It seemed like the right term for two guys trying to start a wine shop business, and bringing their own philosophy to wine culture.”
Graft doesn’t specialize in any specific wine region or variety; rather, the selection was built to resemble a well-curated list in a great restaurant, with a range of Old and New World wines at different price points. At the moment, Graft carries about 215 selections. “We wanted to make sure a lot of the wines we carry would be crowd-pleasers,” says White, noting that there’s often a gap between the wines sommeliers tend to love and those that most consumers gravitate toward.
Currently, the duo find themselves featuring Australian producers, including Egon Muller from the Adelaide Hills, Joshua Cooper from the Macedon Ranges, and Luke Lambert and Timo Mayer in the Yarra Valley. “For two dudes that love Old World wines, these are gems that, if you taste, are simply hard to ignore,” says Oyediran. “It’s not a category that people are really talking about, and the wines are mind-blowing, so it naturally seemed like a really fun thing to share with people here.” For both Oyediran and White, it’s all about trying to find that sweet spot.
Vicki Denig is a New York-based wine and spirits journalist and wine educator, discovering the world through the lens of a glass, one sip at a time. When not tasting or traveling, she can most likely be found running through Astoria Park or sipping on Cabernet Franc.