On Muscadines, with Inez Ribustello, On the Square Restaurant & Wine

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Inez Ribustello is one hell of a storyteller. When she talks I see the hammock-shaped branches of her parents’ scuppernong tree. I feel the headiness that only a humid summer in Eastern NC can produce. I taste the sweetness of the muscadines. Her approach to wine is fun, accessible, and above all, personal. Her husband Stephen is a chef, and their story about returning to Eastern North Carolina is similar to Vivian and Ben’s. Inez is a North Carolinian who traveled to Manhattan and became Beverage Director at destinations such as Windows on the World and Blue Fin. She and Stephen met in New York and in 2002, they returned to North Carolina to open On the Square Restaurant and Wine in Tarboro, NC. In 2007 she and Stephen launched Fourth Street Wine Shop in Greenville, NC. Only two years later, she received Wine Spectator's Best Of Award of Excellence. Inez is a master of pairing wine with experience. Case in point, she suggested a nice bubbly, crisp Cava to go with this interview. And while I tend to bristle at the comparisons of women to wine, I have no qualms in saying that Inez is one fine vintage that I hope remains a fixture in our lives for many years to come.   
 
What is your approach to wine? 
We don’t just educate people about wine; we also encourage people to find things that taste good according to their particular preferences. A lot of people drink sweet tea and Pepsi Cola where we are, so naturally, they are turned on to sweet. And we want to find a wine that matches their style, at least initially. People’s tastes change as they grow older; supposedly your taste buds change every seven years. For example, when I first moved to New York, my parents drank white Zinfandel out of a box that they kept in the refrigerator. I remember during my first wine class in New York, I drank Moscato d’Asti and an off-dry German Riesling. The next weekend, I bought one of each and took them home to North Carolina. I poured my parents a glass of each, and neither were pink, so my parents were skeptical. But they tasted both of them and said “these are amazing!” They got really excited and realized that there is so much wine out there. I truly believe that there is a wine to suit everyone’s food, mood, or budget. I think if you really enjoy something, the idea is to make it enjoyable to others and you can’t do that by being snobby or intimidating. You want to share. And that’s really what food and wine are about. They are only truly enjoyable when you are sharing with others.      
 
How did you and your husband Stephen come to Tarboro as proprietors of On the Square?   
Stephen and I met in New York. I went there to go to culinary school, and I worked part-time at a wine store. Shortly thereafter I realized that I liked to drink more than I liked to cook. So I was fortunate enough at Windows of the World to become an assistant seller-master – basically that's a box mover; it is not a prestigious job, but it is one where you were literally immersed in the world of wine, liquor, and beer. Stephen was a sommelier there. We secretly started dating because you were not supposed to date where you worked, but we did. We left New York shortly after September 11th, because nothing was quite the same after that. So we came home to Tarboro and my dad said, “there’s a restaurant for sale. We’d really like ya’ll to go into it.” My husband said that a fine dining, or semi-fine dining restaurant would never work here, but my dad seemed to think it would. So Stephen gave it an eighteen-month commitment. Eleven years later, we’re still here! Stephen loves being in Tarboro, in Eastern North Carolina. And he says all the time, “we’d never be able to do this in Manhattan. We wouldn’t be able to afford it; we’d be working around the clock; have no time with our children. We wouldn’t be able to own our own building.” Another big thing – and I’m sure that Vivian and Ben feel this too – is that it takes a village once you have kids. Even in Tarboro, a sleepy little town, our restaurant is busy and a lot of times, I have to call my mom, my step-mother, my dad, my step-dad, my aunt, Stephen’s mom, who’s relocated down here from New York. We use them all the time!      
 
How would you describe Tarboro?   
I am my father’s daughter, because I love Tarboro. We are like the Tarboro cheerleaders. It really is a special town. The people are inherently kind, very neighborly, and I would say very traveled and sophisticated. They are also extremely supportive; our community, Edgecombe county, and Tarboro in particular—they are the reason that we have survived. It’s a beautiful place to be; a charming town with a neat historical downtown area, and everyone who lives here feels passionate about making it better. We have had so much support from day one that we are forever grateful. And there’s really a lot of adventurous eating and drinking. People come in saying, "I ate in the East Village in New York and this is what I liked." Or, "I traveled to France and had foie gras, can you teach me how to cook it?" We love it. Stephen gets to do exactly what he wants to do with his menus every week. I always worried that I wouldn’t be satisfied but I have more on my plate that I ever thought I would. We get to go to Raleigh and Chapel Hill to these restaurants with wonderful wine programs and eat and drink just as well as we did in New York or Brooklyn.      
 
Could you define what a sommelier is or does?   
A sommelier is a professional drinker. It literally translates into “wine steward” in French. The terms can be overused; it can be underused. There is a certification, but if you don’t have a certification, that doesn't mean you aren't one. I know plenty of people who have worked the floor as wine stewards for years and know more about wine than most people, yet don't have any formal certification. Stephen and I studied at the Court of Master Sommeliers, which is the big organization that certifies a master sommelier in America, and it’s an international group. It’s very intense, incredible.      
 
When you think about the muscadine, what comes to mind?   
When I think of muscadines, I think of my childhood. My parents had a huge scuppernong grapevine behind their house, and every Labor Day weekend—when dove season was in—we’d have a good dove hunt on my dad’s farm. I would have a friend over, and while all the guys were hunting, we would sit in these branches that were almost shaped like hammocks. We would eat scuppernong grapes until we were about to throw up. There was this whole regimen: put them in our mouths, suck out the juice, spit out the skins and get the seeds with your tongue and your teeth, then spit out the seeds. All that spitting was about as manly as we could get on a dove hunt. We weren’t out there shooting dove, but we were spitting out scuppernong seeds and skins. And that smell! It was this beautiful, fragrant smell. If you’ve ever smelled that smell, than you know it’s muscadines. Even now, we have them growing wild in our backyard. My son goes down the hill after Labor Day and starts picking those grapes. And we don’t get to eat many because he hogs them all. That smell and taste of muscadines is synonymous with Eastern North Carolina.      
 
Am I wrong, or do wine folks turn their noses up to muscadine wine? Why?  
You are not wrong. If you make wine from muscadines, it smells and tastes like muscadine. But what is so romantic about the grapes which go into the wines we think of as quality wines (Cabernet Sauvignon, Reisling, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc)—those grapes smell like other things when they are fermented into wine. Pinot Noir can smell like mushrooms, wild cherry, smoke, cherry cola. It can have all these nuances. With muscadines, when you put your nose in the glass, there is no denying what it is. That doesn’t make it any better or worse, it just makes it different. If you went to a blind tasting and someone gave me scuppernong in the glass, I’d be really excited cause it would be the one I’d get right.       
 
In sommelier words, how would you describe the mouthfeel, aroma, and flavor profile of muscadine wine?   
Aroma, I would describe as grapey. It smells very grapey. A lot of other sommeliers use the word "foxy," which I can understand. It’s a kind of musky smell. It’s very viscous in the mouth, a weighty wine. The juice smells like those grape vines when they are as ripe as they could get.      
 
Are there any muscadine wines out there you enjoy or would recommend?  
 I’m very partial to my friends at Ventosa Vineyard in Scotland Neck in Halifax County. He ferments his to dryness and they are really interesting. He does Magnolia, Carlos, and Noble varieties of muscadines. They smell like the muscadine grapes, but they are not cloyingly sweet or overly heavy. They are very good with certain types of food. I will mention that a police officer who lives near me grows muscadines in his back yard, and he blended a red variety called Noble and a bronze variety, and he made a rosé. He gave it to me in a mason jar and I drank the whole thing! It was so good. Hints of elderflower and grapefruit. It still had the muscadine flavor, but it was interesting and very good.     
 
Knowing what you know about wine regions around the world, why is it that the muscadine thrives here?   
It’s heartier, it can beat this humidity and this heat in the summer time. And it can beat the cold in the wintertime. Our sandy soil is not necessarily great for other varietals, but muscadines thrive in it. The humidity is an important factor in grape growing. It’s going to be very difficult for anyone in this region to grow anything besides muscadine. The winemaker can put their spin on it, and that is important because there is little you can change in the grape, but how you make it is your signature.  
  
Does Stephen do any cooking with muscadines at On the Square?   
He has done a few things. His biggest hit was a boiled peanut butter and muscadine sandwich that was a very cool, Eastern North Carolina thing. Our kids thought it was great.  
   
Your restaurant is also famed for great food and wine pairings. What other types of food or dishes would you pair well with muscadine wine? 
One of my favorites is a sweet potato ravioli with sage butter; it goes wonderfully with a drier version of muscadine. And for any off-dry version, I love a pecan tart with vanilla bean ice cream. That’s delicious. The minute you start tasting Eastern North Carolina ingredients like yams or pecans, you’re automatically saying, I’m going to be attracted to my friend muscadine.      
 
You have this beautiful blog, inezsays.com. Wine is certainly a component of it, but it’s much broader.   
It’s a combination of my therapy and me letting my dad know that Carolina (UNC) wasn’t a total waste of time. I majored in Journalism there and for a long time, we were wondering, what was the point? I started about four years ago and originally when I talked to my friend who helped me set up the blog, we thought about calling it Inezsayswine, but I thought it might limit us. I’m not always talking about wine, but I’m always drinking a glass of wine while I’m writing. At about that time, my daughter was five and my son was three, and I was raising them, working, and studying, and I felt like if I didn’t incorporate it all, I wouldn’t be honest with myself or the reader. I love doing it. Obviously it’s very nice when someone says they read it and they loved it, but it’s just as much for myself and for my kids, to make sure that I have these things documented and they can read and think, “Oh that’s what she was going through! That’s why she was like that” and maybe be a little forgiving of my thoughts. I wish I wrote more regularly, but when I write something I want it to be meaningful.   
 
One thing you’ve said is that wine is personal.   
I really believe that. It is personal. It’s almost like your spirituality, what you like and what you think. And you shouldn’t let anyone take that away from you or change it. There are times when I’ve had a glass of wine that’s taken me back, either the aroma, or the year it was made takes me back to a certain point in my life. Smell is just incredible and smell is personal. I had one wine that smelled like my grandmother’s house. Another that smelled like my church when I was a little girl. It was piney and it took me back to going to choir and hand bells. I went to study with a master sommelier that was a wine director at the Breakers in Florida. I walked down this hall and I was just stricken by this smell and I literally could not move. I didn’t not want to move until I figured out what that smell was. It was when I was six years old in Garden City, NC and I was with my cousin, and aunts, and grandparents, and uncles and it was this combination of suntan lotion, salt air, and ocean breeze. Wine is like that. You can smell something and it just brings you back to a place. Sometimes it can bring something back that was painful but it doesn’t mean that it wasn’t beautiful.   
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