Southern Season, Chapel Hill
Sunday, March 20, 4 p.m.
Max Kast does not mind the interruption.
On a Thursday morning, the thirty-six-year-old wine director of the rural Chatham County outpost Fearrington Village stands at the bar of the gargantuan Chapel Hill grocer Southern Season. He swirls a glass of Chianti Rufina in his right hand, bends his neck, and dips his nose deep beneath the glass’s wide rim, suggesting a bird shoving its beak underwater to scour for a meal. When at last he looks up and opens his eyes, a customer has drifted toward him, curious as to what he’s doing with all those open bottles of wine and half-empty plates of salad so early on a workday.
“Are you offering samples?” she asks, inching toward the bottles.
A Southern Season employee, positioned nearby like a sentinel, swoops in to explain that, no, Kast is doing an interview in advance of a class he’ll soon lead at the store about how best to pair wine with vegetables. She stops just short of shooing her away. The curious customer begins to apologize, but Kast swings around, all smiles beneath his spectacles.
“Would you like to try some?” he asks, reaching for another glass. “What kind of wine do you like?”
Kast pours her a glass of seven-year-old Saint-Joseph Blanc from the Northern Rhone”full-bodied wine that’s going to be more creamy, with a little bit of age to it, so you get some oxidized notes,” he’s already explainedand tells her to enjoy. She sits down at a nearby table, now charmed, and listens in.
Part of Kast’s hospitality stems, no doubt, from his decades in the restaurant world. In Montana, he cooked his way through college before taking a job at a four-star resort just south of Missoula, nestled inside national forests. And next year will mark his first full decade with The Fearrington House, where he was named wine director after his first year on the job.
More than that, though, Kast simply seems excited to share his enthusiasm about wine with someone new. “The most profound Syrahs of my life were made by this gentleman, seriously,” he says of the wine he handed to the passerby. “It’s wine that, when you smell, you’re on a whole different plane of existence.”
Kast unloads strings of adjectives and analogies for each sniff or sip of wine, referring to the skin of a green almond or quince paste or a particular type of flower. He speaks of “harmony on the palate” and of where every layer of flavor in each drink lands on your tongue. It’s as if he’s tasting the wine on a molecular level and is able to detect even the slightest touches of terroir. In May, he will attempt to pass the requisite final portion of the Court of Master Sommeliers exam, making him one of only a few hundred master sommeliers in the world. To get to that point, he’s employed the aid of a sports psychiatrist; he also tastes one hundred wines per week and meets often with other sommeliers to practice. When Kast explains all this, it’s somehow more inviting than intimidating, as if he is providing the passwords for a secret world he needs to share.
That spirit drives one of Kast’s newer pursuits as a sommelier, too: teaching people that fine wine pairings aren’t limited to steak or seafood. Several years ago, after a stint on the Paleo diet meant to stabilize his weight and improve his performance in marathons, he was eating so much meat that the thought of eating more began to repulse him. He cut it from his diet and soon realized he didn’t miss it. At home, he discovered that he actually loved cooking vegetables more, and started to shape his own recipes.
Professionally, though, he encountered the stubborn belief that you can’t really pair wine to vegetables, a mind-set he hopes to dismiss not only through pairings and dinners at The Fearrington House but also by teaching classes about how to do it.
“With pork tenderloin, or beef, those are really powerful flavors. I know I need something with tannin, which is attracted to protein. That’s easy. But when you have vegetarian food, you have more subtle flavors, a lot of things going on,” he says.
By way of explanation, he motions to the bar, where a kale salad loaded with walnuts, apples, and cheese and coated in a mildly acidic dressing sits. He talks through considerations for each flavorwhich ones he’ll complement, which ones he’ll contrast, and why.
“It’s a little bit more complicated, sure. There’s not one wine that will go perfectly, so you need to figure out which direction you want to go,” he admits. “But that makes it more fun.”
During staff dinners at The Fearrington House, Kast will sample new meat dishes. Given the price customers are paying for the fare, he believes he should understand the food his recommendations accompany. Otherwise, he relies on three decades of memory for the meat pairings.
“I’m still trying to figure this out. I don’t want to be preachy about it, but I just want to open it up,” he says. “We’re such a meat-driven society that I want to show people that meat doesn’t have to be on everything for it to be decadent, fun. There can be a balance there.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “Fruits & Vegetables”