Tom Young’s Excellent Adventure

Expressions owner and chef Tom Young.

Expressions owner and chef Tom Young.

Last month I began the story of Tom Young, the man who put fine dining and quality wine under one roof in the old days of neo-prohibition in Western North Carolina.

As you may recall from Part One, Tom worked the resort restaurant circuit for a number of years before opening Expressions, after liquor by the drink was approved in 1981. Located on Main Street in downtown Hendersonville, Expressions dominated the fine dining scene with consistently excellent food and was one of the earliest fine wine venues in Western North Carolina.

Tom and his partner Franco Valsecchi developed a wine list of predominantly European wines for a number of reasons. California wines were in their infancy in terms of quality and were not widely available in our area. Secondly, Tom had been weaned on the best from Europe by his mentor, Franco’s brother, Fulvio, while laboring in the kitchens of Hilton Head. Fulvio would pour Italian and French beauties to prime the palate and when Tom and his co-workers could afford, they would chip in for a Meursault or a fine Amarone.

We know this much from last month’s column. Here’s Part Two:

Oh, ye newcomers have no idea how dry were before the law was changed, much to the dissatisfaction of the bootleggers and the devout who wanted to contain wickedness in the private clubs and keep our little town from changing.

Just before the new dawn of vino, a local pizza restaurateur, Jimmy Schweitzer decided that if he couldn’t sell wine he would give it away. Jimmy, bless his soul, joyfully strolled through his little place refilling our glasses from a jug of Paisano. Were we happy!

Later, Tom and Franco discovered a new product from California, Fetzer wines, and sold them by the carafe, earning the eternal gratitude of the Fetzer family. As California wines got more recognition, Tom added more of them to his list. It is difficult to imagine that in just a few years, the wine lists of area restaurants tipped in favor of American wines.

Because Tom was so successful at developing a market image for these new wines he and his wife and partner Robin were feted by the California vintners during their winter vacation when they closed the restaurant in January and February. Yes, the streets were basically rolled up for two months of winter. Not so these days except for areas like Highlands, which still lose the majority of their fine dining crowd after the holidays.

They enjoyed private chef dinners and lodging at such renowned wineries as Gundlach-Bundshu, Iron Horse, Sterling, Montecello, Beringer, Dry Creek and others. Such are the rewards for helping the wineries to get a foothold in North Carolina, now one of the two largest wine consumption states in the East along with Florida.

Expressions was awarded one of the first Wine Spectator Awards in Western North Carolina. Their wine list at one time offered up to 350 choices. Many people working in the wine business today earned their wine “cred” at Expressions under Tom and Robin. When I retired from education I was allowed to toil in their wine ship, Purple Sage, and began to absorb knowledge through tastings and reading. Later I took the Wine Appreciation course at A-B Tech’s Culinary School, a course that Tom had at one time taught. I was privileged to teach that course for a number of years.

Today, Expressions is just a fond memory but Tom and Robin still operate Purple Sage, a wine and culinary shop on Main Street. Many of his wines are boutique wines of small production, perhaps 50 cases or less. Over 1,000 selections are jammed into the downstairs cellar shop. Tom still does cooking classes and special dinners pairing the meal to the gems in his store. What a treat to have a small group eating great food amongst stacks of great wine. For those that miss the Expressions experience, it can still be had by request at Purple Sage.

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