My wife and I have called Hendersonville home since 1972. For our first wedding anniversary in our new hometown we planned to seek out a nice restaurant for dinner. Not being members of a private club, we ended up at Buck’s on Tunnel Road in Asheville. What can I say? It was a steak and potato and salad. Wine? Don’t be ridiculous — this was before liquor by the drink.
When we would meet new arrivals to the community they might complain about the relative lack of really good restaurants and we would reply, “You should have been here before, we were excited to get a new Hardee’s!” Without the ability to provide wine and cocktails, no one was crazy enough to open anything but a “meat and three” or a cafeteria.
Fast-forward ten years: The legislature has allowed the hoi polloi and the rabble to partake outside the private golf clubs. Enter Expressions Restaurant and the age of wine and fine dining arrives.
Tom Young (the Godfather of Wine) and his partner Franco Valsecchi took the plunge within a year of the end of the “neo-prohibition.” Expressions went on to delight customers on Hendersonville’s Main Street for the next 25 years. Tom would win many awards and kudos for his cooking, but equally important was his success in introducing many of us to the joys of the vine.
Tom grew up in the Balfour area of Henderson County. His early exposure to wine was as a teenager with something called “Orange Driver.” Let your imagination do the rest. Years later, Tom was recruited by Chef Robert Werth to join the newly launched Culinary Arts program at A-B Tech. Tom took up the challenge and found that he had an extraordinary talent. Chef Werth offered his students an introductory course in wine. Most of the training was basic tasting and for the most part the wines were French. California wines were not well known in these parts at the time.
On a visit to the Sea Pines Plantation Club at Hilton Head to interview for an internship, the students were offered a taste of Schloss Vollrads, a still highly regarded German Riesling. To young Tom, this was, as he put it, “an eye opener.” Young got the internship and stayed on working with a mostly European staff that had little regard for American cooks or American wine. Tom feels that he won their respect because, “I didn’t give them any trouble and I gave them a good days work, and I guess they liked what I did.” Taking him into their circle, they shared French and Italian wines that opened his eyes to the possibilities of what wine can do for the dining experience.
Most people, including myself, work up from cheap sweet wines to drier wines and, with any luck, get to enjoy some of the truly great wines of the world. “I came out of the box on the big wines,” Tom told me with a characteristic gleam in his eye. His boss and mentor Fulvio Valsecchi started him out on Chateau Petrus, then only about $35 a bottle. Fulvio introduced him to Haut Brion, Mouton Rothschild, some Amerones and Nebbiolos from Italy. Since Fulvio had grown up in a family-run hotel in Italy, good wines were natural to him. Today a bottle of that same Petrus would cost upwards of $800.
Tom spent his years in the trenches in West Virginia, Hilton Head, and nearby Sapphire Valley. Hendersonvillians who had sampled his fare at the Mountains of Lake Lure in the late ’70s begged him to open a restaurant in Hendersonville. “I can’t come to Hendersonville and open a restaurant without wine,” he told them.
With the end of the ban in 1981, Tom and his partner Franco, Fulvio’s brother, opened Expressions. Together they tasted wines with local distributors looking for a “house pour.” A distributor showed them several pallets of a California wine that he could not find a buyer for. Tom and Franco found it to be very good and at a good price. It was a new product in our area from an old California wine family. Fetzer Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon were poured by the carafe to delighted “newbies” like myself. We couldn’t get enough of it. When the newly opened Fresh Market started selling it, Fetzer became a household name in our area.
Needless to say, the Fetzer family appreciated Tom and Franco. They were feted at the winery on one of their first trips to California.
That is only the beginning. Next month, the rest of the story.