The concept may seem alien to many of us now in this era of tablets and smartphones but Matt Tunstall grew up in a household where dinner was an occasion of community and real-life interactions. “That sense of family and sharing a meal was ingrained into me,” he says. “I didn’t know it at the time, but it bloomed into my career.”
Based in North Charleston, S.C., Tunstall is the co-owner of AOC Hospitality, a restaurant management and consulting company that is also the parent company of the wine bar Stems & Skins, and a restaurant, Three Sirens. His career has spanned both coasts and more than two decades. To this day, he remains as ebullient about his industry — and wine in particular — as he was when he had his first “aha” tasting moment as a young 20-something server. “Turning people onto wine — that’s my passion,” Tunstall says, “and it’s what I enjoy most about going to work every day.”
The aha wine in question was Mount Mary Quintet, a red blend from Australia’s Yarra Yarra region that he poured for a group of finance professionals while working at San Francisco’s now-closed PlumpJack Cafe. Tasting the bottle after first opening it, then experiencing its evolution over the course of the dinner (the regular diners were more than happy to share) was something he’s “never forgotten,” Tunstall says.
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PlumpJack proved a fertile training ground for the young server. Most of his colleagues were double his age and willing to take him under their wings. The restaurant’s sommelier would also task the service team with selling a specific bottle on a given night. If they succeeded, he’d open up to five bottles at the end of the evening, allowing the team to hone their palates and blooming Tunstall’s knowledge and love of wine.
Ironically, the big international blends and California reds he was so accustomed to tasting little resemble what Tunstall enjoys drinking now. In late 2009, after 10 years in San Francisco, he and his wife, Angie, moved to Charleston to settle down in what was then a more affordable city. Within three years, he’d wind up the sommelier at Husk, which had gained a reputation as one of America’s best restaurants. There, the wine list was organized by soil type rather than region or grape — an outlier for almost anywhere in the country at the time, let alone Charleston.
“The top 10 restaurants here in 2010, the wine lists were about 60 percent the same,” Tunstall recalls.
It wasn’t just how the wines were organized on the list that proved eye-opening but the actual bottles being poured. This was Tunstall’s first major exposure to natural wine and he quickly fell down a “rabbit hole.”
Since meeting his business partner, Justin Croxall, and opening Stems & Skins in 2016, Tunstall’s affinity for the category has mellowed somewhat. But Chenin Blanc and the Loire Valley, both darlings in their own right among natural wine drinkers, continue to hold the greatest grip of his heart.
In fact, the initial concept for the wine bar was for it to place a singular focus on the French region, but Tunstall and Croxall figured the local market wasn’t ready for something like that yet. Instead, Stems & Skins opened with an educational focus. “We really wanted it to be a place where you could always learn something new,” Tunstall says. This goal factors into multiple aspects of the bar, right down to the material the wine list is printed on: graph paper, to recall memories of school.
On arrival and once seated, guests are greeted with a list brimming with options and information. “We let the guests get familiar with it for a minute or two and then pop right in there and say, ‘Hey, look, this is what we’re excited about,’” Tunstall says.
The interactions and sense of community harken back to the Tunstall family dinner table. Witnessing him engaging in such conversations is to see a wine lover fully in his element and in the field of service where he excels most. It captures the very essence of hospitality.
“Finding a new wine — something that I just absolutely adore — and then turning people onto it is the best part of my job,” Tunstall says.