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Faces of wine: Jeff Gerber, Vince and Laurie Fultz and PJ Myers

Ask any connoisseur, and they’ll tell you: It’s not the wine; it’s the people with whom you enjoy it. Pour a glass of your favorite, and meet some of the locals who make every sip a treasure.


Of all the areas in which a person can be knowledgeable, there’s something about wine that makes an expert instantly fascinating. There’s the science of it, the alchemy of geology, geography and weather that flavors the grape. There’s the culture of it, the discovery of new regions as wineries took root in fresh soil. 

But true appreciation of wine can only come when it’s uncorked, allowed to breathe and shared with friends. All the subtle tannins and oaky mouthfeels in the world can’t match the subtle bouquet of friendships opening up with each sip. 

If you have the opportunity, open a bottle with one of these locals, and discover the true joys that grapes and time produce.

Jeff Gerber

For the executive director of the Hilton Head Wine & Food Festival, wine is all about the experience.

Jeff Gerber - executive director of the Hilton Head Wine & Food Festival

When one pictures the regions famed for their wine, the mental image conjured is one of rolling European pastures, variated Mediterranean hillsides or verdant California ridges. The blustery rockiness of Oregon may not be one of the first that comes to mind, but it’s where Jeff Gerber, executive director of the Hilton Head Wine & Food Festival, first developed his appreciation for wine.

“When I moved away in 1998, Oregon Pinots were just starting to take off. The wines they produce are more similar to France than almost anyplace else because if you follow the parallels that run through Oregon on a globe, they run right through Burgundy,” he said. 

Growing up in a family that developed an early appreciation for the Oregon Pinots that would soon make their mark in the wine world, Gerber was granted the odd sip around the dinner table. This helped develop a palate, but it wasn’t until he moved to Hilton Head Island and began working in fine dining that he truly gained an appreciation. And it wasn’t until he volunteered at the festival he now heads that his love for wine flourished.

“They were looking for volunteers to open bottles, carry them to the judges and pour. So basically, a server. I was overqualified at that point,” he said. Working his way up, he soon found himself joining the judges. “I would just run around tasting wine and writing notes in a legal pad. One year, I tried over 300 wines over the course of four days.”

This crash course refined the palate that he’d been developing from a young age, proving a huge benefit to a guy making his way in the F&B world. “Learning to taste that way moved me from a server to running wine programs,” he said. “It was almost like an immersion course.”

He moved up from serving to running wine programs for lauded restaurants like CQ’s and Aqua, where his sophisticated tastes and easygoing nature created wine programs that allowed patrons to push their boundaries.

“Your job is to make it safe for people to try things, because what attracted me to wine is there are so many things that are out there to explore. But you’re spending your own money, which can be scary,” he said. “Your job is to make it approachable, not pretentious, and fun…. When you talk to master somms, they’re all laid back. They don’t have to prove that they have a good palate.”

And there we get to the crux of what draws Jeff Gerber to explore wines while expanding the Hilton Head Wine & Food Festival’s legendary offerings. It’s not always about finding the best wine. It’s about creating the best experience and putting a great wine at the center.

“Great company can take an average bottle of wine and leave you with an unforgettable evening,” he said.

Jeff Gerber, executive director of the Hilton Head Wine & Food Festival (March 24-30), discovered his love for wine in Oregon’s Pinot Noir region. After moving to Hilton Head Island, he immersed himself in the world of fine dining, eventually running wine programs for renowned restaurants. Through volunteering at the festival, he honed his palate, learning from tasting and judging countless wines. Wine lovers can sample from 250 world-class wines sourced from across the globe at this year’s public tasting from noon to 3 p.m. on March 30 at Celebration Park. Purchase tickets ($75) at hiltonheadwineandfood.com.

Savor subjectivity: An approach to discovering the best wine

There is an entire world of wine out there. There are huge factories pumping out bottles to be sold at grocery stores, and there are small vineyards carefully crafting vintages that will be fought over at auction for decades. Given that near-infinite variety, how on earth can one determine what makes a wine “the best”? According to Jeff Gerber, you just take one sip at a time and figure it out for yourself.

“Years ago there used to be the ‘right’ wines and the ‘wrong’ wines to drink, and certain people were seen as having ‘blessed palates,’ as it were,” said Gerber. For him it was Kevin Zraly, founder of Windows on the World, who changed all of that. “His belief, and it’s something that I buy into, is there is no one right answer. Everyone smells and tastes things differently. You and I can taste the same wine and pick up something different. It doesn’t make you right or me wrong.”

The Hilton Head Wine & Food Festival is a hot ticket each year. Both the Grand Tasting (March 29) and the VIP Lounge (March 30) are already sold out. Wine lovers can still purchase tickets for Uncorked ($35) on March 21 at Shipyard Beach Club, Craft Beers at the Beach ($50) on March 24 at The Westin, the Sip & Stroll ($75) on March 27 at the Shops at Sea Pines Center, Stay Gold: A Lowcountry Wine, Food, and Music Experience ($125) on March 28 at Lucky Beach Bar + Kitchen and the Public Tasting ($75) on March 30 at Celebration Park at hiltonheadwineandfood.com.

Vince and Laurie Fultz

For these avid collectors, every bottle of wine holds a story.

Vince and Laurie Fultz

Just as no two bottles of wine are the same, no two wine collections are the same. Some of them emphasize hard-to-find bottles, rarities that were snapped up at auction and shelved to be occasionally brought out for display.  Some of them highlight different regions, allowing for a robust Napa Cab to pair with a silky Italian Barolo. Some are investments, calculated to yield the maximum return on investment.

The collection of Vince and Laurie Fultz, all 5,000-some bottles of it, exists for one simple reason – to be enjoyed over conversations with friends that stretch for hours.

“I’m buying it because I like it. I’m not buying it because I think it might be worth something someday,” he said. “We love wine, but we don’t drink by ourselves, unless we’re having sushi or something. But when we have friends over, it’s open season.”

Whether it’s the 11 cases displayed in the kitchen wine cooler – the big showy Bordeauxs, the Scarecrows, the Harlans, the Lafites – or the thousands more split between a pair of wine cellars, every bottle represents an unforgettable evening waiting to happen. 

Well, almost every bottle. 

There’s a single bottle of Chateau Montelena 1989, tucked away on the left in the upstairs wine cellar, that he’ll never open. It’s the last of the case that started it all for Vince during the first of many trips to Napa Valley when he was 29. His plan had been to start at one end of the valley, at Chateau Montelena, and work his way across. At 7:30 in the morning, waiting for the winery to open, a knock on his window changed the trajectory of his life.

“This guy knocks and says they don’t open for two hours, and if I’m going to just sit there, I should come with him,” he said. His host, a man Vince just thought was a “nice man with a dog,” turned out to be legendary winemaker Bo Barrett. If you’ve seen the film “Bottle Shock,” he was the person portrayed by Chris Pine. “He spent two hours with me, looking at the vines, the barrels… after two hours he says, ‘Well what kind of collector do you want to be?’”

The answer turned out to be “a prolific one.” In addition to two cases of the 1989, the last of which will never be opened, Vince purchased 20 more cases on that trip. 

As that collection grew, it fueled the couple’s legendary hospitality. During a visit to the Fultz home, guests enjoy the fruits of Vince’s collection, the delectable results of Laurie’s culinary prowess, and the easygoing chemistry of two lovebirds who met in the first grade and spent a lifetime falling in love. 

“We are probably more wine collectors than connoisseurs,” she said. “We’ve been to a bunch of tastings between Napa and Chicago and here, but at the end of the day when we try to pick out notes, I’ll ask Vince, ‘Are you getting anything on the back end? Espresso beans? Goat cheese?’ And he’ll say, ‘It tastes grapey.’”

This will spark laughter, which will spark stories, which will lead to another glass. But that’s what their collection is for – the memories it helps create.

Vince and Laurie Fultz made the permanent move from Chicago to Hilton Head Island in 2011. They moved every bottle of wine in their 5,000-bottle collection themselves without a casualty along the way until Vince opened the truck and one bottle fell out and shattered in the driveway. In 2015, Vince and Laurie were featured in season 2 of HGTV’s Island Life.

The vibrant intersection of wine and art in the Fultz collection

Some of the most inspiring parts of Vince and Laurie Fultz’s wine collection isn’t found in a bottle. It’s found all over their home, in dazzling works of art, large and small, that hang on nearly every wall. In one room you’ll find a lithograph of LeRoy Nieman’s “The Last Dance.” In another, heading into the wine cellar, you’ll spy a print of George Rodrigue’s iconic Blue Dog. Hovering above the grand island in the kitchen, a stunning retro-chic milieu by Marc Clauzade.

Each work of art has a counterpart on a bottle of Amuse Bouche, the Napa Valley winery co-founded by Heidi Barrett and John Schwartz. 

“Of all of our collections, this comes with something other than wine. You receive a signed and numbered lithograph if you purchase a case,” she said. “It’s so cool that it comes with something that would otherwise be totally unaffordable.”

PJ Myers

This sommelier is helping reinvent the way the locals view wine.

PJ Myers Headshot

Few people have had the kind of impact on the Lowcountry’s wine culture as PJ Myers. Talk to any collector, and they’ll rave about his sophisticated palate, his almost supernatural ability to tease out the most subtle flavors. They’ll marvel at his encyclopedic knowledge of wine, at the way he can seemingly conjure up the most obscure facts and fascinating trivia about the art and science of wine making. As the sommelier and beverage director at Montage Palmetto Bluff, he’s spearheaded a wine program that has become the toast of the Southeast. 

It’s a status that — like his certifications as Sommelier in the Master Court of Sommeliers and a Level 3 in the Wine & Spirit Education Trust – he’s worked hard to earn. It’s also a level of achievement that’s miles away from where he started, literally and figuratively.

“My journey in wine started in Maui, where I’d been working for DUO and Longhi’s restaurant group, both of which had huge wine cellars. I wasn’t big on wine at the time. Budweiser and Jim Beam were the spice of life for me,” he said. “We were forced to do wine training.”

During that training his manager, Joel Krauss, noticed that the young Myers was what oenophiles refer to as a “natural taster,” someone who can identify even the most minute flavors without training. Encouraged by Krauss, Myers honed his palate until he had his “ah ha” moment. 

“It was a 1997 Caymus Special Selection. It just blew me away,” he said. 

He’s moved on from the Caymus since then – or at least, Caymus moved on from him. With the sale of the winery, he’s seen this hand-crafted wine become a commodity, something that doesn’t sit well with him. 

“My mantra in this business is, it’s developed by families, not factories,” said Myers. “I like to support mom-and-pop wineries because part of the fun of wine is the story and history. When the big brands buy in, you lose that.”

He’s outspoken about the wines that speak to him, but that’s part of what has set him apart. From the time he arrived in the Lowcountry, he’s been one of the forces helping shape the region into a destination for wine lovers. Alongside aficionados like Ian Mason and Jay Rawl, they helped push the envelope.

“There was a huge culture shift here in the Lowcountry, where before 2013 or so there may have been two or three sommeliers… We all got bit by the bug and got our intro levels together,” he said. “We were always doing wine dinners, hoping to reinvent the way this area sees wine.”

What they were doing caught the attention of the wine world.

“Winemakers started to make the trip down here and really started to embrace the Lowcountry. Now we’re talked about by these winemakers as this beautiful up-and-coming area,” he said. “I like to think we helped build that and shaped it into what it is now. It’s cool to see how  this wine environment has changed in the last 10 years.”

PJ Myers is the beverage manager at Montage Palmetto Bluff. He manages a wine list that encompasses more than 2,500 different labels with time-honored and emerging selections represented from all of the world’s major wine regions. He also works closely with the culinary team at River House restaurant to develop wine pairings for seasonal offerings and Lowcountry classics.

Learning the lingo with PJ Myers

One of the biggest barriers to entry for those looking to get into wine isn’t often the price, but the language. And by that we don’t mean Italian or French, but the sometimes impenetrable terminology that the average wine menu uses in describing its bill of fare. PJ Myers helps us break down some of the lingo:

Minerality: Minerality is the salinity that you taste mid-palate. It comes off as a savory note and changes depending on the mineral. For example, limestone will change that salinity.

Tannins: Think of tannins like table salt – as they bang into each other, they get more polished. So if you see a silky tannin, it’s going to glide across your tongue instead of vacuum-sealing to it and sucking out the moisture.

Herbacousness: That would be flavors of savory herbs like rosemary or thyme that they plant between rows of grapes as a cover crop. They plant them because they put magnesium back into the soil, and as it rains, those flavors get into the soil.

Crushed rock: They say that instead of saying dirt. You’ll also see it described as graphite or pencil shavings. It’s the rock the vines have burrowed through, and they pick up that note.

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