A Q & A with Christian Depken of Le Chai — a wine shop unlike any other

I first wrote about Christian Depken’s wine shop Le Chai over a decade ago. In the years since then, I’ve become good friends with Christian and even was a little bit of help with his recent move. I have nothing but admiration for his knowledge and his passion.

Simply put, I believe Le Chai is a great asset for the neighborhood, the city of Savannah, and even the entire region.

Earlier this spring, Christian moved the business to 15 East Park Avenue (see map). Now that he is settled into the new spot, I asked Christian if he would respond to some questions via email.

Bill Dawers: Le Chai. What does that name mean?

Christian Depken, owner of Le Chai: To put is simply, a ‘chai’ (pronounced shay) is a glorified shed. In most of Europe below what top soil one might find is bedrock, limestone, granite, etc. This bedrock makes for ideal storage of things, primarily wine either in barrel or bottle to age. But in Bordeaux, if you were to dig down, you would find water, much like Savannah. So they had to build an above-ground structure to house the wine. That structure is called a ‘chai’. When I had the concept of Le Chai, I initially thought I wanted to be downtown, in the basement of some building, almost like a subterranean speakeasy kind of thing. Fortunately, I did not pursue that. But had I, the shop would have been called La Cave. But since I am above ground, and the wines are above ground, Le Chai seemed more appropriate.

BD: When I wrote a column about Le Chai after it opened years ago, I remember someone referring to you as a “working man’s wine snob.” Is that description still appropriate?

CD: I started Le Chai in November of 2002. It seems like forever ago and just yesterday at the same time. Honestly, I can’t remember if I coined that title or someone else did, as I’m not one for monikers, but either way I would say it applies. I would like to think the phrase has a few meanings.

I go to great lengths to demystify the notions that many people have towards wine. To be sure, wine can be an intimidating endeavor but at the same time it is something to be enjoyed. And not only enjoyed by well-heeled collectors and aristocracy.

Regular people can and should have proper wine in their lives. This is something that I strive to provide my clients.

BD: Why do you stock only European wines?

CD: This is a dart that is often thrown my way, as if I am some kind of elitist or snob when it comes to wine.

To be blunt, when I buy and drink wines for myself, they are European wines. Speaking in generalizations can be dangerous but generally speaking, the wines of Europe are fundamentally different than their New World counterparts. European wines tend to be higher in acidity, lower in primary fruit, and lower in alcohol. These are attributes that lend themselves better to the table, i.e. with food, which is why these wines are made: to be consumed with food.

But back to my initial thought, it would be the zenith of hubris for my to yammer on about some Australian Shiraz when it would be the last thing I would ever drink. I suppose I think it best to stick with what you know, and do that to the best of your ability.

BD: But aren’t all those European wines expensive?

CD: Yet another misnomer. To be sure, many of the most expensive wines come from Europe, but they are very few on the whole. Entry level at Le Chai starts around $12 for whites, $15 for reds. One should not associate price with quality. Price is reflective of one of two things: 1) Supply and demand or 2) Ego. More often than not, the very expensive wines are priced by one’s ego, or mortgage, or boat payment. With that said, everything costs something and one should expect to pay for a quality wine. But it needn’t be outrageous.

BD: I don’t see any of those wine ratings in your store. Why not?

CD: Wine ratings may be the most curious aspect of wine.

I don’t know of another industry that has almost willfully ceded control of itself to a handful of people and their opinions. To tell the truth, I have no idea what 92 points tastes like. If we’re honest, you don’t either. I have no idea how someone can reduce something that can be as multi-faceted and complex as wine to a numeric value. And furthermore, that number is not absolute. There are myriad ‘reviewers’. All of whom are ‘rating’ thousands of wines. 93 points from one isn’t 93 from another. A score is a matter of opinion and nothing more. Some people think Picasso was a genius; others think Pollack was a jackass. It’s entirely subjective. I have opinions. So do you. At least you should. But that doesn’t make it law. And that is what the wine industry has allowed ratings to become: law.

The whole concept of ratings is something I find more akin to mental/emotional mast*rbation — and about as productive.

BD: So you have individual bottles of wine lying down instead of vertical shelves stocked as tightly as possible. Where’s the wine?

CD: Indeed. One bottle is on display in a very simple and clean fashion. This affords my clients the opportunity to see the label, read the information it provides in an uncluttered manner. I find the typical ‘bottle shop’ presentation that you described to be overbearing, constrictive, and at times, overwhelming.

As to where the wine is, I have a cellar where all of my inventory is temperature and humidity controlled.

This is critical for a number of reasons. Most importantly, wine is a living thing. There are thousands of microbial processes going on in a bottle and that bottle should,be treated appropriately. I find it more than a little disturbing that milk is treated with more respect and it’s pasteurized. Second, climate control is critical for keeping wines for any period of time.

Maintaining the cellar ensures that I have provenance of the wine from cradle to grave. This is exceedingly rare in the retail wine trade.

BD: This is an unusual merchandising concept. Are there any other stores like this?

CD: Unfortunately, very few. It it a bit of a chicken and the egg. Most retailers have a ‘Stack it High, Watch it Fly’ approach towards their clientele. They don’t care enough to store their wines properly. On the other side of the equation are the clients, who are unaware that they are drinking wines that have been compromised. I’m not suggesting that they have been drinking bad wines, but certainly they have been drinking wines that weren’t as good as they could have been.

Unfortunately, most of the buying public has only ever known the typical bottle shop experience and thus have no point of reference. I am trying to change that.

BD: What’s your personal favorite grape? Why?

CD: Without a doubt, Riesling. It is simply the most important grape in the world. The myriad styles and flavors that Riesling produces are unparalleled — from the sweeter Rieslings of the Mosel and Nahe in Germany, to the dry, yet fruit-driven Rieslings of Alsace, to the bone-dry Rieslings of Austria. Its versatility at table is unrivaled. There is no wine that is as food-friendly as Riesling. Its ability to age, even in a down vintage, is unmatched.

Pound for pound, what you pay for and what you get, there is no grape that comes close to Riesling.

BD: You’re a huge fan of football (aka, soccer). Any connection between that and your interest in wine?

CD: No, just a coincidence. I played goalkeeper on a club team starting at a very young age. It is the only sport that matters. I have a keen interest in cycling. Then Georgia football.

BD: OK, let’s say I’m just a casual wine buyer. Why should I care about the soil, the grapes, the location of the vineyard, etc.?

CD: It’s not critical to the enjoyment of the beverage, but knowing a few of those things can/will aide in understanding and appreciating why a wine tastes the way it does. The French call this “Terroir” and a brief definition would be the combined efforts of soil, sun, rain, wind, vine, and man working to create a singular, and thus inherently valuable thing. This notion is not unique to wine.

Something closer to home proves the same point. The Vidalia onion. It has the flavor it has for a number of reasons, but primarily because of the low sulphur content of the soil. One could plant a Vidalia in Michigan but it would not be the same. It may grow, and it may be good. But it won’t be a Vidalia. And you sure as hell better not call it a Vidalia. Someone might get hurt.

BD: You moved to your new location on Park Avenue recently. Why? How is the new location treating you?

CD: I opened at the Park Avenue location in the middle of March, 2013. There were myriad reasons, chief among them were address and the size of the space. My previous location in Starland served me well, but honestly I had long outgrown the size of it. Also, for multiple reasons, the area has not/did not develop as was hoped.

Being on Park Avenue provides exponentially more exposure and traffic, both on foot and vehicular. The proximity to Brighter Day, The Sentient Bean, and the Saturday Forsyth Farmers’ Market was also a driving factor. The larger space also allows me to conduct tastings on-site. This is a great advantage.

As to how it’s treating me, I’ll just say it looks like it’s going to work. The space is gorgeous. People really respond to it, even if it is just a smile from someone passing by the window. I have been kiddingly referring to it as ‘The best little wine shop on the block.’ By the time I get everything sorted, it will be one of the best in the Southeast.

There is nothing quite like it, in Savannah or elsewhere.


The nitty gritty:
Le Chai – galerie du vin
15 East Park Avenue
Savannah, Georgia 31401

Monday through Friday 11:00 – 19:00
Saturday 10.00 – 19.00
Sunday by appointment

And a few photos that can give you a sense of the space, including the maps and reference materials in Christian’s office:

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