You might expect Rochelle Baxter to have a tendency toward restlessness. Not only do her family ties stretch overseas, but her childhood and school years moved her through Chapel Hill, Durham, and Winston-Salem, before landing in Charlotte. Still, while her culinary inspirations may be far-flung, the food she stocks at Vin Master Wine Shop celebrates the Carolinas’ own variety of flavors.
Baxter’s family hails from South Africa, and as a result, the young diner developed adventurous tastebuds. “I grew up eating things with major, different ethnic influences,” she says, listing Caribbean, Indian and British high on the list. “Then my mom just started going crazy in the kitchen with a lot of Asian flavors, so I was introduced to all of that at a young age.”
Baxter explains all this while seated at a high table inside Vin Master, her wine shop cum local provisioner, located in the Atherton Mill complex. Behind her, bright afternoon light floods through tall windows into the brick-walled space that once served as loading dock for the turn-of-the-century warehouse.
Today, wine racks along the Vin Master walls hold bottles from around the world, interspersed with shelves and coolers displaying everything from North Carolina peanut butter to South Carolina microgreens.
It was both a small and large step for Baxter to buy this business just about a year ago. Since 2013, she had owned Queen City Pantry inside Atherton market, just across the parking lot from here. Stepping into that small business allowed her to leverage an interest in nutrition, a degree from Johnson & Wales, and several years of restaurant experience.
She was still sous-chef at Carpe Diem when she bought Queen City Pantry, and as she says, “In my head, I was going to continue doing both forever.” She laughs a little, continuing, “it was not long before I was like, ‘I can’t do this; I want to focus on growing the business and be one-hundred percent entrepreneur.’”
Even after making that shift, Baxter kept a foot in the kitchen with private chef services, specializing in clients with dietary restrictions. “I was…dealing with autoimmune disorders, a lot of gluten-free and dairy-free, as organic as possible,” she says. Sourcing locally followed naturally for her. “For some of the people who are coming out of huge health condition issues, it’s hard to just trust the stuff you’re buying at the grocery store.”
All her time spent inside Atherton market also fostered Baxter’s ties with many purveyors. “I’ve become so close to a lot of farmers, where I know how the animals are treated, what they’re eating,” she says. Even moving across the parking lot to Vin Master hasn’t dampened those relationships at all. “They come over here and have drinks almost every Saturday [after the market], and just trade arugula or spinach for a beer,” she says, laughing.
While the transition from grocery store to wine shop has expanded her sourcing to vineyards around the world, Baxter has found a niche here for most of the local goods she carried in her previous space. “I think the driving force is the cheese and charcuterie items, the jams and nuts and things that still hold to the concept that Queen City Pantry was: a one-stop shop for easy entertaining.”
Membership in the PCG has widened her purveyor contacts, but has also germinated a symbiotic relationship with other chefs. Since she carries products from regional providers like Ashe County Cheese and Anson Mills, many other members have found it helpful to piggyback onto Baxter’s orders to supply their own kitchens. “Not everyone can order in volume, so we all help each other out,” she says, noting larger volumes often mean lower costs for everyone.
The new PCG Tastemakers program has been an additional benefit to Vin Master’s business. “I thought it was a really cool concept to get the public involved in the PCG, rather than [just] the professionals who already know…about all the great local farms and community,” she says. “We’ve run a Tastemakers event here, showcasing all the different products we carry. I’ve seen some return from it–I’ve had multiple people come back who had been to that event, lots of people bought stuff at that event, and I think they learned something.”
As the business grows, Baxter hopes to eventually find a way to incorporate a true kitchen into the business and expand her repertoire of fresh prepared foods. She envisages rustic flatbreads, paninis and seasonal soups, all built on Carolina-sourced ingredients.
But whether on a plate or a shelf, the food products themselves are only one part of what Baxter offers in her shop. “I’m always here and I want to connect with the customer and answer their questions,” she says. “There’s still a lot of way to go with people getting educated on the local food thing.” Fortunately, it’s the part of the job that she finds the most rewarding, “having that more client-based interaction.”
So while technically a business, you could also say Baxter’s shop is something of a public service. Because whether you’re a culinary professional looking for an easy way to source local grains, or a customer looking for a local food pairing with an international wine, Vin Master offers a unique local resource for anyone interested in supporting the foodways of the Carolina Piedmont.
Profile written by Alison Leininger
Vin Master Wine Shop
Charlotte, NC 28203