On June 18, 2016, a small group of sommeliers from some of Orlando’s swankiest dining spots sat down for an invitation-only blind tasting. Hosts Laura Fletcher, then 29, and Christie Briscoe, then 23, were good friends and colleagues at Norman’s at the Ritz-Carlton, where they worked in sales and marketing. But this event was about something completely different.
They poured tastes from a few well known, high end bottles alongside samples from a largely unknown South African winemaker, Christian Kuun. His wines got good reviews, sometimes beating out the big names.
“In that moment, I was like, ok it can happen,” said Christie, whose last name is now McLeod.
“We looked at each other,” Fletcher recalls, and thought, “let’s do this.”
Launching a Dream
That tasting gave them the confidence they needed to turn what Fletcher calls their “pipe dream” into what is now The Inquisitor Wine Company.
The Orlando-based import and distribution firm sells six of Christian Kuun’s wines under McLeod and Fletcher’s own label.
The pair fell into the venture almost accidentally.
They had begun dreaming out loud about starting a wine business when Fletcher’s father, Simon Errington, went on a three-month posting to South Africa for his job with UK-based oil and gas contractor TechnipFMC. While there, he happened to meet Christian Kuun, who makes wines under his own label, CK Wines, as well as for several projects around the world.
If the women were serious about their ambitions, Errington said, he’d make the introductions and help fund their project. Kuun sent over samples of his wines, and the rest was history.
Well, not quite.
Long and Wine-ding Road
Fletcher and McCleod enlisted another Norman’s colleague, sommelier Cory Royer, to travel to South Africa and taste through all of Kuun’s creations. Out of 200 wines, he chose six for The Inquisitor to import (details and tasting notes below).
McLeod and Fletcher secured a contract making those wines exclusive to The Inquisitor for all of the U.S. and Canada.
The pair then set about getting the necessary licenses and permissions to import and sell the wines, a process Fletcher calls “a beast.” It took months longer than they expected. Their anticipated launch date last summer was pushed back to the end of last year.
Looking back, Fletcher admits that starting with a domestic wine “would’ve been easier, it would’ve been cheaper, it would’ve been quicker.”
But, she said, “we feel South African wine is underrepresented in the U.S. market, and when we drank it, we really fell in love with it.”
Convincing Central Florida
“The Inquisitor” name reflects how Fletcher and McLeod see themselves.
“We’re constantly pushing, asking questions, not settling,” Fletcher said.
She had to do a little pushing of her own to get her boss to put Inquisitor wines on Norman’s high-end list. General Manager and Wine Director Yusuf Yildiz “needed me to show that I was serious,” she said. She clearly succeeded, since the restaurant now carries two Inquisitor bottles.
McLeod has since left the restaurant world, but the pair’s deep connections in the local culinary community have helped them get placements at spots like The Ravenous Pig in Winter Park, Ravello at the Four Seasons (where they recently held their first wine dinner), and STK at Disney Springs.
Today, Fletcher and McLeod announced a second wine dinner, to take place at Osprey Tavern on November 11. And they have a rosé coming out, probably next year.
But they haven’t stopped dreaming.
McLeod just resigned from her job as an account executive at a local furniture company to go full time with The Inquisitor, and the pair is already talking about branching out into other unsung wine regions. They both have Scottish family connections, so they say the UK might be in the running.
For now, that’s just a pipe dream, but with these two, dreams have a good chance of becoming reality.
McLeod and Fletcher recently invited me to taste through their selection at the attractive new Mills 50 watering hole Grape and the Grain, where The Inquisitor cabernet franc is available by request.
The 2013 Methode Cap Classique (the South African name for the traditional Champagne method) was my favorite of the bunch. This complex sparkling wine from the Stellenbosch region is a blanc de noirs (made from 100% pinot noir), with notes of apple and hazlenut and just enough yeastiness to be interesting without obscuring the fruit.
Another standout was the 2015 merlot, also from Stellenbosch. It’s a lighter style merlot, but there’s a lot going on with this wine, especially on the nose. It starts off with green pepper, followed by unsweetened cocoa powder (which comes through more strongly on the palate), then blackberry and dark red cherry underneath.
The 2017 Western Cape chenin blanc is a floral, delicate expression of South Africa’s marquis white grape. Don’t serve this wine too cold, and give it a little time to open. It was muted when I first tasted it but later showed its full, elegant character.
Sauvignon blanc can be a hard sell for me, but The Inquisitor’s 2017 sauvignon blanc from the Western Cape avoids the grassy grapefruit notes that I find off-putting in many examples of the varietal. Aromas and flavors of yellow apple and white flowers stand out, with the green character coming in the form of celery and watercress rather than lawn mower clippings.
The 2013 Cellar Reserve from Stellenbosch is a robust blend of 60% cabernet sauvignon and 40% cabernet franc. From its green and dusty aromas, I would’ve guessed the proportions were the other way around, but there’s plenty of fruit on the palate. There’s also a hint of tomato, reminding me a bit of an Italian red.
The 2013 Stellenbosch cabernet franc is a big, juicy expression of the varietal. This wine was my introduction to The Inquisitor when I first happened upon it at Osprey Tavern. It’s what made me want to know more about these wines and the women behind them.
Robert Louis Stevenson famously said that “wine is bottled poetry.” It’s fitting, then, that the back of each Inquisitor wine bottle holds a poem written by McLeod and Fletcher, based on their interviews with winemaker Christian Kuun. They hopes the verses give customers a glimpse into Kuun’s thoughts and feelings about the wines.
They also leave no doubt that The Inquisitor is, at its core, a creative enterprise and a labor of love and passion for these two budding Orlando wine entrepreneurs.