Lex Alexander's next act

The grocery innovator and natural foods advocate champions small winemakers around the world with his Chapel Hill beverage store, 3Cups

Staff WriterOctober 3, 2010 

  • 3Cups is at 227 S. Elliott Road, Chapel Hill, 968-8993, www.3cups.net

As wine connoisseurs at a Chapel Hill tasting sip his Riesling wine, fifth-generation winemaker Thorsten Melsheimer tells a little story about what has happened to winemaking in his German village. Forty years ago, there were 70 winemakers. Now there are 20.

A few, like him, still grow grapes on terraced vineyards on steep, 60-degree hillsides above the Mosel River. If that weren't hard enough, Melsheimer uses only organic, and thus more labor-intensive, methods.

As Melsheimer continues, Lex Alexander leans in to whisper, "It takes some people paying attention to make sure they survive."

One such person is Alexander.

Alexander, 58, owns 3Cups, the coffee, tea and wine store hosting this tasting. It could be easy to dismiss Alexander's altruistic business mission if one didn't know his track record . For 30 groundbreaking years, he has championed the little guy, changing the food landscape of the Triangle in the process.

Alexander, who began his professional life as a golf pro, and his wife, Ann, returned to their home state of North Carolina in 1980 and opened a natural foods grocery store called Wellspring. For a decade, he grew that business, and in 1991 sold the Durham store, plus another in Chapel Hill and plans for a third in Raleigh, to Whole Foods. Alexander spent the next 10 years working for Whole Foods as "the food guy," seeking products and choosing companies to make the chain's private label brands from mustard to Caesar dressing. That's how he learned to find people as passionate about food as he was, people as committed to preserving the old ways.

He emerged from early retirement and consulting six years ago to launch 3Cups . Many retail entrepreneurs like him aim to create a store where they would want to shop. For Alexander, that meant a place to buy freshly roasted single-origin coffee, whole leaf tea not flavored with mango or ginger, and natural wines. "These three beverages are part of almost every day for me," he says.

That combination of passion and marketing savvy has served him well.

Alexander sees a parallel between the opening of 3Cups five years ago and opening the first Wellspring 30 years ago: People thought he was crazy.

Portia McKnight, owner of Chapel Hill Creamery and a longtime former Wellspring employee, explains: Natural food stores at the time were dominated by the vitamin department, mainstream grocery stores focused on the center aisles filled with processed convenience foods. But Wellspring didn't fit either mold. It was all about what was typically sold on a grocery store's perimeter: meat, cheese and produce.

"Good food starts with good ingredients - that's what Lex was really into," she says.

Early appreciation

For Alexander and his wife, Ann, that appreciation of good food was learned at home. She grew up in Winston-Salem, and he in Charlotte. Alexander's grandfather taught him to seek out the best peaches or green beans and why it's worth taking a year to age a country ham. Lex and Ann met while he attended Wake Forest University to play on the golf team. After graduation and marriage, they spent half the year in Westchester County, N.Y., and the other in Palm Springs, Calif., where Alexander worked as a golf pro. Both towns had vibrant natural food stores , which captured their attention and where the couple eventually worked to learn the business.

They learned that the key to finding good ingredients is finding small-scale growers or producers who use traditional methods. Alexander's career has been built on championing those small producers of everything from vinegar to maple syrup because he believes their products taste better.

"Knowing that person that produces the product - makes the wine, roasts the coffee beans, grows the purple barley - it's always driven him," says chef Ben Barker, who owns Durham's Magnolia Grill, which is in the space originally occupied by the first Wellspring store.

Alexander is not the aggressive, back-slapping salesman. He's low-key, thoughtful and impeccably dressed. His shoe collection has been compared to Imelda Marcos'. His friends talk about his cooking skills, fondly recalling beans he served them or his showing up at their house to make pancakes on Saturday mornings. (Alexander says the secret to his beans is to use the current crop and the secret to his pancakes is adding cornmeal to the batter.) The latter was called "the pancake show," an effort by Alexander to get his two young daughters out of the house and give his wife alone time. If they didn't have a friend's house to go to, they would make pancakes for the Magnolia Grill staff.

Five years ago, when Alexander opened 3Cups as a coffee, tea and chocolate shop in the Courtyard off West Franklin Street in downtown Chapel Hill, he envisioned a series of shops in the Courtyard: wine, florist, bakery. True to form, Alexander's store was a unique coffee shop. It sold only single-origin, freshly roasted coffee. No blends. No flavored coffee. No espresso machine.

Unfortunately, that dream of a series of shops never materialized and a dispute with the landlord resulted in a move in 2008. The store is now in a retail zone between Franklin Street and U.S. 15-501; the stretch is a gourmet shopping destination with A Southern Season at University Mall, a Whole Foods and a Trader Joe's.

Without the foot traffic it had as a downtown coffee shop, 3Cups evolved into a coffee, tea and wine store, with natural wine being the focus.

Ahead of the curve

"The current buzzword is 'natural,'" says Andre Tamers, a wine importer who lives in Chapel Hill, adding "I think Lex has always been slightly ahead of the curve."

At its most basic, "natural" means wine made with as little manipulation from man as possible: organic or sustainably grown grapes, natural yeasts, no added sugars or acids. Wine is made in many ways, but a lot of it is created from grapes bought in bulk and manipulated to meet consistent flavor profile and to stay under $10 a bottle.

To Alexander, 3Cups is the natural progression of an interest in eating food grown by small-scale, sustainable farmers or products made by what he calls "food artisans." While consumers are starting to understand that concept when it comes to coffee or tea, there's still a disconnect with wine, he says. At a dinner party, Alexander says, people serve a meal made from ingredients bought at a farmers' market and offer local beer, small-batch bourbon and Yellow Tail Shiraz, a mass market Australian wine.

"Yellow Tail Shiraz is Wonderbread," Alexander says.

As Alexander sees it, the way wine is typically sold isn't helping consumers understand it as an agricultural product. At one extreme is a large-scale industrial wine selling for less than $5 a bottle, such as Trader Joe's "Two-Buck Chuck"; at the other a boutique wine that sells well because it scored a 92 on a 100-point scale from a well-known critic or magazine.

3Cups, both in the store and on its website, tries to connect consumers with the men and women who make the wine. A sign on the wall reads, "Real Farmers. Authentic Wine." Bottles are highlighted as the perfect choice to drink with tacos, pizza and burgers. Each of the 700 wines has a three bullet-point description devoid of the usual blackberry-caramel-and-fresh-dug-earth tasting note lingo.

Instead, a visitor will read about Melsheimer, the German winemaker whose Rieslings were recently tasted: "Thorsten Melsheimer is a giant. He looks like a rugby player. He looks like a guy who could pull trees (or grapevines) right from the earth with his bare hands. He lives in the village of Reil, a hamlet nestled into the narrow northern Mosel. ... His surroundings magnify the impression that Thorsten is a mythical force that lumbered in from the wilderness, stepping over hillsides and knocking together the skulls of people that got in his way."

Alexander credits this accessible approach to wine buyer Jay Murrie, formerly of A Southern Season. Murrie, he says, combines a love of his job and appreciation of wine with a soft touch with customers, not overwhelming them with wine geek knowledge.

Alexander hopes that a little of the knowledge will sink in with customers over time, and they'll come to appreciate the winemakers as much as they enjoy the wine. Making sure these winemakers survive is always in Alexander's mind: "Without a retail outlet for these farmer winemakers, if you will, the price point commodity and industrialization [of wine] will make it so they don't have a market."

So how will Alexander, who hopes to open a second store next year, truly know if 3Cups is a success? "More retailers will copy us."

By that measure, he has already succeeded - at least locally. A "green" wine and beer store called Sip opened in Cary earlier this year.

andrea.weigl@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4848

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service