Nelson Carey, Grand Cru wine bar owner, dies at 50

All day Tuesday, they came to the Grand Cru wine bar with swollen red eyes, hugging one another and trying to make sense of the loss of a good friend and boss.

They lifted a glass and reminisced about Nelson Carey, the genial and worldly publican of Belvedere Square, whose Grand Cru has been a popular destination for a decade.


Mr. Carey, whose European-style wine bar and patisserie was more than a home away from home for an eclectic and devoted band of regulars, died early Tuesday of heart failure at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. The Timonium resident was 50.

"I got a phone call at 9 a.m. about Nelson, and we immediately came over and there was a crowd in front of the store, customers and staff, and they were all smoking cigarettes, hugging and crying," said Greg Novik, a longtime friend who owns Greg's Bagels, also in Belvedere Square.


"For 11 years, the guy has been my guidepost, benchmark and the dearest human being," said Mr. Novik. "He had a way of making everyone feel as though they were his best friend."

Early Tuesday afternoon, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake stopped by for a few minutes.

"She came here to say her condolences," said Charlie Vascellaro, a Baltimore writer and longtime Grand Cru bartender.

"Grand Cru had character and a synergy all of its own. It was laid-back and eclectic, much like Nelson," said John F. Klaus, manager of The Prime Rib. "It was the kind of place where you could always get a good glass of wine, cocktail and food, which isn't the case in most bars."

The son of Thomas Nelson Carey Jr., a chemical salesman, and Sarah Marie "Sally" Carey, secretary at Old St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Thomas Nelson Carey III was born in Baltimore and raised in the Lake Falls neighborhood of Baltimore County.

Mr. Carey, who never used his first name, was a 1982 graduate of Loyola High School, and four years later earned a bachelor's degree in psychology from what is now Loyola University Maryland.

"Nelson always loved food, wine and cooking, and after college went to work in Rhode Island," said Barbara Porter Carr, his mother-in-law, who lives in Lutherville.

Mr. Carey's formal education in the restaurant and wine business began at the Mooring Restaurant Seafood Kitchen & Bar in Newport, R.I. After a few years, he moved to New York City, where he worked in management and took food classes.


"He was bitten by the food bug, and that was the only thing he wanted to do," said his wife of 21 years, the former Christy Beers.

"Nelson was the kind of guy who was comfortable in any situation wherever he went," said Dave O'Ferrall, Mr. Carey's business partner and a boyhood friend. "Of course, his passions in life were food and wine."

Mr. Carey returned to Baltimore and went to work as a salesman for Bacchus Importers Ltd. In the 1990s, he helped establish and manage North Charles Liquors, part of Eddie's of Roland Park.

Mr. Carey purchased Fink's Discount Liquors on Falls Road near Lake Avenue after the death of its longtime owner and renamed it The Old Vine.

Mr. Carey decided to open Grand Cru in 2003.

"Nelson wanted to create a place he'd like to go to and hang out and spend time with people. That was the philosophy behind Grand Cru. He wanted a like-minded atmosphere," Mr. Vascellaro said.


"We opened in November and we had only eight wines on the list, used a computer to print out menus, and were trying to get bottles on the shelf. We weren't sure anyone would even come," recalled Mr. Vascellaro. "The place was really a reflection of his personality."

Grand Cru was the kind of place where artists, writers, educators, musicians, senior citizens and reporters mixed easily with politicians, businessmen, doctors and eccentrics.

Mr. Carey installed a unique management style at the North Baltimore bar.

"Nobody has a title and the place is managed by committee," said Mr. Vascellaro.

Mr. Carey brought a genial and erudite manner to the bar.

He was fond of saying the Grand Cru was not a sports bar and the small TV that he installed was only for events of national importance, though bartenders who were die-hard Orioles or Ravens fans would turn it on when it was his day off.


"We speak to one another at Grand Cru," Mr. Carey once said.

Another oddity at the bar was the Grand Cru mailbox, where regular customers could leave messages, books, letters or recipes for other regulars.

"Like his favorite drink, he was very effervescent, and he had an impeccable manner. Being polite and courteous were second nature to him, and when he spoke, it was in an elegant and formal way," said Mr. Vascellaro. "He was always very welcoming. Many friendships developed at Grand Cru, and he was always at the center of them."

Laura Dicamillo, a social worker who works at the bar part time, praised Mr. Carey for establishing a family atmosphere at Grand Cru.

"When I came here, he said, 'Now you're part of a family,' and he never treated me any less than that," said Ms. Dicamillo of Baltimore. "Grand Cru was his home, it was our home, and we loved it.

At his death, Mr. Carey had completed two of three courses from the Court of Master Sommeliers, which allowed him to present himself as a sommelier.


Mr. Carey believed in wine education, and he enjoyed pointing out the highlights and benefits of a wine no matter the size of the customer's pocketbook or their taste.

"I used to feel sorry for the person who came in here to buy an expensive bottle of wine and they got the 20-minute Nelson Carey Red Wine Lecture," Mr. O'Ferrall said with a laugh.

"Not only did he know beverages, their history, their ingredients, their flavors, he also had a welcoming personality, gently encouraging customers to try something new," said Rob Kasper, an author and a former Baltimore Sun food columnist.

When Mr. Carey left his bar at the end of his shift, he crossed the parking lot and went into Swallow at the Hollow, where he liked to sip a Guinness.

"I come here because it's different. I come here to relax, and I don't want to drink at the same place I'm walking away from," Mr. Carey told Baltimore Magazine last year. "I consider myself worldly and well-traveled, and yet I keep coming back."

To celebrate Grand Cru's 10th anniversary last November, Mr. Carey put on a performance best left to professional sommeliers.


"Nelson picked out a bottle of champagne, walked outside, and sliced off the neck of the bottle with a saber," said Jim Burger, a Baltimore writer and photographer. "Then he walked back in and poured drinks all around. That was Nelson Carey. Any other bar owner would have popped the cork and left it at that."

Mr. Carey was an accomplished woodworker and tool collector. He was known as the "Mr. Fix-It of Belvedere Square," who helped neighbors when their equipment broke down.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Monday at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, 5603 N. Charles St.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Carey is survived by his daughter, Paige A. Carey, a senior at Roland Park Country School.