Tasting the Deep Notes with Small Town Sommelier Inez Ribustello

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Photo by Carly Mask

The bell on the door of Alimentaire Bakery greeted me, while the smell of warm pastries and fresh bread enveloped my senses. Inez Ribustello stood with bakery owners, Steve and Franca Gilbert. They all turned to greet me and each embraced me with a hug. Since my first visit to Tarboro, North Carolina, the people in this small, southern town have always made me feel as though I was walking in on a red carpet. There was something magical about Inez and Tarboro that kept drawing me back. And while friends didn’t understand my affinity for a town that had one brewery, a few restaurants, and a bakery, I was busy searching for and finding potential in the unseen. I wanted to know more about Inez and why she chose to move back to Tarboro, population roughly 11,000. 

Imagine growing up in an idyllic small town where early twentieth-century shop buildings, including a tiny movie theater, dotted the town’s main street with active tenants. “I always thought that Tarboro was a thriving community. There was always a lot of good energy,” Inez said. “I absolutely loved my childhood experience.” In 1894, Inez’s great-grandfather G.A. Holderness founded what would be known as Carolina Telephone and Telegraph Company (CT&T). Along with textiles, CT&T supported life in this small Eastern North Carolina town. But just like most people and industry in small towns, Inez, CT&T, and textiles packed up and left: Inez for UNC-Chapel Hill, CT&T for Wake Forest, NC, and textiles for international territory. 

While at UNC-Chapel Hill, Inez was far-removed from Tarboro’s transformation. She was busy setting her sights on a career in journalism. She landed an internship with the United States Information Agency and their South American network in Washington D.C. A distant cousin agreed to let Inez live with her as long as Inez cooked for the family. “She gave me the Joy of Cooking cookbook and a budget to grocery shop,” Inez said fondly. “I cooked all summer and I absolutely loved it!” 

And just like that, she pivoted away from journalism. 

Inez reluctantly returned to Chapel Hill after spending a summer of building her cooking chops. “I told my dad that I wanted to drop out and go to culinary school,” she recalled, “and he said I would absolutely finish my time at Carolina and could get an internship at a professional kitchen when I graduated.” She took her dad’s advice, interning with a chef in Tarboro’s fanciest restaurant at the time and enrolling in Peter Kump’s Institute of Culinary Education in New York City. Inez packed her bags and left to pursue an opportunity that only a big city could offer, not knowing that NYC would have drastically different plans for her. 

Attending culinary school, interning in an NYC kitchen, and working at a wine store, Inez was living the twenty-something-year-old dream. “I realized I really liked working with wine after culinary school i.e., I liked to drink,” she said with a chuckle. Every Wednesday, she would read the Dining Out section of the New York Times. “They had just published a piece about Andrea Emmer, who was the beverage director of Windows on the World,” recalled Inez. “She had just completed her Master Sommelier certification and was one of the only females at the time to do so.” At that point in time, Inez did the only thing she knew to do. She picked up the phone and boldly called Emmer. Emmer answered. 

Again, Inez pivoted.

 “I told her I wanted to work in wine. She told me not to quit my day job but to fax my resume.” A few weeks later, Emmer called Inez to ask if she was interested in applying for a hostess job. It wasn’t exactly what Inez wanted. She hesitated. “Get your ass up there, interview, and take whatever they give you,” her dad said when she called for his advice. 

Inez went for the interview and they offered her an assistant cellar master position. From there she worked her way up to the position of beverage director for all restaurants under the Windows on the World restaurant group. “I was slinging wine all over the Trade Centers,” she said. “I wasn’t a great student at UNC, but here I was kicking ass,” she said. During our conversation, I wasn’t tracking her timeline by year, until Inez’s voice dramatically changed. 

The year was 2001. “Everything was good and then I came home for my sister’s wedding on September 8 and decided to stay a couple more days,” Inez said in a somber tone. “My mom woke me up on September 11, telling me that the World Trade Center had been hit.” Upon hearing this, I scooted to the edge of my seat. “I went to watch it on television thinking, wow this is going to be such a mess to clean up,” she said. “Then I watched the second plane hit. It was just surreal.” 

This time, she had no choice but to pivot. 

Inez and her fiancé, now husband, Steven Ribustello didn’t stay long in NYC after the attacks. Both had received their sommelier certifications, so they decided to move to France for the grape harvest season. “At some point while we were there, we called my dad from a payphone to check in and he said he bought a restaurant,” Inez said. “We laughed and he said, ‘No, y’all start the day you get back.’” Inez’s husband called Tarboro a culinary wasteland. In normal fashion, her dad said, “If you build it, they will come.” So, the Ribustellos packed their bags and reluctantly made their way back to Tarboro where On The Square restaurant was waiting for them. 

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Photo by Carly Mask

They went all in, changing On The Square’s menu and converting the smoking section into a temperature-controlled wine store. Barely making a salary, Inez and Steven lived above Inez’s dad’s gift shop. Just as fate would have it, a month before they were married, Inez was offered a beverage director position in New Jersey. “If we want this restaurant to work, we’re going to have to have another form of income and it’s not going to be an income from Eastern NC,” Steven said in an effort to encourage her to take the job. She did, and they spent the first year and a half of their marriage in different cities. 

At this point, Inez knew how to pivot and pivot with grace.

Being pregnant with their first child, Inez moved back to Tarboro. She and husband Steven were now sole owners of On the Square, so she began to focus on getting her Master Sommelier certification.  “I failed the test five times,” Inez recounted, “and finally one of the Master Sommeliers said that I would probably never pass unless I was living in a big city, surrounded by other Master Sommeliers.” Although it was great advice, that advice wasn’t what changed Inez’s perspective on wine or about taking the test for the sixth time.

“I had become heavily invested in Edgecombe County Schools and Tarboro,” she said. “I felt a little grossed out because there are people in my community who can’t afford to pay their electric bill and I’m tasting a bottle of wine that could do that. My heart changed.” Inez started thinking about her hometown and how she could use her talents to impact her community. Seeing what breweries had done for Farmville, NC and Kinston, NC, Tarboro’s Eastern NC neighbors, Inez started to think. “They say a brewery and a bakery are two things that really integrate a neighborhood,” she said. So, she created a business plan, raised money, found a head brewer, and opened Tarboro Brewing Company in 2016. 

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Photo by Carly Mask

As Inez detailed the process of opening the brewery, I sat in awe of how she pivoted with all of the wild bends in her road. She and her husband both had budding careers in NYC and France, even after 9/11, but they took a chance on a town that had more empty than occupied buildings. Inez saw a need and a challenge and graciously accepted. “Tarboro has so many great people, opportunities. I’ve been completely blessed to be in an area where you can actually see things happen for the greater good,” she said. “My number one hope is that every single person here can make a living that will support them and allow their children to have everything they need,” she said with conviction. 

When I turned on to HWY 64 to head back to Raleigh, I left with a deeper appreciation and love for Tarboro and I wanted to share it with anyone who would listen. The town has a long way to go as far as attracting millennials and small businesses however; all it needs is a few creative people to see the potential that Inez saw after she took that last sip of expensive wine. Sometimes it’s more fun to be part of something from the ground up, to risk making something beautiful for others to enjoy. Like Inez’s dad said, “If you build it, they will come.” And, I can’t wait for the day when Tarboro becomes the small town that everyone talks about. Until then, I will gladly walk down the red carpet that the community rolls out for everyone who visits.

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