Houston Wine Idealist Week II

As a consumer in this nation’s 4th largest city, I now find myself in a very different position than the one I held over the past decade.  From 1999 until very recently, I was a merchant of fine wine, offering the city’s inhabitants wines that could best be described as exclusive, esoteric selections from a man with a decidedly passionate palate.  I’ve been in the wine business since 1984, as a retailer under another’s coat-tails, as a restaurateur, an importer, a wine-maker while I trained for my diploma in Burgundy and finally as an independent business owner. 

Through these more than two decades, I’ve spent my days tasting up to 10 wines, 5 to 6 days per week, accumulating what could most likely be described as millions of tasting notes.  Sometime many years ago, when my brain absorbed the intricacies of computers, I turned to collecting my thoughts on wine through the keyboard, having penned my thoughts to paper over the years preceding.  All that to say, I have a lot of experience tasting, evaluating, judging and commenting on wine; there are filing cabinets, dead trees and now hard drives packed with data to substantiate my claims.

Before I decided on retail as a professional goal, I first found my way in the restaurant business.  My very first position was one as a back waiter, working with a fantastic man of wine at a “5-star” (using the Dallas Morning New’s Rating System at the time) establishment called The Riviera.  That man introduced me to professional wine critics and the theory of scoring wine, and my now 25 year old history with Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate was born. 

That introduction lead to my eventual subscription to the Wine Advocate, one that began with issue 62 way back in 1989.  That first issue arrived to my tiny apartment in Arlington, a suburb of Dallas, and it was barely 40 pages.  Now to most, indeed to me, as I contemplate the launching of my own consumer mag, 40 pages sounds like quite an accomplishment.  But if you could see this issue 62 sitting here in my library, alongside every single subsequent issue up to the current release (I throw nothing out) you’d realize something: Parker has changed.

Issue 62 was very different from today’s Wine Advocate.  It was tiny, by comparison, for one thing – and as mentioned, I say that with due respect.  But the most glaring difference are the words, the descriptions themselves.  I’ve followed Parker for more than 25 years.  And I can personally tell you that his palate and his reviews of wines have most certainly changed.  This letter is not designed to lay out a specific wine to wine comparison, that debate plays itself out over the pages and decades of the Advocate.  Suffice to say that wines carrying the monikers of elegant, refined, feminine, etc, found far less play in the pages of Wine Advocate as my subscription carried me through the years. 

The types of wines I gravitate towards, indeed the wines that comprise nearly all of my collection, fall squarely in the “refined” category.  I’ve taken my palate through the vinous alphabet, if you will, and I’ve landed where I have for many reasons.  And I’ve found over this past decade in particular, that when I have ample opportunity to expose the willing palates around me to multiple wines over multiple tastings, very often it is these more subtle wines that win the day.  But it takes time, patience and a willingness to explore and engage the wines; tasting and spitting 90 wines a day will not allow one’s palate to appreciate the subtle side of life.

So now that I’m a consumer, where do I turn for my wines?  This is a question that has been asked not only in MY house, but also in the houses of many folks who have e*mailed me with the same inquiry.  The wine industry as a whole, indeed Houston in particular, remains fascinated with the wines designed to capture one’s attention as a taster is making their way through a large collection of wines in a taste and spit mode so as to review some 1,000 wines per month; big, fat, soupy, high alcohol wines, “show-me” wines in other words, are the ones that garner the praise.  Subtle wines, wines with terroir, wines that work best at the table, WITH food, simply find themselves left out, buried under a sea of cassis and milk chocolate.

Where do we turn?  Judging by the nearly 60 locations, with a shop on every corner, it would appear that the obvious answer for Houston wine buyers would be the company known as Spec’s.  Reading in this month’s My Table Magazine however, as a consumer, I find cause for serious doubt:

“The drawback at Spec’s with the cheeses, as with the discounted wines and some other packaged items, is that the product is sometimes — too often, in my opinion — past prime.  Be sure to check the expiration dates before purchase.”

          — Mike Riccetti, My Table Magazine Issue 90 April / May 2009

Problem is, wine has no expiration date; you only know it’s bad if a professional taster, with experience, explains to you what has happened.  So, if Spec’s is not the answer, where do we turn fellow consumers?

That is precisely why I am launching this program.  Will this program ever become a magazine?  Will this program ever even be consumed?  That’s up to the good people of Houston, TX.  But one thing is certain, I’m launching it.  One week ago, I scratched the surface as I stepped foot into the wine-bar scene.  Now, it’s GO TIME.

I call this thing: Houston Wine Idealist.

The goal is as my goal has been from the dawn of my career:

“Dedicated to the discovery and enjoyment of the World’s Finest Wines.”

I’ll be working through these pages to help my readers locate great wines, at the very best possible prices on the Planet, while searching for Houston’s best wine-bars and wine-related “joints”.

Sounds simple, right?  I promise you, heads will roll (probably mine, first), and names will be named.  But my goal is one as a consumer.  I’m on THIS side now, and I’m not going to take this laying down.

I invite you to join me, and let’s see where this vinous journey takes us.