HWI Does the Underbelly of Houston’s Wine Scene


So it’s early afternoon on a cloudy, humid day here in Houston and your consumer proponent is working up the energy to make the drive to 2410 Smith Street.  It’s been a leisurely day so far, the usual errands complete, consisting of Little M’s school run, a few paragraphs typed for articles due to my editor…; you know the kind of stuff that takes but a couple of hours.  I’ve been reminded via e*mail of my lack of recent posts to this blog – even my Mother has noticed my 1 day hiatus – and having the time now that the morning’s chores are complete, I’ve now decided that the HWI needs to swing back to action.

OK, I decide, enough of the down time, you have a job to do.  I hop in the ol’ SUV and it’s down Richmond for the HWI.  My stomach tells me that I forgot lunch, however, and seeing as it’s only just now a bit after 2, I make a pit stop at one of my favorite places in town: Maria Selma.  I remember being first introduced to this groovy little Mexican restaurant by the now departed Sous Chef at Cafe Annie (can this town keep ANYONE?).  He told everyone of the fantastic, hand made appetizers here at Maria Selma, including my long-favorite: the stuffed avocado.  Ordering this freshly made concoction and some duck flautas, easily washed down with a couple of smooth Margaritas and that super-savory salsa and hand cut chips was a fantastic way to put me in much better spirits for the trek to the dark side.

After finishing every single bite of that mouthwatering, palate and belly pleasing appetizer combo, I jumped back in the truck and headed back into the wilderness.   My report today would cover the (cough) institution known as Spec’s.  I’m not certain what exactly to call the monstrosity located in downtown Houston on Smith Street, as the company has taken to naming each of their stores by various and assorted names, all versions of the same name, but with intentional changes added so as to appear, on some levels at least, to be operating within the laws as per the State of Texas. 

To explain, the State of Texas allows only 5 liquor licenses per individual or family.  There are a few mom & pop liquor chains in town who fully adhere to these laws: Avalon being one of them.  But to skirt these laws, in the Rydman’s quest for total liquor domination in the State, they appear to have established multiple corporations, each with various holdings and owners, each with a slight twist to the names of the companies, yet each seemingly directed to the same checking account.  This arrangement, according to more than one official I’ve spoken with at not only the Texas Alcohol Beverage Commission but also two separate licensing companies, is quite the set-up, and makes for an interesting enforcement issue for the State’s agency.  And the multiple corporations, with various owners and twisted names is only one of the many issues the Spec’s legal team works with on a daily basis. 

There’s also the issue working its way through the courts currently of a Spec’s location being opened too close to a public school. (I intended to link you to the original article from a couple of Sundays back, but the Chronicle no longer has it on line. Replacing it, curiously, with a more pro-Spec’s version.) As if nearly 5 dozen locations weren’t enough to satisfy the bottom line, these guys took to pushing a permit through the system that now has been revoked by the State.  How easy it would be to simply turn the permit back, admit the mistake and move on as a community favor.  Nope, not this powerhouse.  They’re fighting it every inch of the way.  Additionally, the State has firmly made their position public that the charging of a premium for the use of a credit card is not allowed.  What do you call giving a discount for cash if NOT charging a premium for credit cards?  Interestingly, my receipt today reads “Congratulations! You Save 5% By Paying With Cash”.  I paid with a Discover card, asking the clerk, intentionally, if they accepted Discover.  Perhaps everyone is receiving that magic discount. I know I did.

All of these legal issues aside, let’s discuss the place itself.  This is the mothership, as Spec’s website self-proclaims.  This 80,000 square foot piece of real estate is also a place that the Houston Press has called a mecca, awarding it more “best-of” awards than can be reasonably explained or ignored.  And let’s not forget, this is also THE go-to place for this city’s largest newspaper, the Chronicle.  Weekly, that paper turns to this small-city-sized location for advice or the pricing of the wines that the Chronicle is touting to its readers.  Something MUST be up, right?  OK, I’m game….

The parking lot was packed, even at only 3 in the afternoon on a Thursday afternoon.  Just as I had heard from my female friends in the business, the meat market was in full effect as I approached the front door: two different male salespeople were exchanging cards with female customers, one having just finished a full on make out session.  Both of the males were dressed in their Spec’s polo T-shirts, and the “ladies” were toting bags full of items proudly displaying the Spec’s bunny.  It was a lovely scene for a singles’ bar, not quite so appealing to a serious wine buyer.  Oh well, it’s just the front entrance I thought, let’s let it slide….

Here’s another item I simply can not fathom: in Texas, you can NOT buy liquor in a grocery store, period, end of story, that’s the law.  But here we are at 2410 Smith Street, a full-on grocery store: milk, juice, fruit department, vegetables, candy, chocolate, fish, cheese (I found 8 that were past their expiration date!), frozen foods, kids foods, gourmet sauces, nuts, aspirin, just about anything you could want from a convenient grocery store – AND LIQUOR!  So let me get this straight: you can’t buy liquor in a grocery store, but you can buy groceries in a liquor store (IF it’s Spec’s?): that’s just perfect!

OK, OK, I know, I’m here for the wine.  Now we’re going to have some fun.  Imagine for the rest of this article you don’t know me – just as the folks who allowed me to walk around for nearly 45 minutes in this place acted.  Even with bottles in my hands, selected from the shelves, no one, with what appeared to be at least 8 “salespeople” on the floor, ever offered assistance.  That packed parking lot?  Most of those folks were in the grocery store part of the store.  The wine department, with televisions and radio stations annoyingly playing at the same time at levels far too loud to be background entertainment or soothing, was more a place for salespeople to gossip about the “MILF in the Chardonnay aisle”, than a place for serious wine buyers to be tended to.  The conversations I heard (not over-heard, as these guys have zero filters in place) would make most women walk straight out of the place.

Returning to the wines now, let’s just say that, as a serious wine consumer, this place left me outrageously under-impressed.  I’ve personally spoken with literally dozens of serious wine buyers over the past decade who have decried the deplorable storage conditions and high prices at Spec’s.  I’ll address the storage issues first, and cap ’em off with a big fat exclamation point with notes on one of the bottles resting next to me.  The temperature of the wines begins with the temperature of the facility.

I do not care that these guys took to “renovating” a few years back, adding what they call a refrigerated room for the storage of their wines.  Ask yourselves this, dear readers.  Where had the wines been before that room came to be?  And how long do the wines sit DOWNSTAIRS, in the place where you and I see them?  I took a small hygrometer with me on this day.  It was 80 outside.  After 45 minutes inside Spec’s, my hygrometer read 76.  It stands to reason that if the room temperature is only 4 degrees lower on a day like today, these same wines are baking in the Houston summer heat.  And as Paul Roberts, formerly of Cafe Annie told us, anything above the mid 70s kills a wine.

I walked the aisle that would probably be shopped more by folks less enthused by the stuff that I personally consume first.  Just as I had heard, there it was.  A salesperson was guiding two mid to late twenty year olds down the value wines, making his suggestions.  He had his hand firmly on the front of their buggy and as he grabbed a bottle, stating how much he personally loved it, he simply laid it in their basket.  I walked on, made another round through the “grocery store” and returned.  Yep, you guessed it, same salesperson in the Spec’s polo, a new young couple, the same selections being tossed in their basket in the same manner.  And when they exited, the same 6 bottles in their cart, he took a folded piece of paper from his pocket and made marks to it.  Is he tallying bottles for his commission? 

Returning to the aisle from which these two bottles resting next to me came from, I’m now back in Pinot Noir land.  Forget the Loire Valley section.  If you blink, you’ll miss it.  And one more item I’d like to add before I discuss these wines is this overwhelming amount of wine on these shelves from an importer called Stacole.  You fine folks probably have never done as much homework as I, but that’s my job.  I know Stacole’s reputation, and I would never personally feel comfortable buying a wine from that outfit without quite a bit of due diligence.  This is not an article about Stacole, so I’ll only say that one Google search containing “stacole and reefers” will result in pages and pages of interesting reading (reefers is the pet name for the refrigerated containers so vital to a wine’s safe voyage).  And most of the wine shelved here at Spec’s, bearing the Stacole back label is actually registered to other importers – importers, I guess, that Spec’s simply doesn’t like.  By the way, that’s called grey marketing….

Now, finally, the Pinot aisle.  Row upon row, half of it standing, of the most improperly stored, label-stained bottles greeted my eyes as I walked this section for nearly a full 25 minutes of my 45 minute visit.  Every commercial, insipid brand was there on full display – quite typical for a grocery store.  But there were some gems as well, neatly stored at today’s temperature of nearly 80 degrees.  I found myself wishing I had brought some of Little M’s wipes, for I handled far too many seeping bottles for any man’s pleasure – serious buyer or beginning drinker.  As with the Champagne section, extremely expensive bottles, those approaching $300 were also on display, some under lock and key, also suffering in the heat.  I had heard of these horrors, now I’d witnessed with my own eyes.  I wondered if Rosenthal had ever stepped foot in this place….

Today’s first wine was a 1999 Rene Engel Clos Vougeot Grand Cru.  I know how variable Clos Vougeot can be, ranging from truly stellar to absolutely vapid, but I’m a Burgundy man, having been in the game for decades and having been to the vineyards many, many times, so this wine, in a proper environment, should be at its prime.  Many consider the Engel Clos Vougeot among their top 5 in the commune and I’ve personally had many a great bottle from this producer in the vintages of the 1990s. In fact, Burghound tells us this particular wine offers:

“Dense, ripe, black fruit, ripe dusty tannins and big flavors of earth and spice and a driving, persistent finish. This is still somewhat monolithic and tight and will need 8 to 10 years to fully express itself. Austere, balance and long with all the elements in place to evolve positively. Drink 2009 – 2015”

— Burghound, 2002

The first sign things would go wrong here was when the cork snapped right in half as I extracted it using a professional grade corkscrew.  Heaven help the consumer who drops $103.31 on this bottle only to get it home, pull out a regular corkscrew from the silverware drawer and watch this cork disintegrate.  Reaching for the trusty Screwpull, the one I keep on hand for my 35 year old bottles, I extracted the final half of the cork and poured a big helping in my Burgundy Riedel glass.  My nose was not amused, but patience was mine….

As wine ages, it naturally takes on a slight brick-red color.  But this wine?  It’s flat out brown.  Wondering if some of the 1999s in my personal collection could possibly show a similar color, I reached into my 58 degree wine cellar for a Grand Cru from Magnien.  Nope, color still a nice ruby on that one.  Could it be?  Could we have a heat damaged wine on our hands?  Could my nearly $104 investment in a wine that Burghound scored as “Outstanding” be a total sink rinser?  Patience, young Jedi, let’s not be too hasty.

Aromas of pronounced wood smoke greet the nose, that’s for certain.  Along with that, there is a vegetative, green been, asparagus, stewed vegetable aroma, strikingly contrary to the words expressed by Burghound.  Are we dealing with the bottom of a second rate barrel?  I’ve heard copious rumors to that effect as well when dealing with this back label, from the distributors themselves.  On the palate, this wine is dead: D.E.A.D.  Vapid, devoid of fruit, a skeleton of acid and wood dust, absolutely disgusting.  If the youngish Philippe were still with us today, and had this wine before him, he would most certainly be shocked.

Next up: 2006 Pali Wine Co. Shea Vineyard Pinot Noir.  This was a great vintage for Willamette Valley, and this selection is from the vineyard (Shea) that anyone with a passing fancy knows as one of America’s “Grand Crus”.  This one hasn’t been on the market nearly as long as the prior bottle, so the color here is more what one hopes for: a nice little ruby purple.  And as I swirl this wonderful fruit bomb in a totally fresh Riedel Pinot glass, the aromas burst from the bowl.

This little gem lives up to the hype!  Baskets full of the most succulent and juicy red berry fruits just scream from the glass.  The palate is soft, caressing and feminine and the finish makes me say “Yum”.  For this taster, this is a total winner.  And who could deny it?  Loring himself worked with this group on the 2006s.  Giving that, I’d be inclined to buy a case untested!  But wait, how much did I spend?!

With my “Discount For Cash”, although I used my Discover Card, I paid $41.60 (not bad).  But I easily found the wine at one location for $38 and another for a really impressive $35.  Factor in the shipping costs of about $2 and you still come out ahead by buying this wine elsewhere.  Two items to note:  The 2007 California vintage yielded what is widely considered Pali’s (and most Pinot producer’s) greatest vintage to date.  And, secondly, the prices for Pali’s 2007s will be at, OR LOWER THAN, the 2006s.  Moral: wait for the 2007s, and use your trusty winesearcher.com.

Well, that about sums things up for this edition of Houston Wine Idealist.  Stay tuned for more fun as I tackle the “Largest Retailer of Wine in This Country” real soon.

Until then, I remain:

Dedicated to the discovery and enjoyment of the world’s greatest wines.

All the best in wine and life,

Christopher Massie

Diplome D’Honneur de Sommelier

Houston Wine Idealist