One of the finest aspects of this country’s fourth largest city, this city known as Houston Texas, is its inhabitants’ eager ability to embrace new and exciting trends. “Feast”, that funky, fantastic creation by the eclectic, tattooed English duo of Knight and Silk, where diners will be just as shocked as overjoyed by the culinary ingenuity, has become an almost instant hit for we adventurous types. And then there is “Beaver’s”, a place that entered this world as a self-described “ice-house” that now turns out such culinary shockers as Spam-based dishes on a Sunday brunch menu. You read that right: Spam (the other canned meat): smoked, served with fried eggs and available with a side of one of the most freakishly wonderful Bloody Mary’s you’ll EVER try to down. And the response from those of us in the know: “Keep it comin’ Monica & Co., we’re all in!”.
So it should come as no surprise really that I fully anticipate, and rightly expect in fact, the good folks of this adventurous city to wrap their arms around this latest discovery of mine. With more than 25 years experience in the fine wine business, I now find myself covering the wine world from a very different perspective. Looking at the wine business as a consumer’s proponent, self-charged with the goal of ferreting out this City’s most unique and consumer oriented wine establishments, I take to the streets on a daily basis to visit the unheard-of and the multi-unit chains alike. This recent discovery of mine, while established for a couple of years now, falls squarely in the consumer’s best friend camp.
The place is called French Country Wines (2433 Bartlett / 713-993-9500 http://www.frenchcountrywines.com/index.jsp) and if you blink as you drive down Bartlett, just a couple blocks off of Kirby drive, you’ll pass right by. In fact, if you don’t know that Bartlett is the street between South and North Blvd, you’ll hit I-59 and never know you’ve missed it completely, just as I did on the first Saturday I stopped by. “Look for the blooming bougainvilleas out front and that’s our building…”, was the best description of the front entrance I received over the phone the day I called for directions.
Now if you’re expecting a typical store front, or even an electric sign that might be visible at night, you need to prepare yourself. First off, this is not a retail shop – this place, owned by a very sharp, very forward thinking, very savvy Investment Banker / Attorney / Retired Francophile by the name of Thomas Smith – is a winery. To explain: Mr. Smith established himself as a winery to allow him to work directly with wine-makers in his favorite regions of France. Through his work, he brings these gems – most of them organically produced and / or biodynamic that I’ve tasted – right to the consumer here in Houston, direct from the estates of the very people who bottle the wines in the first place.
The shop itself defies all previous descriptions you have in your mind as to a retail shop, too. There are no wine racks, no visible inventory upon entering and no cash registers or employees. Until Mr. Smith escorts you to the properly cooled warehouse, to the far end of the facility, you’d have no idea there was any wine here at all. But once you enter this 55 degree room, now you know the story.
Here Mr. Smith stores up to hundreds of cases of wine on warehouse styled wire racks at cellar temperature until orders come in from local restaurants or private clients. Mr. Smith also hosts in-shop tastings from time to time for his private list of clients, and these cases will serve to satisfy the orders he hopes to receive at the close of those events as well.
But what most excites me, as a man of wine from more than two decades past, is not only Mr. Smith’s fantastic selections, but his absolutely untouchable prices. Many folks in the game of acquiring unique wines (not just expensive wines mind you, for Mr. Smith has a lot of great stuff under $20, too) spend their time with a free service called http://www.wine-searcher.com. This free on-line service brings to light the misconception that places such as Spec’s, for example, offer the best prices for wine. By using this same service, I was able to confirm that Mr. Smith not only offers the best prices on his wines for the Houston shoppers, but his prices are simply the very best in the entire country!
One of my very favorites, a wine Mr. Smith personally placed in my hand after getting to know me, was the 2007 Domaine Rouge-Bleu Cotes du Rhone Cuvee Mistral. A fantastic, 400 year old, recently converted to organics farm, this Domaine boasts vines of more than 70 years in age. The color and the aromatics of this wine more closely resemble the triple digit beauties from Chateauneuf superstars I’ve consumed over the years and the flavors on the palate truly justify the lofty praise from wine critics world-wide. One taste and most any wine lover would part with a couple of twenty dollar bills. But Mr. Smith sells this extravagant beauty for a mere $16!
As Houston’s open-minded, adventurous inhabitants continue to soak up the hot trends in food that promise to keep this town talked about in the papers from coast to coast, I for one (as a serious wine lover) truly pray that these same folks embrace this cutting edge retailer I’ve discovered off of Kirby Drive. His style, his wines and the shop itself are like none other this great city has ever encountered. And that’s exactly the sort of place we so desperately need to keep the cool and hip focused on hanging in there with us all.
All the best in wine and life,
Diplome D’Honneur de Sommelier
Houston Wine Idealist