HWI Does the Underbelly of Houston’s Wine Scene

 specsii

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

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Size Matters – The Death of Relationship Marketing in the Wine Business

Saturday the 21st of February of 2009 started off as, and held all the promise of continuing on as, one of the more promising days in the history of my now 10 year old wine shop.  I had been invited to speak on a live radio program, a radio program with a listenership and recent ratings rivaled by few in its genre and time slot as of late, so, naturally, I was stoked.  “Finally”, I thought, “a chance to tell the ‘every-man’s’ story”

My hostess for the day, as jovial and engaging as her former guests that I shared a friendship with had described her, coaxed her listeners into partaking of the day’s call-in portion of the show.  She described the day’s prizes, gift cards from hip local eateries, with such gusto that the phone lines immediately began to light up.  As she acknowledged the Christmas tree effect of the phone bank before her to the listening public, she took matters one step further.  With added fervor, she began to describe the day’s Grand Prize, the Roll’s Royce of saucepans, as she precisely described this piece of culinary perfection, and with that she unveiled the day’s questions.  The phone lines were packed!

One by one, as my hostess for the day took answers from eager callers, callers burdened with only one task before they retrieved their precious gift of the day, these unprovoked callers, as if former lovers forgotten in time, lovingly spoke of my wine shop as their destination of choice for their wine purchases.  My hostess, with eyebrows raised, was both shocked and seemingly impressed.  These responses from her callers had in no way been coerced. These callers, speaking on their cell phones or from home, hoping to win a dinner or sauce pan were innocently plugging MY wine shop.  I was proud, I was actually more stunned than my hostess.  Throughout the rest of the show, even through the full five or more minutes she allowed me to speak without interruption towards the end of her program, those words from those initial callers gave me more hope for the future than any I have encountered over the past 10 years.  I was as giddy as a lad at Christmas.

That buoyancy carried my right out into the pouring rain.  I looked right up into the downpour, fully dressed for work, and with outstretched hands, resembling some campy movie-set scene; I very nearly wept.  Could this be my moment in this decade-long uphill battle against Goliath? Could this be the ripple in the lake that becomes the tide to sway?  Could this be the moment I’ve waited for since I so innocently set out to save the world from corrupt commercialism?  Could this be?

I arrived to work, disheveled and soaked, but pumped and ready for the day.  After settling in and making a fresh pot of coffee, I set about performing my favorite task of the day: writing about wine.  I decided to write about one of my old favorites, Domaine Maume on that Saturday.  Maume has long-been one of my favorites, going back as far as I’ve been legal to drink wine.  I drank the Father’s version and today I drink the son’s.  It seemed fitting to author my thoughts on Maume on that particular Saturday, as I have hopes of one day turning over a successful wine business to MY offspring.  And just as the offspring at Maume has lovingly out-shined the Father, I sincerely hope my daughter will too completely outshine dear ol’ Dad – IF she so selects to carry on the torch.

Before I introduce the “Brit”, I’d like to talk a moment about the meaning of relationships in the wine business, or at least the meaning of relationships as they ONCE applied to my line of work.  I began in the wine business, not so long ago it seems, but truly in another world and time compared to today, when allocations and a wine-maker’s finest and most-prized releases were destined for the hands of the people who proved commitments over many years.  Today’s old timers – people like Wasserman, Weygandt, Dressner and the like – continue to perform, well, as we old timers always have.  Importers who represent the finest Burgundy estates, or any other of the world’s finest estates, also including Rosenthal, are set in their ways.  Once a merchant establishes a pattern of supporting every vintage, the sublime AND not so critically acclaimed, that merchant is in line for the best the importer has to offer.

Some in the world of wine have attempted to circumvent this brotherhood.  These vultures are known as grey-marketers.  They arrive in un-air-conditioned Renaults to the finest Burgundy or Rhone estates, wine magazines in the glove box, misrepresenting themselves as Michelin-rated restaurant wine list buyers.  Once a few cases are secured and loaded into the trunk, it’s off to a steel shed in Beaune, also un-air-conditioned to await a large enough collection of these fine samples for a boat to America.  Months, or perhaps years later, these grey-marketed wines, shipped, stored and handled with ZERO thoughts of provenance or temperature control, arrive to pre-determined shops, primarily on the West Coast.  From there, these wines end up in the wine cellars of folks all across America. 

These grey-marketers were the first evidence of the death of relationship marketing in the wine business.  The importers I’ve mentioned above, and many others, spent their lives ferreting about the back roads of France and Italy to discover, face-to-face, the world’s artisanal wine-maker’s.  With passionate prose and the cost of thousands of samples nearly breaking their bank accounts, these importers flew coast to coast, showing their discoveries to like-minded folks with boutique wine shops and fine dining establishments.  The big discount liquor stores and giant discount wine chains couldn’t be bothered, though.  “It’s not a national brand, get out.”

If all of this sounds as if your author speaks from first hand knowledge, that is because I do.  As an importer of one wine in particular, I was determined to make my voice heard.  I followed the advice of my import brethren at that time and submitted the wine for sampling to two major wine publications.  The scores came out and my humble farming couple, who spoke not 1 word of English, had suddenly received 93 points!  I sold every bottle.  And you guessed it, a couple of years later, in a large wine shop I had never visited, my precious farming couple’s labels were right there for me to witness; under someone else’s import strip!

Today, for the initiated wine buyer, for those wishing to avoid heat damaged highly-rated wines from the best importers, there is a solution.  The best importers have implemented a numerical inventory system; a system for tracking the wine’s voyage.  Folks who purchase wine simply based on a review do have some security. Now this purchasing simply based on a review is something I am strongly against, as the history and the relationship with the winery are far more important than a numerical score.  However, the goal here is to protect those who have spent time building relationships, so I’ll save that speech for another day.

The registered importers for these highly sought after producers will have their own import strip on the back of every bottle, that part should be obvious.  When you read these glowing reviews from whomever, pay close attention to the designated importer.  If your reviewer is not designating the importer, my position is that your reviewer is not concerned with the relationship the importer has with his clients nor the winery.  Once you know the registered importer, you know full well the 1 person saddled with the responsibility of shipping the wine properly.  If you buy a single bottle of wine without the proper import strip, you get what you deserve. 

These registered importers also now include on the front label a tracking number; that’s the inventory system I made mention of a moment ago.  When Weygandt walks into my shop, he can pick up a bottle of Clos Saint Jean Cuvee Deus Ex Machina and know, with absolute certainty, that it is the genuine article and in pristine condition.  If you bought this wine from a giant package store, without Weygandt’s back strip and inventory tracking number, you get what you deserve.

Returning to the “Brit” now, I was having a grand day; the radio show had gone swimmingly, folks were picking up cases of wine, the rain had passed and the sun was beginning to shine.  From across the shop, all 1,500 square feet of it, stocked with names to include the best from Wasserman, Weygandt, Ideal, Corso, Rosenthal, Kermit Lynch – you get the picture – I’m approached by a 5 foot 7 inch tall man with a decidedly British accent.  Missing a finger on his right hand, but with a full smile, without hesitation he blurts out, with complete disgust in his voice “Man, you really have a small selection and a small store here.”  It was as if I had been hit in the gut by a heavy weight boxer.

From the moment I entered this city, Houston, I have set about to preach the importance of building relationships in the wine business.  You’ll never find the vast majority of my selections offered for sale on the shelves of an 80,000 square foot liquor store.  Why?  Because the importers remember.  They remember how they’ve been treated by the buyers at these places.  They remember how these same types of places in other markets treat them.  They remember how these same stores will turn to grey-marketers once the wines (wines these same buyers shunned as not being national brands) hit the pages of major wine magazines. 

But most of all, the importers and their representatives remember that the little shop now back in the Village HAS supported their brands for a decade now.  They know that the little shop in the Village, with its (sadly) ever dwindling list of clients, still believes in the relationship.  The little wine shop in the Village – the ONLY ONE OF ITS KIND IN THE ENTIRE CITY – still holds out hope for the return to relationship marketing in the wine business.

The “Brit” left empty handed that day, no bottles of Maume, Perrot Minot, Lamy, Rossignol, Deus Ex, Combe des Fous or anything else in his hands.  No relationship was built on that day.  He asked directions to Costco, however.  And with saddened heart, but resolve, I offered directions to not only that establishment, but to the 80,000 square foot Goliath as well. 

And then I closed early for the day and went home to play with my daughter…

All the best in wine and life,

Christopher Massie
Diplome D’Honneur de Sommelier
713-524-9144
2439 Times BLVD
Houston, TX 77005