Acknowledging the Nudges, Remembering Life’s Little Tales

Sunrise

I’ve been witnessing from my computer seat quite a bit of fury these past few days.  Along with that, I’ve left my mind completely open to every possible opportunity that presents itself before me.  The scenarios playing out are working both sides of my brain, rendering me both exhausted and yet somehow enthused.  And I’m hearing voices, as they almost scream some of life’s most basic lessons: “It’s hard to see the forest for the trees”; “Don’t wallow in the mire”; “People love a good train wreck”….

That last sentiment in particular is spinning virtually out of control in my mind as I view the blog world today.  That basic life moral also applies quite appropriately to many of the current situations I and my family face during these days, reported on through these blogs pages.  I had originally launched this blog at the beginning of 2009, after nearly a decade of composing letters to my customers, as a way of spreading the vinous news.  As a retailer of fine wine, with a passion for writing, offering literally a dozen new offers per week or more, presenting my thoughts via the blog-o-sphere seemed like the next logical step.

Taking that leap into the unknown opened my eyes to a world as of yet never imagined.  The world of blogging, in particular the world of wine blogging, is quite similar to a Houston or Los Angeles freeway at rush-hour.  For those of you experienced with that visual, you get the picture, for the uninitiated, imagine viewing millions of cars attempting travel on a road built for a few thousand.  As I began to explore the ocean of wine blogs out there, I wanted to find a bar and have a drink until rush hour subsided.

But I drove right on in, never deterred, never fearing.  This was going to be the year of my discovering, I was convinced.  Now, with nearly 70 blog posts this year alone (I told you I was passionate about writing), I have discovered some things.  Recent occurrences have me taking to the administrative tools within my blogs, these features forcing me to begin a closer examination of not just the blog world, but the wine world in general.  These examinations, born from curiosity, delved in to seriously – I have a LOT of free time on my hands – have me in a state of re-examination.

“Don’t wallow in the mire”.  I am by no means a highly religious guy.  Spiritual?  Yes.  But private and low key in that sense to be sure.  So when I go quoting statements from my grandfather’s sermons it’s a pretty big deal for me.  Lately, however, that little life’s lesson has been forgotten by not only yours truly, but a growing number of the folks I follow in the wine world.  And then today, as if in keeping stride with the little nudges I’ve been receiving these past two days – more on that in just a moment – one of the more recent folks I follow in the blog world connected me to a story.  This story, one of wallowing in the mire, has my thought processes running overtime.

In my 25 years plus in the wine business, I have most consistently focused on the upper end of the wine world: Burgundy (first and foremost), the best of the Rhone Valley, Alsace’s finest, Loire Valley treasures and the other most prized (by me and the critics) wines of France.  Also on my list of preferred wines have been the great wines of Piedmonte and Germany and a few of California’s treasured Pinot Noirs – the Pinot camp I’m in falls squarely at odds with most of today’s “Souper Pinots”, for the record.  There are certainly many other wines not listed here, but you get the gist; I’m an Old School Fine Wine guy.

The critics that I’ve followed throughout my career include the big names, you know who they are, I don’t need to spell ’em out.  And these top guns are now in what I might consider the twilight of their professional careers.  One in particular has faced medical down-time and other pressures, and while he would have the outside world believe he is as young as the day he left law school, we, his subscribers for the past couple of decades, have read his personal words and know the tale.  He has taken on many new co-authors to his magazine and the results have been mixed, receiving criticism from retailers, consumers, the blog writers and subscribers in general.  And while the magazine now boasts more than a hundred more pages than it did in the late 1980s, the content is under constant scrutiny.  But remember another of life’s morals: “Any publicity is good publicity”. 

Or is it?  That article I read this morning may be one of my mid-life turning points.  Published in Forbes, the tale shines a light on the impact of certain stories.  The Forbes author interviewed a man in question, a blogger, who had published a series of e*mail conversations between a certain powerful wine magazine’s co-author and another wine columnist.  I read that initial exchange, even re-posted it at my social networking site.  And then today I read the Forbes article.  As I said, that Forbes piece began some personal homework, and introspection.

Publishing that initial mini-brawl between the two powerful wine-writers brought a lot of traffic to the blogger’s web-site.  Like the moral preaches, “People love a good train wreck”.  But here’s the most telling tale.  The blogger openly admits that his one-day, busiest recorded traffic day to the blog was NOT that day.  In fact, that blogger’s busiest day came with the publishing of a story on growing moss in an empty wine bottle for parents looking for a unique chemistry class experiment for their kids.  That was another nudge, the first real push into this re-examination; “Wait a minute”, I thought, “let’s look at MY numbers”….

And there it was, just waiting for me to discover: my single most-traffic-receiving day at my blog so far was a day when I offered the public a positive, glowing review on a wine that I had recently discovered.  In that review I told my readers of my research using the internet to secure the best price in the country and I went into great detail covering the wine’s background.  I offered tasting notes based on my decades of tasting literally hundreds of thousands of wines – more than a million perhaps – and I followed up that report with an email to my list of readers.  That was my site’s busiest day.  And never once did a drop of mud hit the floor.

That Forbes article went on to discuss the emergence of the new wine drinking culture.  A culture born with computers in every room of the house, a group of young folks who turn ever increasingly to the internet for information on their wines.  I’m from the old school, admittedly.  I grew up with subscriptions to magazines as my learning tool.  Today, evidenced by an informal poll I’ve taken over the past 2 days, folks under 30 years of age, those folks I’ve casually engaged in conversation at local wine-selling retail establishments, either do not read the Wine Advocate, or have never heard of it.  Overwhelming, observation points to these young wine drinkers looking to their friends and trusted wine stewards for advice.  It is we “old-timers” who are keeping the big names of wine criticism alive.

But as a former merchant who once catered to the “old-timers”, I, and my now closed business are beacons the industry should pay attention to, just as this Forbes article mentions.  The “old-timers” (and that’s my vernacular, NOT Forbes), have all but ceased buying wine, having amassed collections of wine that they are ever-increasingly becoming aware they will never consume.  Add to that realization that we’re in a depressed economy for the near to possibly semi-long term, and one can see that the “fine wine” side of things is going no where, fast!

And if today’s wine buyers, the young crowd, the actual buyers in this market and economy aren’t interested in the big boys of wine criticism, and the folks who add traffic to the blogs prefer to read our blogs when there’s something positive to read, perhaps it’s time to truly reconsider my personal path.

Earlier on in this piece, I mentioned receiving little nudges these past few days.  I’ve been contacted through my social network site by William&Mary and the town of Short Pump, to name but a couple of the encounters recently.  And now, this Forbes article, forcing me to truly examine not only my methods of blogging, but the community of wine buyers requiring serious attention.  Where is all of this pointing?

The first and most obvious direction is a visit to Richmond, VA.  This forest of trees surrounding me has me slightly blinded to the signs so innocently nudging at me these past fews days.  From that point?  Remember another of grandfather’s sermons: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

All the best in wine and life,

Christopher Massie
Diplome D’Honneur de Sommelier
Houston Wine Idealist

for those interested in the Forbes article:

http://www.forbes.com/2009/04/23/robert-parker-squires-steinberger-vaynerchuk-opinions-contributors-wine-advocate.html

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Notice of Tasting Cancellation – My Involvement at Least

 

rubber_chicken

Well, after bringing lots and lots of folks to Mr. Smith for free business through my many blogs and weekly emails, I THOUGHT he and I had agreed to begin working together.

I have an e*mail string here that I’m reading, trying to make heads or tails of Mr. Smith’s latest knee-jerk reaction, but alas, I’m completely at a loss.

After several phone calls and emails to confirm same, Mr. Smith of French Country Wines sent to me a price list, complete with a salesman’s commission offer, and a welcome note, seemingly, per all we had agreed to, welcoming me to his company. 

He offered to pay me a commission to sell his wines and told me he looked forward to our working together.

Yesterday, the 21st, I phoned once more, to clarify that I would be emailing all of you with an invitation to join Smith and I for a private tasting at French Country Wines this evening. 

He concurred, was quite enthused at the prospect of having dozens and dozens of my former clients showing up at his place of business for this wine tasting and told me to feel free to invite as many of you good folks as I wanted to.

I expressed to Mr. Smith that I would word the invite as a private invitation, that my clients would need to respond directly to me to secure a seat and that I would tell my recipients that they could expect discussions of the wines from both Mr. Smith AND me, if they’d like to hear tales of the wines.  After all, as I made mention, not only had I sent many of you in to meet the man and buy his wines (with never a thought of commissions nor any sort of reciprocity in my mind) but I was a paying client too.  I had bought some wine from Smith for my weekly blogs and having done some research, I felt that my talk on the wines tonight may add to the flavor of the evening.

Yesterday’s conversation between Smith and I, and the jovial nature between us, gave way to the invite all of you received.

And then, as if someone threatened him with knee-breaking for being “affiliated” with me, Mr. Smith sent this out today:

“Some of you may have recently received an email indicating that tonight’s tasting was being co-hosted by the sender of that email.  It further implied that there might be a new partnership between ourselves and the sender of that email.

Let us stress to you that there is no such partnership in the works and tonight’s tasting is 100% sponsored by French Country Wines, Phyllis and myself.  Had the sender of the email had the courtesy to copy us on what he sent out we would have alerted you sooner.

We look forward to seeing as many of you as can make it for tonight’s tasting!”

“Best wishes,

Phyllis & Tim

Tim Smith
French Country Wines”

So, I’m rescinding my invitation from yesterday, as I’m obviously NOT going to be in attendance at this event.

AND, seeing as I’m pretty sure that Mr. Smith won’t be keeping his word and paying any commissions on the wines my former clients may buy tonight – or ever – any of you that felt even an inkling of loyalty to ol’ yours truly may want to consider discontinuing your ties to Mr. Smith (but that’s YOUR call to make…).

I truly thought that Smith and I had an arrangement.  Never a partnership (and I NEVER used that word), but an arrangement for sure.  These emails between us and the many conversations and phone calls certainly pointed that direction.

I guess it’s my fault.  I should have asked more clearly what his definition of a commissioned salesman was.

Any of you wishing to discuss your opinions with me may email me back.

And if you have thoughts for Mr. Smith, he is available at:  tms @ frenchcountrywines.com

 

Christopher Massie
Diplome D’Honneur de Sommelier
Houston Wine Idealist

chambertin@sbcglobal.net

Tomorrow’s 1st Tasting at the “New Winery”

tastingwine

Afternoon,

Well it’s certainly been interesting out here for the past few weeks, that’s for sure!  I’ve witnessed countless hours of research, paperwork and travel, all aimed at the final goal of launching a new winery permit.  For the folks following the blog, you’ve come to understand the heartaches, the headaches and the occasional triumphs I’ve endured through this process.  I thank you all for following, and now I have an announcement – and an invitation.

Through my work to form this new winery, I have met a kindred soul.  You that have read the blog and bought some of the wines have undoubtedly recognized the similarities in taste between the offers emanating from Mr. Smith’s collection and the wines once so proudly displayed on the tables at my former establishment.  But what makes these offers from Mr. Smith even more appealing, and what has brought he and I together for our new found union, is the manner in which Mr. Smith brings these wonderful vinous specimens to the State.

I am pleased to announce that I have a limited number of seats to offer to the first 20 couples to respond to this letter – no later than tomorrow, the 22nd of April at 5PM.

Mr. Smith, owner of French Country Wines and I will be hosting our first private wine tasting together at his winery-licensed facility here in the heart of Houston TX.

This tasting of some of the finest, naturally-bottled, artisanal, (some 100% bio-dynamic) wines takes place tomorrow night, Wednesday the 22nd, from 6-7:30 PM at French Country Wines (2433 Bartlett, Houston 77098).

During this tasting, Mr. Smith and I will discuss the wines and the concept behind our mutual work together, explaining in greater detail the work being done to eliminate the antiquated 3-tier system that sets to punish the consumers of the State.

The wines will be offered for sale – AT DIRECT FROM THE WINERY PRICES – and you’d better be certain that these are wines that yours truly is already deeply in love with and currently stocking at home.

I have seating available on my ticket (read: free) for 20 couples – MAX.

To attend as my guest, respond via email, including your phone number so that I may call to confirm and establish your new account with the winery.

And do it now, seating at these events is always limited and the winery is always PACKED!

All the best in wine and life,

Christopher Massie
Diplome D’Honneur de Sommelier
Houston Wine Idealist
chambertin@sbcglobal.net

Groundhog Day

 after-a-long-day-groundhog

With aching muscles and a tired mind I return to the keyboard again, a glass of wine and a worn out telephone beside me.  The last two days and a total of 20 working hours saw me organizing a former client’s home wine cellar.  The wines being stocked were nearly all from my old wine shop, so the back breaking labor of lifting case after case, time after time, hour upon hour was blessed with a sort of happy reminiscing; stocking this man’s nearly 300 cases of the world’s most beautiful wines took my mind back to those giddy days of 2007 when it seemed nothing would ever go wrong.

But the warm ear piece of the phone that now offers tonight’s glass of wine its company is a reminder that these days are repeating themselves.  My first two days of this week were like a vacation in some ways; allowing for my escape from the daily reminders of a career now ended.  These days, partially interrupted by the cellar stocking in my old friend’s new multi-million dollar River Oaks mansion, are indeed reminding me of that Murray film from so many years ago.  Only this set of Groundhog Days aren’t ending so comically.

Daily I work this old phone, followed by the visits with folks most inclined to becoming excited, or at least interested in, my new plan of action.  As folks across the Country talk of The People, as retailers and politicians alike gather themselves up with a pledge to protect consumers and their futures, this new plan I’ve forged surely should be attracting followers.  But even as our dollar becomes stronger just as our economy continues to weaken, it seems my theory for a purely consumer oriented and dedicated wine business has been born into a world of truly frightened buyers.

My daily discussions include talks with men who once thought nothing of parting with $3,500 for a case of wine.  Also in my call list are retired bankers, CEOs, Presidents of oil companies and many others who once buoyed a successful wine shop.  The words of praise and encouragement are many, yet the final sentence, in true Groundhog Day fashion, remains the same. 

I once penned an article dedicated to Roses & Tangerines, remember that one?  In that story I discussed the over abundance of happy-go-lucky tales flowing around in the blog-o-sphere.  Authors of these blogs, otherwise successfully employed OUTSIDE of the wine world, irresponsibly publish article upon article reflecting a “glass completely full” look at the world of wine.  I’d like to invite those same folks to participate in my daily routines.  If you can convince one of these potential investors that the situation truly is all Roses & Tangerines, I’ll offer you a 49% stake in my new venture.

Another dose of reality these days has been the advice and words of wisdom offered from business owners and top wine people I’ve encountered.  Local food writers, ever eager to keep you and I on the cutting edge, have taken to delving into certain eateries that require 60 minute drives or an incredible penchant for culinary exploration.  Having plenty of free time on my hands allows for visits to every new restaurant to make the pages, and I hit the road on an almost daily basis.

The stories remain identical.  Blips on the radar, attributed to recent upticks in press reviews, are recognized by some of the restaurants I’ve visited.  But the weeks of struggle that preceded those reviews, and for some restaurants the massive employee trimming that resulted, are feared as what will be the norm when the reviews subside and folks resume their cost cutting routines.

The fine wine world is indeed in a state of crisis.  Direct messaging and private conversations between the not-so-lucky confirm these sentiments.  Day upon day of Chefs moving out of places you once thought they’d be forever is another small sign that the local scene is suffering as well. 

But I have an answer for this crisis.

All it takes is a few serious listeners.

In the end, Phil and Rita, after what seems like an eternity of failures, finally have their happy ending, winding up together as nature seemingly intended.  Now if only that Phil & Rita scenario will play itself out for the wine folk of Texas….

All the best in wine and life,

Christopher Massie
Diplome D’Honneur de Sommelier
Houston Wine Idealist

Houston Wine Idealist Introduces French Country Wines (The Shop)

french-country-wines-logo

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,

Christopher Massie
Diplome D’Honneur de Sommelier
Houston Wine Idealist

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

HWI’s Latest Favorite in More Ways Than One

rouge-bleu-vine

Continuing now with the reviews of locally available GREAT wines at smokin’ prices, I stopped by what promises to become my personal wine shop yesterday.  Having not yet informed the proprietor of my intentions, thus thinking perhaps I should ask for his permission before blurting his name out in these pages, I rang his bell and entered his warehouse.  The lights were still off when I arrived at nearly noon yesterday, indicating a private sort of man and a shop very much to my liking, and after our friendly salutations, I asked him if he’d like to visit a certain web-site.

This was the proprietor’s first visit to my blog and upon first arrival he was obviously surprised.  “Well, there’s our wine”, he exclaimed, naming the Berthet-Rayne from Monday’s blog post by name, pronouncing the Domaine’s title with a nearly perfect French accent.  I took a seat and proceeded to tell him my story, the story of Houston Wine Idealist.

Explaining that I find myself now the Houston consumer’s proponent, a man self-charged with locating great wines, preferably naturally made, organic, at the very least bio-dynamic at prices unmatched anywhere in the country, I began to see this shop owner’s eyes light up.  I could sense that my new found role as Houston Wine Idealist was stirring something in his imagination, obvious even more as he began to describe in greater detail additional wines he wished for me to share with my readers.  We were on to something, I concluded, and the two of us continued to explore this man’s business.

Thomas Smith, owner of French Country Wines, the source of Monday’s Berthet-Rayne, today’s wine, and many more to come for these pages, comes from an Investment Banker’s background, having additionally spent many years as an attorney.  I suppose he’s one of the lucky many we read about these days: folks who enter the wine business with plenty of capital, a love for the juice of the vine and dreams of the wine business as a fun hobby; not so much a career but as something to do with all that retirement time on their hands.  I must admit how I envy the man, for his smile and upbeat attitude truly runs counter to every article published these days as to the state of the finer wines in the market; this guy seems genuinely positive about the future of “Fine Wine”

That’s not to say Mr. Smith is immune to the occasional scowl, by no means at all.  One mention of the word Spec’s turns his smile immediately to a pucker, as if lemon juice had hit an open cut on his hands.  “Folks constantly ask if my wines are available at Spec’s”, he gruffs, “as if all the work I do to discover and bring these wines to Texas could be replicated by those guys.”  Further discussions regarding the local three tier system winds him up even further.  “These big distributors will do anything for Spec’s, with no consideration for the independents, Spec’s is their sole concern.”  Seems Mr. Smith has fallen victim to the machine in his short time as a merchant as well.  Here’s hoping that the positive energy that dominated our time together, and the great wines I’ve enjoyed so far will win the day for Mr. Smith. 

I, for one, as a passionate consumer’s proponent, need a shop of this ilk!

Especially for wines like this:


2007 Domaine Rouge-Bleu Cotes Du Rhone Cuvee Mistral
SARL Rouge-Bleu
71% Grenache, 19% Syrah, 8% Mourvedre, 2% Roussanne Dry Red Table Wine
Cotes Du Rhone, Southern Rhone, Rhone France

Review by Christopher Massie
Wine Idealist #1, (March 2009)
Rating: 90
“An OUTSTANDING wine worth your serious attention that will impress and offer memorable drinking experiences.”
Drink: 2009 – 2015+

Best possible price located as of this review: $16*

    “Our first sign of greatness lies in the color of this beauty: a deep ruby hue, very, very purple right to the rim.  This color coats and stains the glass, indicating ripe and healthy old vine grapes.  A glance at the back label reveals chapters: 75 year old Mourvedre, 75 year old Grenache, indeed, we’re dealing with an estate holding seriously aged parcels.  

  Your nose will capture these aromatics from an arm’s length.  This is another organic farm, a pristine winery in that sense, that has immediately captivated this taster.  Viewing their blog, with pictures of gnarled old Carignan vines has captured my attention, very nearly as much as this aromatic profile.  The farm itself here is 400 years old, and these now 75 plus year old vines offer your sinuses a cornucopia of the most naturally produced, mind pleasing nuances one expects from single vineyard, triple digit CDPs.

    I find baking spices, cardamom, baker’s cocoa, pastille and a full bucket full of every black and blue fruit imaginable; blackberry, raspberry, plum and dates of every description.  But these fruits are pure, not cooked and no sign of heat nor candied / baked / late harvested nuances interfere.  This is one of the most sublime noses.  What did he say this sells for?!
    On the palate, we have that soft, caressing robe of fruit that wraps around every edge of your tongue and dares you not to compare this beauty to a triple digit, single vineyard CDP.  There is structure with power, yet there is harmony and no sign of oak nor overt alcohol.  This is indeed old vine Grenache, as it should be, yet the mineral, the pure terroir and the sensual, sexy, mouth teasing acidity is here in spades. A total wine and a real hoot of a price!”
       — Christopher Massie

*for information on acquiring this wine, at the price I’ve located it for, e*mail me: chambertin@sbcglobal.net

 

 

 
 

 

All the best in wine and life,

Christopher Massie
Diplome D’Honneur de Sommelier