Big Establishment Acknowledges the Blog-O-Sphere

 bigbusiness

Blog Update #71, 2009: Big Establishment Acknowledges the Blog-O-Sphere

My first introduction to the concept of applying numerical value to a wine as a way of declaring its worth came in the Summer of 1984.  I was working as a bar back at one of the most prominent Continental restaurants of its time in Dallas, training under the watchful eye and palate of Franco Bertolasi.  Bertolasi was a passionate man of all things food and wine. He was also quite generous.  So it was not uncommon for even the youngest of his staff, including yours truly, to enjoy the final sips from bottles served at tastings that included such luminaries as the acclaimed 1982 Bordeaux, several vintages of DRC and verticals of Ramonet white Burgundy.

It was Bertolasi who introduced me to Parker’s Wine Advocate that Summer of 1984.  Bertolasi preferred Parker’s singular position; Parker was a sole voice, claimed Bertolasi, a man without blemish and Parker’s guide was the most serious of its kind.  I was told by my mentor at that time that the Wine Advocate had been founded on the principles that wine was to be evaluated with no consideration for its heritage nor its price.  Further, I had been instructed, wine was to be reported on honestly and with no punches pulled.  Bertolasi told me that Parker followed these rules and because of Parker’s principles, the Wine Advocate was the only guide to follow. 

By the Spring of 1989 I was a subscriber to the Wine Advocate, having fully immersed myself in the retail side of the wine business after a few years in the restaurant trade.  My first delivered issue, still a part of my library, was number 62, the annual Bordeaux Report, where Parker covered the vintages of 1986, 1987 and 1988.  That was 20 years ago, 120 issues back and a difference of 60 pages and hundreds of wines when compared to the issue that I received in yesterday’s mail.

Issue 62, from way back in 1989, as I re-read it this morning, takes me back to the good ol’ days.  Parker begins his report with the heading “(Optimism reigns supreme)” and offers the reader salient advice regarding the market, buying opportunities and the general nature of the world from the viewpoint of American wine buyers.  His words and reviews are uplifting, straight to the point and read as if they are coming from the world’s foremost authority on the subject.  I remember reading that first issue to be delivered to my tiny suburban apartment.  I recall how it inspired me to begin writing my own newsletter.  I simply remember how inspired I was – period.

I continued to subscribe to the Wine Advocate, as I do to this day, and Parker’s reviews were one of the driving forces behind my decision to enter the import business.  That career move eventually resulted in a face to face encounter with Parker.  I found myself representing several estates that were part of a particular broker’s portfolio from the Languedoc and Roussillon.  Parker and this broker were scheduled to meet and I was invited to participate.  That inaugural bird’s eye view from across a table covered with nearly 5 dozen bottles was my first exposure to the “real” Parker.  A personality much too large to allow for others to say too much, my broker was practically silent that day and I – a man with hundreds of ideas and histories to share – was instructed to please keep my thoughts to myself.  I wondered if perhaps Parker’s schedule was simply too busy that day to allow for a leisurely meeting and discussion of the wines.  Shrugging off the cool nature of the meeting, happy to have had the chance to at least present our products, I and my partner exited and hoped for the best.

I fast forward to today’s issue, this Wine Advocate #182.  Before I touch on the words Parker has elected to print, for his thousands upon thousands of paying subscribers around the globe to read, I have a few other personal thoughts to convey.  I once posted to the bulletin board owned by Parker.  It’s a free service and anyone in the world, supposedly, is allowed to post, comment and retort.  But after witnessing the dismissal from that board of folks I respect and consider colleagues, I decided to call my time over there quits.  Now I realize that Parker himself doesn’t handle the dismissal of people who post, and I also realize that Parker is not the man behind the delete button nor the censorship, but his name is on the welcome page; it is up to Parker to follow the premise he set down in the first published issue of the Wine Advocate.  Suffice to say, my experience at “The Board” left me with an even colder feeling on my skin than that first face to face encounter many years ago.

There is also my perception of the handling by Parker of someone I have come to hold a great amount of respect for in the wine business.  My wife gave to me as a Valentine’s Day present a book entitled “The Battle for Wine and Love”.  Those who know the book know it well.  Those who haven’t read it: GO GET IT!  In the book, Alice Feiring interviewed Parker.  Until reading that interview, in the context of reading the book, and with my own personal decades of experience adding credibility to that chapter, I continued holding hope for Parker’s return to grace.  After finishing the book, and after today’s reading of issue #182, things are looking ever increasingly gloomy on the horizon.

Or are they?

Robert Parker, the Robert Parker manning the wheel behind the Wine Advocate is an attorney.  He calculates his words, he finishes critical sentences with question marks: remember that scathing statement within a question regarding my old acquaintance Francois Faiveley?  He waited months before announcing to a Houston-based on-line social network site that they should cease and desist with the use of his photograph as an avatar.  Also in the social network scene, he seemingly chuckled at a completely fabricated site claiming to actually BE Robert Parker.  Notices at his bulletin board now state he has taken measures to handle that issue, but it took weeks and pages of comments before he acted.

Point?  Parker knows how to market, and how to cross promote.  He does nothing without great thought and consideration for the outcome.  Now I return to the comments publicly printed in today’s copy of the Wine Advocate #182.

Parker has once again taken to the task of covering the latest vintage of Bordeaux, this time it’s the 2008s in barrel.  The tone is decidedly more dismal than that Bordeaux issue from 20 years ago: “With the deepening global economic crisis, I wondered what was the point…”.  Yet it is not the tone regarding the economy that has me questioning Parker’s direction.  It is his extremely public back-handed swipes at bloggers that has my mind and heart at unrest.

Parker has been attacked, he would answer, in books, by movie producers, in the papers and, yes, by bloggers.  But Parker has always maintained his ability to keep his arguments with these critics where these retorts belong: either in the books they emanated from, or in interviews or on the web, or even in the papers.  In all my days as a subscriber, I have NEVER seen him initiate a fight in the pages of the Wine Advocate.  Today, he did.

Or, like I insinuated, did he?

Parker actually states, not infers, actually states, that many “notorious blogs” are authored by people who can’t “string a noun and verb together”.  Further, Parker goes on to attack bloggers again (before he ever once delves into his details on the vintage at hand), classifying them as “rumor-mongering” and “irresponsible”.  By that point, I needed a glass of wine.  The issue had arrived late yesterday, friends had invited me to join them, and Lageder was beckoning.  Had Parker truly dedicated the first nearly 1,000 words of issue 182 to bashing his “competitors”? 

Or had he just acknowledged us?

As I began to compose this article today, I mentally positioned myself on both sides of the table.  The wealthy, powerful, seemingly soon to retire, actually somewhat humorous Parker as he composes the results of yet another Bordeaux issue.  This is a part of the wine world we Americans who are considered the emerging wine buyers (the ones who drive the industry) are all but finished buying.  How can Parker, “Mr. Bordeaux”, assist this part of the wine world?  How can he draw attention to a vintage he now is touting as “dramatically better than I had expected”, a vintage including wines “that are close to, if not equal to the prodigious 2005 or 2000 vintages…”?  Every person I know simply doesn’t care.  How can Parker “save” Bordeaux? 

And on the opposing side of the table, we have the current uproar from the bloggers.  Forgetting the fact that they set themselves apart from the traditional critical media precisely because they felt ignored (or perhaps because they felt the wines they loved or their ideas were being ignored), bloggers are now fully engaging Parker by attacking him.  But guess what?  That’s working, too.  Readers of the blogs, readers who came to the blogs searching for answers and searching for discussions on wines never explored by the “big names” of critical wine reviewing are now cross referencing.  The bloggers are introducing their readers to a path to Parker.

As I made mention, I have never in my decades of reading the Advocate ever experienced Parker mentioning his competitors.  Never once has Parker, in my memory, mentioned an opposing viewpoint – by name – prior to publishing his own thoughts on a region’s latest offers.  Never has Parker, to my recollection, in a positive or negative way, talked about another method of wine reviewing in his own magazine.

Today, 20 years after my first paid issue of Parker’s Wine Advocate, the Big Establishment acknowledges “Us”.

All the best in wine and life,

Christopher Massie
Diplome D’Honneur de Sommelier

your thoughts are always welcome:

chambertin@sbcglobal.net

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

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

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

Houston Wine Idealist – First Week on the Job

Well, you certainly didn’t expect me to don the cap of Houston Wine ADVOCATE now did you?

In response to the numerous e*mails received after the announcement of my plans to begin assisting the good folks of Houston with their wine buying needs, I took to the streets as a consumer over these past few days.  It has been more than a decade since I traversed the aisles and perused the racks of this city’s liquor stores and (cough) recently born wine bars in search of bottles of the vinous sort.  Sure, I’ve shopped Richard’s weekly for my required Margarita preparing staples and other desired liquors and liqueurs, but wine?  Not since before opening my first shop in town have I looked to my now former competitors for a bottle of vino.

In case you’re just joining us, my new found necessity for seeking out bottles of wine stems from the fact that my old wine shop is now closed.  And if you’re one of the hundreds of thousands, dare I say millions, in Houston who missed – or avoided – the venomous word festival that ensued, let’s sum things up by saying that the folks in the papers had a field day over my demise.  Considering me overtly idealistic, to put it very kindly, the local food writers and their readers pretty much bit me adieu.

But there were still a few thousand folks in my loving e*base, a few thousand folks who DID “get” what I was up to, a few thousand folks who responded to the unavoidable shuttering of the doors with a chorus of: “Well, what do we do now?” And I decided to offer these folks, and anyone else who cares to listen – including the foodies, their readers, and anyone else – a service I once searched for.  I decided to offer a service, a FREE SERVICE MIND YOU, aimed at helping folks locate the types of wines that my little flock and I have come to love over these past many years together.  A service designed to locate great wines, at the best prices, that we may all enjoy together or in the privacy of our own homes with great friends or family, knowing that what we’re drinking are the wines we’ve all come to cherish for purity, uniqueness and an ideality based on the concepts of terroir and nature.

No longer owning a wine shop meant that to locate these wines, however, I would need to find a store – any store – that stocked such goodies.  The first source I turned to for a list of merchants to visit, having been out of the game for so long, was an article written in one local paper.  This article covered the closing of my wine shop and the readers and folks responding to same seemed to consider the author, at least on some levels, somewhat well versed in the subject of local wine and liquor merchants.  That this author had never interviewed MOI in ten years as a merchant (nor to my knowledge ever stepped foot in one of my stores) is not a point here.  I was turning to the author’s article as a reference for wine shops and (cough) wine bars to visit.  I needed to bone up on my knowledge of the local scene’s players so as to better serve my e*base, after all.  With that author’s list of players in hand, I spent a few afternoons and early evenings visiting these shops and bars. 

This is part I of what promises to be a VERY long series. 

The introduction herein has been lengthy enough, and I’ve been informed that many of my writings tend to the wordy side, so I’ll only brush the surface of my findings.  First, let’s discuss, as consumers, for that’s what I am now, a consumer, the APPALLING prices at retail here in Houston!  Did someone forget to inform the other “wine shops” in town of the existence of a well known FREE service called winesearcher.com?  Seriously folks, do you have any idea how much you’re being ripped off?  In my next installment, and in every other installment that follows, I will directly compare prices, naming names and calling people out – AS A CONSUMER.

Next, let’s talk about these (hack) wine bars.  Eight years ago, there was a place in the Village on Times Blvd, recall the place?  Never mind, it’s gone now, but the joint had a 5 piece live jazz band, hired a caterer called The French Fig who turned out these fabulous hand made appetizers to-order and the place had 4 dozen wines by the glass – and they did this every Friday and Saturday night.  The place was packed!  They sold these wines by the glass, organic, hand made wines by folks like Rosenthal, Wasserman and such: for RETAIL!  Check that out: they would take the retail price of the wines, divide by 4 (the number of glasses in a bottle) and that’s what you paid for the glass!  I remember a glass of Loire Valley Cabernet Franc would cost $4!  And if you wanted to buy a case?  You got the $16 bottle of wine for 10% on your case of 12!  Unbelievable, ingenious, right?  Too bad the place went under.  Guess they should have followed the practices of these (hack) wine bars of today.

I visited no less than 6 of the wine bars – I’ll visit the so called better ones over the coming weeks – from the author-mentioned-above’s list.  The prices?  OBNOXIOUS!  The selections?  Don’t even get me started.  Folks, if that’s what has been shoved down the throats of this town, passed off as good wine, for the past few years, someone needs to be called out!  What’s happening here, and I’m going to return, take down specific names of wines and report again, is dangerously close to the antics that went down a few years back at a place up in Big D that had that individual very nearly run out of town.  The wines I saw, at the prices being charged and the methods employed to sell same were so dastardly that I – as a consumer, as an idealist and a purist – very nearly wept.  Call me what you will, but what I witnessed would make the people I converse with on the web absolutely scream!

As I said last week when I launched this free service: until the completion of my winery license (and perhaps I’m rethinking that with what I’ve encountered), I will answer your e*mails for wine related assistance every Thursday.

Tell me: How may I assist?

All the best in wine and life,

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

Letting Go – Servicing a Community in Need

My wife and I have spent these past several days attempting to construct a new life for our family.  Daily we have visited Early Childhood Program Schools, desperately attempting to find placement for our precious three year old daughter, as we simply will no longer be able to afford our family Nanny with the closing of my wine shop.  With every tour of these accredited facilities, we are encouraged to fill out paper work for the multi-month wait lists by smiling tour guides, their intentions pure, and our hopes once again are dashed – we need care now. 

Since the shuttering of the doors to my wine shop, an act brought about by scenarios ranging from hurricanes to lost customers – with every imaginable facet adding to the demise one could imagine, indeed that many folk who have never met me have speculated to – my wife and I have spent many an hour contemplating many particular points of interest for us. 

My wife is my absolute opposite; level headed, centered, the patience of Job (reference the Bible), religious, spiritual, employed….  But one thing we share is our bond.  This is her first marriage, for me, my third.  She has never felt more protected, and I share that sentiment; in 42 years of life, I have never felt so safe, so secure, so bound by love.

As we drove from place to place yesterday afternoon, or it could have been Tuesday, these days are running together recently, my wife looked to me and commented as to a certain betrayal leveled my way by a person both my wife and I once considered a friend.  This recent betrayal, not to be overly rehashed, for the point of this letter is one of service, not remorse, perplexed my wife, and Big M (as I’ve nick-named my wife on Twitter) truly wanted resolution, if only between the two of us.  What could have caused this public scrutiny, this betrayal, from someone we had once broken bread with?  Big M was honestly searching for an answer.

Yesterday, I received more correspondences from clients in my e*base than ever before.  They were not answering one of my weekly newsletters in hopes of securing a few bottles or a case of the wine of the week.  No, they were asking for advice.  Advice on where to turn for wine until my new winery project comes to fruition.

So with that thought in mind, with thoughts of servicing a community in need at the fore, I’ve settled into my keyboard once again.  I remain mystified, as is my wife, that a certain local food critic harbors ill feelings over a phone call made 6 years ago by a totally stressed out shop owner under the thumb of a previous wife, a banker with a ruthless attitude, a landlord who refused to secure a failing ceiling, etc, etc, etc (yes, I can always go on as to the causes of stress in my life, perhaps I need a prescription, right?)….  But today, from this moment on, I come to a community in need, to launch, until the winery opens, a service this community so desperately desires- if you will forgive any apparent elitism, as absolutely none is intended.

Every Thursday, I will answer your requests for assistance with wine. Tell me: what are you looking for?

Are you searching for the wines in the Houston Chronicle’s Wednesday “Wine Section” – PLEASE, before you blindly walk into Spec’s and pay too much, ask me, I’ll help you find the wines for less money.  If indeed you wish to buy these wines, just ask me, I’ll help you FREE OF CHARGE!

Are you looking for the perfect wine with Arctic Char? 

Perhaps you wish to build a collection of organic Loire Reds? 

Email me and I’ll help you, FREE OF CHARGE!

I’ve decided that the first way to build a community, the kind of community that will grow, expand and flourish from within, is to recognize the issues that have effected the community I’ve lost myself to from the beginning. 

I’m taking my family to the Hill Country this week-end.  We’re going to see the stars, the ones up in the sky, and I’m going to explain to my daughter that her Daddy is going to be a better person than the man who her Daddy called Dad; a better person than the man these past 10 years gave the world.  A man my daughter will be so happy to call “Daddy.”  We’re going to find a ranch on which to build the “winery”, and we’re going to chase fireflies, and I’m going to smile – like I haven’t done for a long, long time….

And then I’m going to come back and start servicing a community until the winery is built; and hope that I have another “family” who will follow me to the next phase of life….

All the best in wine and life,

Christopher Massie
Diplome D’Honneur de Sommelier
832-465-4342
chambertin@sbcglobal.net

Cork Taint – Recognizing the Obvious

It is routinely and conservatively estimated that between 3 and 5% of all of the world’s wines, wines sealed with the classic cork closure, suffer from what is widely described as “cork taint”.  This off-putting, wine destroying aroma, most readily compared to the disturbing nuances of mold, mildew and / or a filthy basement filled with rot and decay, once released into a bottle of wine from a flawed cork, will never be remedied.  To find these aromas in a bottle of wine is to find a wine that has “been corked”, as the description goes, and for those of us in the wine world experienced with the unpleasant surprise of opening such a bottle, the sensation is haunting.

I’ll never forget opening day, August 2, 1999.  I may have lost nearly twenty pounds, made my way through literally 6 months of sleepless nights, my obsessive compulsive disorder on full overdrive, but this wine shop was open.  For any person interested in reading one of the most impressive, thought provoking, nearly 100 page business plans – the kind of business plan that moved an ultra conservative bank into lending this sole proprietorship nearly a half million dollars for his start-up wine shop – I’ve got a novel for you.  My entire life had been laid on the line for this one, to include the last quarter of a million bucks I had stashed for that proverbial rainy day.  The bank required my money as collateral investment alongside theirs; my last dime was now sitting in stacked cases of organic Minervois.  The bank and I were partners in a dream.

More than 6,000 square feet of shiny, brand new hard wood floors were literally covered from corner to corner with the most unique and original collection of hard to find and impossible to replicate stacks of fine wines and terrific discoveries I had yet amassed.  The local papers and specialty writers had picked up on the story and the original warehouse had started to buzz, even before opening day.  Folks from far and wide, from the suburbs and within the loop as well would finally have their boutique, European-styled wine shop.  Christopher’s Wine Warehouse was soon to open, bringing the promise of wines never before experienced by the thirsty palates of Houston’s serious wine community.

Over these past ten years, I’ve chronicled the mostly lows in this roller coaster ride through my life as a retailer.  I’ve tried to accept, as the plethora of cheesy mom-and-pop liquor stores in town tell me to do, the constant ridicule from shoppers when the phrase “But I had a wine just like this and it’s 2 dollars less at Spec’s” flows from the venomous, callous mouths of these brainless lemmings.  Two dollars on a $35 bottle of wine?  Are you serious?  I just spent half an hour tasting the wine with you, teaching you of the wine, telling you of the wine maker’s family’s history and of the importance of my 58 degree storage.  And you actually have the nerve to stand there, without ever buying a single bottle of wine from me, and tell me that you can save less than 6% buying this wine in an 80 degree warehouse next to a display of cat litter? 

Over these years, I’ve come to recognize the aroma of a wine tainted with cork taint.  It is an aroma that can not be ignored, it is an aroma that can not be reversed.  Once affected by this stench, there is but one remedy: you simply pour the wine down the drain.  The bottle can not be saved, even the wine maker doesn’t want the bottle back.

This city, be it the fault of the inhabitants, for they have allowed the monopoly to spread as a cancer in a dying man; or be it the fault of the cancer itself, is “corked”.  I have finally arrived at the realization that no amount of additional patience, coaxing, decanting nor caring is going to reverse the stench that has permanently and forever coated this city with a rancid, undeniable and irreversible vinous bouquet. 

There once was a man named Paul Roberts, one of the most gifted, celebrated and awarded Sommeliers of our time.  He was the wine director for Cafe Annie, remember him?  I drank many a bottle with that man.

There was another, equally gifted, talented and now wealthy soul of wine who honored Houston with his visits, a man named Josh Raynolds, now the coveted co-author of this country’s most prized wine publication.  He, too, has left the building.

As I contemplated posting these thoughts over this week-end past, an interesting scenario played itself out across the pages of a social network site known as Twitter.  One of the few folks who routinely engage with me through that service, also a man I have come to greatly respect for his admiration of uniqueness in wine over the short period we’ve known one another, tasked himself with expressing his thoughts on the wine and food scene in Houston. 

His decision for posting – indeed the topic of the post itself – was in large part due to the shuttering of my doors.  I’ve wrestled many an hour in my attempts to pinpoint the source of my additional remorse after reading the comments and lambasting hurled that man’s direction.  Are my feelings of additional disgust and contempt stemming from reading the cruel demand posted by one of this city’s prominent Chef’s – the words calling for the author of the blog to move out of town?  Or could my additional feelings of betrayal, now segueing to ones of bitter acceptance, stem from the fact that the author’s blog, one that included a story revolving around the wine shop of ten years now passing, yet with coverage of this city’s interesting food scene added for additional commentary and consideration, received more attention than any of the nearly 60 blogs I’ve written about fine wine this year alone?

For the particular Twitter individual who mentioned the demise of my shop being the result of the internet, how comforting it must be to live in such a secluded world.  My shop was locally recognized by the most-read (and yes, now most-scorned by yours truly for their 180 turn from directions once sworn to) newspaper, for the launching of a web-based wine store complete with the best prices on the internet.  Each and every page of my web-store came complete with a link to winesearcher.com (ever heard of them?) and every item I sold came with the best price in Texas, often the best price in the country.  For you, Mr. “the internet was the demise of Cepage Noir” to now spout such words of non-research is out of line.  The fact remains that Houston was and is not interested in the best price, per se, it is the label that drives this town.  I proved that the best price does not, necessarily, make a shop successful.  My labels, fun, funky, French, off the beaten track and wines that “the machine” scorned as TOO ESOTERIC: failed – even WITH the best prices.  You talk of Spec’s as the greatest concept for wine lovers since the dawn of retail, including in your definition their pricing.  Again, it’s a free service sir:  www.winesearcher.com (you’re welcome).

Finally, a person I once broke bread with decided to show their true colors as well.  I’ll not name names, I’ll simply say that this individual, a person my wife and I considered a friend, a person my wife and I have dined with, more than once, decided, I suppose, that it would be safer to distance themselves rather than say nothing or remain seemingly in my court.  Your betrayal on Twitter speaks volumes as to the words I have endured these past ten years; words that simply spew forth from people’s mouths, pens and keyboards, with no thoughts for the work that has gone into bringing a business into this town.  My first day, my first year, my first three were not as bitter as all of the days and years became.  But when a man has his very passion, his soul and his love consistently, daily and yearly trampled on, with the words: “How do you compare to Spec’s”, “This is $2 less at Spec’s”, “Why don’t you carry what Spec’s does?”, “What’s your problem with Spec’s?”, “Spec’s gives me a discount for cash!”, and on, and on, an on…  Well, dear person, you begin to become jaded, bitter and, well, as you said, “prickly and judgmental”.  My work, however, was in the buying field, and on the keyboard, authoring prose; rarely after the first few years of daily tormenting was I ever on the floor, until the last days, from perhaps November of 2008 until the first day of Spring 2009, our closing day.  My private, Chris Rock antics over a few too many bottles of wine, behind closed doors or in the company of supposed friends, echoed the sentiments shared with like-minded folks.  As I close this final paragraph, I only remind you, dear former dining companion that you, too, condescended to the folks in Houston, and you did so in writing, when you called them ever so unfortunately “New World Loving”, not ever inclined to grasp the things we Francophiles found so endearing.

Houston, you have now lost the third, admittedly least shining, of the trio of stars once so determined to share wine’s most gifted treasures with your city. 

I can not speak for the rest of them, but I will ask, “Will you ever wake up and smell the taint?”

Christopher Massie

And They Always Told Us Winter Kills

Revealing my age as much as my musical taste by referring to lyrics from the band Yaz, I’m playing a song on my mind’s record player as I rest my bones to pen this article: “Winter Kills”.  Today is the official first day of Spring, today is also the official closing of my now ten year old wine shop.  As the folks who haven’t stepped foot in the place for months roll out of here with cases of 40% off wine stacked 3, 4 and 5 cases high wish me luck for the future, I reluctantly bid them good tidings and attempt to focus on the task at hand.  Liquidating the inventory is paramount and nothing, especially not my personal feelings of utter betrayal, will fail that goal.

The final chapter in this ridiculous novel I’ve called my professional life for this past decade opened with a series of personal notes to respected authors through my social networking site.  I had decided that 2009 would find me chasing my dream of ultimately and finally becoming the next great American wine author and I had contacted these folks in my attempts to locate a potential set of contacts, perhaps even a publisher.  After some honest, while discouraging news, I had an initial plan in mind that could possibly, in time, lead to my being published.  I would offer to write as many free articles covering the wine world as my neighborhood paper would accept, using these articles to promote my work to larger papers as time permitted.

With plan in mind, I eagerly walked to the curb one morning, quite early, while little M watched her morning shows, dew still resting on the grass, the West U street lights yet to dim from the night before, air crisp and my mind filled with excitement.  This was a good morning for me, one of the few in a sea of difficult days of late, for the past several months had been filled to overflow with far more than our fair share of disaster and disappointment.  Yet I walked the lawn this morning, once again with resolve and vigor, for little M has a way, with that brilliant smile and the way she calls for me in the morning of keeping me focused on looking to the future.

The neighborhood paper I unwrapped that morning, naturally, is known as the West U Examiner.  The writing is as most small neighborhood papers would be and breaking news for this publication generally runs to the campy sort.  But this morning’s issue had sprawled across its cover the story of the signing of a lease.  A lease that would surely change the face of the liquor – and wine – business in West U for good. 

West U is the pet name for The City of West University Place.  This is a city within a city.  We have our own police department, water department, shopping district, schools, churches, you name it.  West U, a proud, beautiful little city, is filled with gorgeous homes, parks, playgrounds and a sense of safety and security long gone from the vast majority of places one finds in the big cities across America.  In short, this place called West U is small town America.

But even small town America is not immune to the severe downturn facing the country today.  There have been so many large stores, once successful and thriving here in West U, forced to close their doors based on parent company decisions, that literally hundreds of thousands of square feet of lease space are resting without tenants.  One such location, in the heart of one sector of West U, was once the home of a nearly 30,000 square foot Linens & Things.  The entire chain, nationally, recently closed, and the West U location was not spared the shuttering of the doors.

My little neighborhood paper, one I thought to be my potential avenue for salvation, right there before my weary morning eyes, had published across its cover the signing of the new lease for the former Linens & Things location.  Spec’s will soon be opening a 30,000 square foot monstrosity less than a few miles from my boutique wine shop, right here in the heart of small town America.  What’s more, what’s worse, they’ll be opening right across the street from this city’s original fine wine and liquor company: Richard’s. 

Richard’s was established in the West U, nearby, and closely surrounding, affluent neighborhoods by Mr. Richard Trabulsi in 1950.  I never had the pleasure of knowing the original Richard, but I very recently met his silver haired, genteel son, Richard Jr., now seemingly approaching retirement age yet very much still active in the only business he practices, law.  I came to the conclusion that a meeting between our companies was now eminent, having read the news of the impending opening of the latest mall sized Spec’s across the street from Richard’s.  I phoned him one morning and asked for a meeting.

My mind is literally overflowing with myriad ideas and concepts for bringing the once glamorous and market leading Richard’s forward, returning that company to its rightful spot in the minds and pocket books of not only the residents of West U, but the generation “next-ers” that Houston enjoys as its dominating inhabitants.  The one barrier to launching these ideas, obviously is the required marriage of two corporations, mine and Richard’s.  My meeting with Mr. Trabulsi was designed to place that offer on the proverbial table, to gauge the man’s temperature and to see if a union could be forged. 

The meeting, so it seemed, went swimmingly.  The talks were casual, the mood was engaging and friendly and Richard was genuinely, in his words, interested.  He talked of feeling the pressure to his business as “Spec’s has infringed on his long-standing, rightful territories”, and he discussed his feelings on the subject of Costco Liquor entering his market.  He praised my unique, original and thought provoking marketing style, admitting that many of my methods were foreign yet intriguing to him, and he told me that now that he and I were engaging in discussions that “thoughts of a union were seriously on his mind.”  I exited our meeting with a strong sense of community bonding in my belly and awaited our next steps.

It took only the course of a rainy week-end for my last straws of hope to go up in flames.  I returned Richard’s call on the following Tuesday morning, catching him off guard as he was walking the floor of the State Senate in Austin – as I stated, Richard practices law, exclusively, his family’s wine and spirits business has not been a part of his daily routine for many, many years (if ever).  He politely asked me to phone his assistant in Houston, and with thoughts of scheduling a follow-up meeting, I did just as he asked. 

Richard Trabulsi never once stepped foot in my wine shop.  To the best of my knowledge he may have never even driven by.  He certainly never offered the opportunity for exploration of the ideas and concepts for rectifying his Father’s failing spirits business.  Failing?  How do I define failing?  Richard sold half of his family’s stores to Spec’s just a few years back, resulting in the closing of those stores.  And now, as the word on the streets has it, the store on Bissonnet, the West U store, that Richard’s across from the mall sized Spec’s about to open is being considered for liquidation, too.  That, to me, after nearly 60 years in operation, may be described as failing, or at the very least, as giving up.

But what Richard Trabulsi did do, in his cowardly way, was have his assistant inform me that Richard simply didn’t see my company as a fit with his.  There just wasn’t a way, so the assistant translated to me, for the great Richard’s and the boutique to ever come together.  I thought to myself how interesting to sell out to the machine while never, even for a moment, considering a way to bring the light back to your organization.  I hung up the phone, without rebuttal, and began dusting off the plans, long stashed in the depths of my filing cabinet, for a winery license of my own.

Houston simply isn’t a boutique kind of town, I’ve learned the lesson the hard way.  In 1999, I took this bull full square on, riding him bare back, guns blazing, teeth gnawing on his wide stretched horns.  I was going to be The Kid, the savior, the one who would be king.  My business plan called for a whole collection of these boutique shops by 2004, populating Houston like a newly wed, birthing girl of the Irish-Catholic persuasion gone wild.  Each of my 5 children would be the most beautiful and unique specimens this provincial town had ever experienced.  The dream was real, thought I, and nothing would stand in my way.

It’s a beautiful Spring day today.  Sunny, flowers blooming like mad as far as the eye can see here in West U.  The world I called home, the professional one at least, on the outside, as the people walk about and soak in the sun, appears so very much alive.

But on this Spring day, this first day of Spring 2009, there is a very palpable sense of death in the air as well….

Christopher Massie
Diplome D’Honneur de Sommelier

A Toast to Roses and Tangerines

(originally published in 2009… sharing now with new friends…)

So this morning I decided to turn the clocks back rather than forward as we did this past Sunday morning.  And just for my personal time keeping records, and just so the much-appreciated small band of readers out there can keep track, today we are beginning the early parts of March 2009.  My turning back of the clocks this morning is metaphorical, and it began with the turning on of the radio upon arriving to the shop today, opting for the radio show I’ve not listened to since the giddy days of early 2007.

Ah, 2007, the days of the flying cases!  I remember so fondly how easily and with great joy the more than one million wholesale dollars of 2005 Burgundy and Bordeaux moved gracefully through my electronic offers into the collections of my eager collectors.  Each day greeted me with another offer from my negociants, to be translated into a tale of desire, resulting in record breaking sell-through, rivalled by no other offers I had experienced in my time as an owner.

That was not so long ago, that giddy year of 2007, and I remember listening to this same classical radio station, this listener supported station, thinking to myself how lucky my shop must be to have finally escaped the need for constant, costly advertising.  I had found the magic bullet, these perfect wines, marketed as futures to affluent folks with time to spare.  Marketed intelligently, shrewdly and with margins as tight as these violin bow strings I listened to everyday.  I was praised daily for my work, my words, my writings, my selection; I thought this would surely last forever.

March 2008 came so quickly.  That month began to mark a world that remains completely unexplainable for me.  I look back to a time now only two years past and I can barely recognize the man in the mirror.  The music is as clear, the violin bow string margins are just as they were, but the people are gone.  And the conversations I now have with the souls I come in contact with, the people who once shared a passion for the wine business – be they gifted authors or merchants of these finest wines – are truly in need of being told.

There is a dangerous trend presenting itself before the wine community today in the form of blogs, social network groups and more.  You see certain pages, you read ever increasingly popular posts and people assume the world is all roses and tangerines.  The world of fine wine is being presented as some glowing love festival, where the fine wine merchants are happily flittering away their days over half full glasses of exotic wine with nary a care for the future of their businesses.  Perhaps the authors producing the  mushroom cloud effect of wine blogs out there could be cited as one source for this view of overt wine-joy permeating the minds of some.  But let’s not forget, the overwhelming majority of these blog-authors benefit from full-time-jobs – careers NOT in the wine business.

Over the course of 25 years in the wine business, I have yet to experience the days I am witnessing today.  Bloggers be happy, social networkers post away, but the facts remain.  No matter how passionate the prose I offer on a bottle of wine, no matter the thrill of discovery I bestow, not a single bottle of wine moves through my cash register until it is offered for sale at a drastic discount.  And before one single person points to a downturn in the economy, let me assure all that this trend, in my market particularly, began as a small camp fire even before 2007, becoming a raging, all encompassing forest fire over these last several months.  My dream that 2007 had ended the days of “The Sale” was nothing but a short nap from reality.

How to save the fine wine market?  Is it through passionate prose?  I asked one of the most famous authors of our time, a person whose book inspired me to continue my own goals of penning the next Great American Wine Story, “What is your advice for me?”  The response was honest, true and straight to the point.  So very few are the people who genuinely care for the world of fine wine writing that this most gifted of souls has not been contacted in more than a quarter of a year. If passionate prose will not save the world of fine wine, what ever will?

I subscribe to the electronic offers of some dozen merchants across America.  Daily, often thrice daily, I receive offers that very much appear to come from someone condemned to the shuttering of their business doors.  How a merchant is to survive selling these beautiful wines at such prices is beyond me.  I know personally that without the assistance of the suppliers these prices would not exist.  But what happens when a supplier is forced to destroy margins?  The vineyards and wine-makers whose wines would not move are then discontinued.  Discontinued wineries, and the families behind them, go out of business.  The consumer just bought that small family wine for 50% off, great for Joe Consumer.  But the family who worked so hard to bring that wine to market now faces foreclosure.

I will confess to finding some comfort in the anonymity of the blog world however.  I am able to express words of the most personal and intimate nature here, words that few will ever read, words that fewer still truly give a care about.  So I suppose that we should just be happy that the blog world is so, well, positive, full of roses and tangerines.  At the very least it’s a place to come and escape from the reality of the world, the reality that the fine wine business is dying.  Dying even as America becomes the largest consumer for wine in the world. 

I guess it’s not what we’re drinking that’s important any more, just that we’re drinking…

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

Financing the Louvre when Mona Lisa gets Tossed Out

Stop for a moment and consider the impossible.  Consider for just a moment that you found yourself the owner of a boutique business (that’s not the impossible, stay with me).  Perhaps that business was centered around the world of art.  Or perhaps you were one of the independent entrepreneurs of my time, the 1980s, who decided to have a go at the wine business.  Perhaps you have a passion for designing the world’s finest all natural soaps, hand towels, children’s shoes or designer gowns for the elderly.  Simply stop for a moment and imagine yourself an independent owner of a boutique business where there is ONE piece of your inventory that everyone considers virtually priceless – or at the very least, a piece of your inventory that is routinely considered your prized offering.

No matter the field of work, no matter the business we’re in, someone, somewhere, for some reason became THE expert in our arena.  And with every expert, there comes the dissenting opinion.  In America, the dissenting opinion is viewed with as much consideration, when it comes to matters of a commercial nature that is, as the words of the so called experts.  As an example, consider how foolish it would sound if only one brand of children’s clothing were considered suitable for every child in America.  Taken one further, no one in their right mind would settle for being told that there is only one type of steak worth buying; hell, on a given day of tasting wines with my suppliers, half of them are vegetarians; one a pure Vegan, one loves eggs.  The point of this exercise, while appearing to move off-center, is that “experts” in a given field of ANY kind are always allowed only the amount of power we as consumers place upon them.

So I’ve come to a real cross-roads in my career.  I’ve come to that moment, that impossible moment I asked you to consider, where I’m just not certain that the Mona Lisa is as beautiful as everyone thinks.  I own a lot of Mona Lisa pieces.  Who is going to finance the museum if the things everyone thinks are so beautiful are found not to be so, well, beautiful?

Perhaps being a tad melodramatic here, I’ll admit, but my thought process began with trying to figure out why a certain chain of events brought me to this point in the first place. 

For as long as I’ve been in the wine business, from as far back as 1984, I have always respected Robert Parker, Jr., the man who authors The Wine Advocate.  As a lad in the business, I read every page, every tasting note, every article, every book written by the man that I could get my hands on.  I’ve also read countless other books and have multi-year subscriptions to every major and minor wine publication one could imagine – several that most folks have never heard of nor ever read.  My respect for Parker came from years of reading his prose and knowing that those were HIS words and true feelings.  Never once did he attack another person in the business of wine critiquing in the early years I read his magazine and never once did I hear a customer complain of a Parker review.  Naturally, then, when I opened my wine shop ten years ago, there were to be found many, many references to Parker on the shelves and display cases.  I pride myself on tasting every single wine before I add it to my collection, but once I did, if a note from Parker was available, so much the better; the shelf talker made my choices easier to sell.

As these ten years have gone by, many an importer has presented themselves to me, offering for my consideration their discoveries.  One of my most favorite discoveries several years back were the 1999 Red Burgundies offered by Neal Rosenthal.  So struck by these wines, offered to me by Neal’s then national sales manager Josh Raynolds (now a co-author for Steve Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar) that I bought and sold some 300 cases spanning every appellation and producer Rosenthal had to offer.  And when one considers the one-man operation that my shop operates as, that’s a lot of 1999 Red Burgundy!  That offer turned into another, this time Rosenthal’s offers from Cuilleron and the Southern Rhone, and the collections just continued to amass.  Rosenthal’s Loire wines?  An other-worldly experience that my palate continues to long for, to this day.

There were countless other importer’s wines I fell in love with as well.  And many times, as in the case of Weygandt, the wines were adored by Parker.  These are my Mona Lisa.  And now, I stand at my fork in the road.

I’ve recently finished a book, a book by Alice Feiring.  Those who have read the book know it well.  Those who have listened to my thoughts on the book know that I share with Feiring many, many passionate thoughts.  In particular, I have a great affection for the wines of Eric Texier.  I have been drinking and selling the man’s wines for more than 5 years now.  Also a love of mine, D’Oupia, Pinon and Radikon will be part of a focus tasting here quite soon.  I carry many a wine from Wasserman, as well, as my long-time clients are fondly aware, having first made Becky’s acquaintance in the very early 1990s.  I adore the wines of the Loire Valley, as does the great Feiring, having collected Joguet for more than 2 decades.  Summarizing, I love great wine, and Feiring and I are very much on the same wavelength.  Many of these wines, too are my Mona Lisa.

I visited the Louvre on a buying trip to France one year, returned there again a couple of years later while simply visiting an importer friend, Siler.  Both times, I waited in line to view the Mona Lisa.  Both times, the line was as long as the time before.  This is a piece of art, a piece of inventory that keeps the folks walking through the door, this piece of work keeps the tails in the chairs, as my Grandfather said to his congregation.

I found myself posting little phrases from Feiring’s book to a social network sight I belong to as I read through her book.  Her words have a way of moving me and I wanted to share these words with anyone who cared to follow.  One of my followers was a man who has contributed more than 10,000 entries to Robert Parker’s online bulletin board.  Additionally, this man has as his avatar at Parker’s bulletin board a photo with himself and Parker; I’d say he and Parker are at the very least close acquaintances.  After my third or so post to my humble social network site, sharing my tidbit from Feiring’s book, this man, this Parker buddy, un-followed me.  Coincidence?  I personally do not believe so.  Why?  Ask Feiring.  She was kicked off the bulletin board in 2007 for posting an opposing viewpoint.

Oh, such drama, my cross in the road.  My decision to make.  I sat watching the sun go down last evening, wrestling with this demon, pacing the floor, searching for answers.

Then I came to work today and set about my daily routine.  I offered for sale a group of wines.  Some with Parker reviews, some with Tanzer reviews, some with no critical reviews at all.  Some that simply were attractive to no one but me.

Each and every one of these, to some degree, sold.  Each and every item, well priced and offered to our clients honestly and with no thoughts of the politics of Parker and Feiring behind them, to some degree, sold.  No one had to throw Mona Lisa out, no one had to sell only the crown jewel as considered such by only ONE journalist or author.  Parker would probably have not liked one of the wines, Feiring would have probably hated 4/5ths of them.  But each of them sold.

I decided that my story of the day, even if not a single person reads it, should be a tale with a moral; an entry into a blog that acts as a personal reminder of the reality of the retail world I call my daily job…

Our customers will decide the Mona Lisa of the wine world; our customers decide what author is their vanguard.

We merchants should just have fun watching the wealthy authors duke it out.