The Best Texas Wine Stores

Coping with the Wine Panic of '73

June 1973By Comments

FROM GALLO HEARTY BURGUNDY TO the Domaine de la Romanee Conti, the wine drinking boom of the past decade has suddenly exploded into a full fledged runaway market phenomenon. No fad like waterbeds or backgammon, the soaring cost of fine wines is a product of supply-and-demand patterns in America, Europe, and as far away as nouveau-riche Japan. But the mad scramble of panic-buying that has hit the American wine market this year is due at least as much to the justifiable fear that two dollar devaluations in two years, coupled with upward revaluations of European currencies and the possibility of a 15 per cent surcharge on future imports, may boost the prices of European wines beyond the reach of dollar-bound Americans.

Buying wines strictly for investment is risky, foolish, and more than a little irresponsible. Wine brings too much pleasure to be treated as an investment commodity like stocks, gold, or pork futures. If you don’t want to drink the wines you buy, you shouldn’t buy them; the person who barges into the civilized world of wine-drinking in search of nothing more than a quick profit is as much a menace to decent folk as the functionless coupon-clippers R.H. Tawney condemned in The Acquisitive Society fifty years ago. But if you enjoy wines (or want to enjoy them), there are good reasons for buying them now instead of later. And if you know what you want, where in Texas should you try to find them?

Texas is not exactly a wine-buyer's paradise, but it is clearly superior to most neighboring states. There is nothing here like the massive, bustling, retail liquor warehouses of Washington, D.C.: Central Liquors, Calvert's Wine Shop, and Plain Old Pearson's. Nor are there any stores with the quiet European elegance and dazzling cellar book of Sherry-Lehmann in New York City, the most prestigious if not the best of American wine merchants. On the bright side, however, we are considerably luckier than Californians, whose fair trade laws push wine prices twenty to thirty per cent higher than our own —even for California wines!

Texans are left with the necessity of locating a reliable wine store out here in the boondocks where folks still cling to their frontier-style prejudice for hard liquor and beer. The wine stock at most Texas liquor stores is pitifully meager. Others provide a pretentious array of inferior merchandise. Not more than one urban wine store in twenty is worth visiting, and even then, except in rare instances, you are quite likely to know more than any of the clerks do. But until Texans change their drinking habits, there is not much you can do to correct this state of affairs except to know what you want before you start shopping.

The first rule is to ignore the trappings and the puffery which some stores use to impress you. Beware of carpeted "wine cellars" lined with walnut veneer paneling and plywood trellises hung with plastic grapes. The owner is trying to induce Wine Awe in your vulnerable psyche. (Gee . . . a medieval wine cellar right here in Dallas . . .) He keeps the lighting so dim that you cannot read the labels, for reasons that may become obvious after you open the bottle. Darkness, cool, and quiet are conditions entirely desirable for storing your own wines, but your wine merchant is in the business of selling the stuff—not awaiting a white-glove inspection by the Chevaliers du Tastevin.

Several of the best wine stores in Texas make no effort to do anything more than put the wines out where you can see them. A rack on one wall, maybe—but most of the wines are sitting in the middle of the sales floors, stacked in their original cartons with the top of the uppermost crate torn off. That may not be particularly elegant; but if the selection is good and the wines have not been abused, the setting doesn't matter.

Good wines can of course be found in each of the major Texas cities. But the patterns of distribution and pricing are remarkably irregular. Dallas and Houston predictably have the widest selection (with Dallas distinctly superior to Houston). San Antonio is disappointing for a city of its size. Austin and Houston each have one outstanding store. Fort Worth has very creditable offerings.

If your wine dealer is playing fair with you, his prices are largely determined by the wholesale price he himself must pay. In the current rising market, price variations often have more to do with when he bought his supply than with the mark-up he uses. The best buys on wine are generally to be found in Dallas. But the sage shopper should realize that prices vary as much from store to store within a city as they do between cities, and that (to make the game even more challenging) a store which has bargain prices on one wine may ask well above the going rate for another. Comparison shopping is definitely worthwhile—but if you want the most for your money you must do it on a bottle-to-bottle basis.

Liquor sales in Dallas seem to have been captured by a few large chains. One of these, Centennial Liquors, is the best for the oenophile. The selection is excellent, the prices down-the-middle, and the personnel occasionally knowledgeable. There are numerous locations; the one at 8123 Preston Road, with its wine department under the supervision of Andy Anderson, is especially good. So is the branch in the parking lot at Northpark Mall and the modern, glass-fronted store at 3647 West Northwest Highway, directly under the Bachman Lake approach pattern to Love Field (this should be the ultimate test of whether wines really need peace and quiet). But any of the North Dallas branches are reliable.

The best of the other chains is Sigel's. Their selection cannot match Centenial's, but the prices are occasionally a trifle lower. Once again, the North Dallas branches are superior; you might try the store at 5636 Lemmon.

Among the independents, Marty's Liquors at 3316 Oak Lawn has a noteworthy wine department under the supervision of Dean Patton. Prices are bafflingly unpredictable. On a 1969 Chassangne-Montrachet recently, Marty's had the lowest price in the state; at other times they will be as much as a dollar higher than their local competition. But the monthly special sales frequently provide buys that are nothing less than exceptional. One of the March offerings—a fragrant and refreshing little 1971 Leiwener Sonnenthal Moselle—went for $2 a bottle or $21.50 a case. The identical wine was selling in Austin for $3.59 and in Houston for $4 a bottle.

In Houston the pre-eminent store is Richard's, with three locations on the West side. Ownership has been passed from the original proprietor, Richard Trabulsi, to his son, a young lawyer of the same name. He appears to be preserving the stores' traditionally extensive inventory of French and German wines. The overall quality of the wine at Richard's is probably the highest of any store in Texas. Sensitivity and informed judgment have obviously been brought to bear in the initial decision to purchase a given wine for stock, and in consequence you are less likely to run across a deliberately-mediocre bottle here than anywhere else.

The impressive new branch of Richard's at 5630 Richmond Avenue has another asset that is almost unique in Texas wine stores: a genuinely knowledgeable expert who can give you intelligent advice. He is Henryk Kucharzyk, formerly the head of the wine department at the Houston branch of Neiman-Marcus until they inexplicably withdrew from the retail wine trade early this year. Looking for all the world like a cultivated pre-war European diplomat, "Henri" circulates around the store, engaging customers in conversation and bringing his formidable wine knowledge to bear on their deliberations. If you are tired of walking into a store and asking for a chateau-bottle Bordeaux, only to be handed a Chateauneuf-du-Pape, you will find all this quite refreshing.

The smaller and older location at 2124 South Shepherd largely duplicates the Richmond Avenue stock, but wine buyer Bob Roy has a special fondness for German wines and can be counted upon to give good advice on these.

Prices at Richard's are generally reasonable and competitive, although they may occasionally be 25¢ or 50¢ higher than other stores. Several bottles of 1966 Chateau d'Yquem carried tags for $23 recently—a good three to five dollars higher than elsewhere. But this is presumably the exception and not the rule.

Good wines can be found in other Houston stores, but none of them has the scope and reliability of Richard's. Second place should probably go to Cobweb, with several locations, including one store emphasizing wines at 2036 Westheimer. The French selection is distinctly better than the German; prices are average. Joseph's at 1408 Westheimer is a picturesque, ramshackle little place with a front room set aside for wine-tasting. The selection is interesting and occasionally intriguing (it may be the only place in Texas that stocks a variety of Rumanian and Australian wines), but the prices are too high. The 1967 Maximin Gruenhauser Moselle offered for $7 here could be had for $3 a few blocks away at Cobweb. Other price discrepancies were not so great, but there are few bargains at Joseph's.

Both Foley's and Sakowitz department stores sell imported wines. You can occasionally pick up something unusual and worthwhile there, but for the most part they are substantially overpriced. Sakowitz is the better of the two. Foley's is most dependable for its sales and some special bottlings under its own label; many of the other bottles are of the sort that look better than they really are.

If you do your wine shopping in San Antonio, you will wind up at the main branch of the Texas Store, 4820 Broadway. A process of elimination will get you there if nothing else does, for there are very few serious competitors.

This particular Texas Store belongs to the cardboard-boxes-on-the-floor school, which is all to the good. The selection is clearly the best in Bexar County, and the prices, though higher than in most other Texas cities, are competitive within San Antonio. (The Chassagne-Montrachet that was $3.49 at Marty's in Dallas was $4.99 here.) Other branches have less-complete selections, though oddly enough, the prices for identical bottles can vary as much as 75¢ from one store to another. Since all the wines are selected and purchased by the main store, there is only a marginal price motive to visit the others. We frankly have little affection for the lavish branch inside North Star Mall, where a clerk who observed us making notes on the posted prices rumbled over and announced, "The manager doesn't like people writing down his prices. You can memorize them if you want, but don't write them down." Wine-buying as an Undercover Activity?

Don's and Ben's, 6003 West Avenue at Loop 410, is their principal competitor. The selection of German wines is pathetic, with only a few estate-bottled Rhines bobbing in a sea of Liebfraumilch and Moselbluemchen. With French wines they are considerably better stocked, and the Burgundy and Bordeaux prices seem a little lower than the Texas Stores. Otherwise, you might try the Handy-Andy (yes, that's right) at Central Park Mall or at the corner of Nacogdoches and New Braunfels. The management recently decided to go into the wine business as an experiment and the results, unlike most grocery-store efforts, are nothing to be ashamed of. As a final alternative, you can do what a growing number of San Antonians are doing and make a wine-buying excursion to Dan's in Austin.

Dan's is unusual among liquor-store chains in that the decision whether or not to order a particular wine is made independently at each of the three branches. As a result the store at 5353 Burnet Road has a negligible selection; the wine department under the supervision of knowledgeable, crew-cut Bill Tullos at 1600 Lavaca has a number of excellent buys in its relatively small inventory; and the big, cluttered warehouse at 1327 South Congress, ruled by Dan himself, has as good a selection as can be found in Central Texas and among the lowest prices of any fine store in Texas.

A bottle of 1970 Steinberger Riesling carries a price tag of $2.99 at Dan's. The same bottle lists for $3.29, $3.59, and $3.79 at various Dallas stores; in Houston and San Antonio the asking price ranges from $3.99 to $4.99. The differences are usually less dramatic, of course, but the combination of selection and price makes this establishment one of the best bets in Texas wine-buying.

Reuben's Bottle Shop, 1209 Red River, is another reliable store. Owner Reuben Kogut is attempting to make his tiny shop into a center of quality wines. Most of the inventory has been selected with some care, and you will seldom run across an inferior bottle outside the very lowest price range. But the better wines unfortunately tend to be somewhat overpriced; for example, that 1970 Steinberger costs $3.95 here.

There is a smattering of other decent wine stores in Austin, but except for the occasional worthwhile bottle they have nothing to offer that cannot be found better at Dan's or Reuben's. The Centennial Stores, incidentally, (including the large wine shop at 2932 Guadalupe) have nothing whatever to do with the excellent Centennial chain in Dallas—a fact that would readily become apparent upon close inspection of their mediocre and pretentious wine offerings.

Texans have a habit of looking down their noses with some disdain at Fort Worth, but in the case of fine wines (like other art objects) the big cow town more than holds its own with its sophisticated urban rivals. The best place to shop is Cook's Discount Liquors, 6387 Camp Bowie Road. Despite its suburban-discount-city exterior, this dandy store closely rivals Dan's for bargain prices and has a remarkably varied selection. Comparison pricing indicates the "discount" in the title is for real.

An equally good store, with more sophisticated decor and somewhat higher prices, is King's Liquor, 2810 West Berry. Like Cook's, King's offers an extensive selection of not always distinguished imported wines at reasonable prices. A clerk told us proudly that "we have lots more in the back," but added that they had no list of them available for viewing.

In the wine business it is traditional to give the customer a 10 per cent discount on the purchase of a 12-bottle case. Few clerks will do so unless you ask. Occasionally you will run across one who will try to bluff you out of it; the favorite song-and-dance these days is that wine prices have been going up so fast the dealer just can't afford to give discounts any more. Nonsense, of course. Don't let them buffalo you into paying more.

To the best of our knowledge, all of the stores recommended in this article offer case discounts. Most of them give the standard 10 per cent. Even then there are variations, however: Reuben's and Richard's give 10 per cent off on a "mixed" case (as many as 12 different kinds of wine), while Centennial in Dallas requires that the case be all of one kind, six-and-six, or (if "mixed") that all the bottles carry the same price tag.

Four stores have unorthodox discount policies. Marty's gives you the equivalent of one-and-one-fourth bottles free with each purchase of 12. Sigel's simply knocks $1 off the price of each three bottles you buy, mixed or not, making them an excellent bet for cheaper wines and a losing proposition for the more expensive varieties. Joseph's has the most generous approach: 10 per cent off each three bottles, or two free bottles in each 12. The main Dan's store in Austin gives at least 10 per cent on mixed cases, but this has been known to rise to 15 per cent depending upon the mood Dan himself happens to be in.

If you are dealing with a store that gives a mixed case discount, you would be well advised to take advantage of it by choosing a dozen different bottles of wines you think you'll like, taking your discount, and carrying them home to sample one-by-one until you find the ones you especially prefer. You can go back and get larger quantities later.

Finally, if all else fails and you simply cannot find that exotic Tokay Essenz, 1929 Chateau-Haut-Brion, or Schloss Johannisberger Trockenbeerenauslese you've been dreaming of, or if you simply want to peruse a wider selection you can always order from New York (Sherry-Lehmann, Inc., Mr. Sam Aaron, 679 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10021) or Washington (Calvert's Wine Shop, Mr. Alfio Moriconi, 2312 Wisconsin Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20007).

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