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.