Best Bites

The Cuisines Staff Noshes Through 2000

Mirabelle (Photo By John Anderson)

10 Great Places to Pick Up the Passion

Let's try an imaginary Rorschach test. Suppose you've just walked into a store or restaurant that has a large selection of wine. Do you:

1. Feel intimidated about your lack of knowledge?

2. Have an anxiety attack compounded by delusions of inadequacy?

3. Experience exhilaration over studying all those labels?

4. Go into paroxysms of ecstasy over all the new tastes?

5. Wish that you had a lot more money?

If you answered "yes" to any of the above, we have 10 great places for you to go, places that welcome wine newbies with open arms and gently guide them to knowledge. At the same time, they are all capable of taking enthusiasts to new, unexpected worlds of flavors and aromas. All 10 can help you stretch your bucks by pointing you to the best values. In alphabetical order:

1. Les Amis du Vin: Fifteen years ago, Sam Kindred took over this ailing tasting group. A few years later, he recruited John Baggett and Terry Lickona to join him as Chapter Directors. Roughly 15 times a year, they put on an event for about 50 people interested in wine. Participants cover the continuum from beginners to experts. For your (average) $75, you generally get some stellar wines with food to match. For example, the Dec. 28 meeting at Si Bon featured four courses and five superb wines, a value of probably $120 for $85 (members) or $95 (non-members). John and Sam discuss the wines and I can attest that there are few people in Austin who can match their level of knowledge with such a lack of non-snobbery. If you would like to join the 700 other people on their mailing list, contact the phone number listed below. Membership is $20 per year (call 925-3985). These guys make nothing on this effort. It is strictly a labor of love.

2. The Cellar: Co-owner Sue Carter frequently finds herself cooking at home for some of Austin's best chefs. They like her food. I like the juxtaposition of her cooking talent and knowledge of wine. Inexperienced buyers get personal attention; enthusiasts get super food/wine recommendations. Bargain hunters should check the monthly specials for obscure, value-oriented wines. Be sure to get on their mailing list.

3. Central Market: Central Market has both a wine section and a cooking school with frequent classes on wine. The store now sells almost 3,000 different wines. Manager April Lowe has instituted the "Partner's Picks" program out of a belief that there is no such thing as "right" and "wrong" when it comes to wine. One person's elixir may be another's poison. Each wine partner (HEB's term for the people that work there) picks their favorites and writes about them on a color-coded card. Once you discover a partner with similar tastes to yours, you can look for their cards above the wines, an ingeniously simple system. On top of that, the CM Cooking School now puts on five to 10 well-attended classes on wine per month. They offer comparisons, tasting, lectures and food/wine pairing, taught by knowledgeable people and priced fairly.

4. Sarah Jane English: Ms. English is an author and teacher who has been lauded by no less than Robert Mondavi. Here in Austin, she offers her Symposia two to three times per year at her house (her next starts in March). Concentrating on beginners, these classes focus on the basic French varietals. Symposium graduates are eligible to join one of her three tasting groups. The five-session Symposium costs $250 (call 474-1889 or access Sarah Jane has lots of fans: Her tasting group currently has a 40-person waiting list!

5. Grape Vine Market: Greg Steiner and Chuck Huffaker are nuts about wine. Ask them for advice and you'll feel their fervor right away. Last year, they won the Food and Wine magazine award as the best Retailer of the Year in the United States. Why? Start with huge stock (4,500 different wines), add pricing that ranges from $4 to $1,400, and finish with regular, inexpensive wine appreciation classes and tastings. Top all that off with an attitude that screams "NO GEEKS." Everything is very casual, down to the descriptions adorning their favorite wines. What I really love: This year, when they published their 20 favorite wines, the top choice was A-Mano 1999 Primitivo, a wine that costs only $11.

6. Lincoln Street Wine Market: Owners Todd & Jodie Smajstrla opened the Lincoln Street Wine Market (111 South Lincoln Street in Fredericksburg, 830/997-8463, www.linco in 1996. Their store has more than 300 wines. What sets them apart is they will open any bottle and serve it by the glass! This is an incredible opportunity to taste different wines. First, you are paying retail, not restaurant prices. Second, and even better, there's no price penalty for buying a glass vs. a bottle. You pay one-fourth of retail for seven ounces, which is one-fourth of a bottle. Add to that a nice selection of breads, cheeses, and patés (and the advice of Len White, one of only about 20 certified sommeliers in Texas), and you've got something worth driving to Fredericksburg for.

7. Mirabelle: Owner Michael Villim is one of the most well-informed wine people in town. And he epitomizes missionary zeal. First, his restaurant has the lowest mark-up of any in town, something he allows to cut into his profit margins in hopes people will become more turned on by wine. Second, he takes the time to write meticulous descriptions of each of his wines. Third, he develops his menu around his wine list, not vice-versa. Finally, he recognizes that the best way to get folks to try new wines is to have lots available by the glass, which he does. I learn something new about wine at Mirabelle every single time I go.

8. Our Own Local Texas Wineries: There is no better way to learn about wine than to go straight to the source. Many of Texas's 30-plus wineries will happily take you on a tour of their vineyards, demonstrate how they create their wine, and then give you a taste of the finished product. For more information on locations and phone numbers, go to www.auschron .com/issues/dispatch/2000-02-11/food_ feature.html. Be sure to watch out for the Valentine Wine Lover's Trail, a splendid opportunity to visit several vineyards over one weekend.

9. Tocai: Tocai is the best place in Austin to learn about nonconformist food and wine matching. Owner Anthony Garcia, as befits a jazz fanatic, likes to improvise. In jazz, improvising isn't very interesting unless the player is a master of their instrument. Garcia is a virtuoso on his "instrument" -- wine/food matching. Pick a dish from the menu that appeals and ask Garcia to match it with wine in your chosen price range. Get him to explain why the match works, then taste. Major chord.

10. Twin Liquors: Manager Russell Smith used to be a winemaker at Flora Springs in California and at Slaughter-Leftwich and Hill Country Cellars in Texas. From planting the vines to drinking the wine, his knowledge is encyclopedic. Unlike some other people with imposing erudition, he can communicate at any level. Amateurs and aficionados alike can learn from Russell. And he is passionate about ferreting out bargains. Once he gets to know what you like, he is virtually infallible.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More by Wes Marshall
Weekend Wine: Vermentino
Weekend Wine: Vermentino
Take your pick: Italy, Texas, or California?

July 5, 2024

Weekend Wine: Tenuta Sant’Antonio’s Monti Garbi Valpolicella Ripasso Superiore
Weekend Wine: Tenuta Sant’Antonio’s Monti Garbi Valpolicella Ripasso Superiore
Tastes much more expensive than its $23 price

April 18, 2024

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle