Little Shops of Wines

How a couple of ounces are redefining the experience

Damian Mandola Jr. from Mandola's Italian Market
Damian Mandola Jr. from Mandola's Italian Market (Photo By John Anderson)

Think of how nice it would be to be able to taste a glass of wine before you bought it. How many times have you taken a chance on a wine and then wished you hadn't? At several new shops in Austin, you can try it, then buy it. That strikes a great blow for consumerism.

How do the merchants accomplish it? Austin is the beneficiary of an explosion of little wine shops that also operate wine bars. Places like Crú, Cork & Co., and Vino 100 feature 100 to 600 different wines. Besides favorites, they also try to sniff out the more exotic and hard-to-find wines – things you wouldn't normally find at a grocery or liquor store – then wow you with their discoveries. They feel the best way to make sure you get a chance to try the most wines is to serve them by the glass.

At most of these shops, you'll find 5-ounce pours (a glass), 2-ounce pours (a taste), and flights of three or four taste-sized servings. Each shop tries hard to make sure they have a wide representation of wines by the glass with an ever-changing selection.

Here's what happens to me: I see a wine on the shelf I've never tasted. I want that one, even though it's not on the day's list. Almost all of our wine bars will accommodate and open something that's not on the by-the-glass menu. You just have to ask. So, not only do you get the option of trying the day's offerings; you can pick something you've always been curious about and try a glass.

And we're not talking about shoddy wines, either. "We recently put on a flight of three 2-ounce pours of Silver Oak, Georges de Latour, and Pelligrini Cloverdale Ranch for $20," says Brian Franzman, general manager at Crú. "These are wines that most people will never try because of their expense, but we're giving them the opportunity." Crú has already developed a following for its simple but elegant interior, its streetside tables, and small but nicely designed dining menu. There's even a rumor that they will be starting a half-price champagne special one night a week

Meanwhile, bubbly lovers are in luck at the newest wine bar in town: VinoVino. They have decided that they want to be the go-to place in Austin for champagne and sparkling wines, and they intend to do it by having the lowest prices in town and a huge variety of labels. "We are going to put our hearts into it," says Jerry Reid, the wine guy. "We want to be known as the bubble capital of Texas." Their still-wine pricing will be a bit above Central Market's. But, given the fact that you can try the wines before you buy, plus, like the other shops listed, no corkage fee for popping a bottle and enjoying it right then and there, the price differential is minimal. Reid has been involved with some of the city's best wine lists – Mezzaluna and Siena, namely – and he is relentless in his search for fascinating, unknown wines. It's too early to say, but VinoVino looks like it could be a winner.

Vino 100 is a franchise operation with three locations: Lakeway, Georgetown, and Round Rock. Each store is locally owned, and the owners have the freedom to inject a little of their own creativity into the shops. The central concept, and the reason for the name, is their pledge to always have at least 100 interesting wines for less than $25 a bottle. This takes some time and effort, since they're trying to sell things other than megacorporation wines. The fact that there are 60 other Vino 100s allows them to buy wines at a more attractive price, and they also get first crack at many interesting small labels. Again, since they offer most everything by the glass, you can try before you buy.

Cork & Co. is a locally owned company that is setting its sights on the downtown customer looking for a chance to try many different wines. "Every day, we offer 20 different flights of three wines," says co-owner Tori Alvarado. They also go for the flexible approach to keep the customer satisfied. When I asked her if she would open a bottle not on the list, there was no hedging. She said, "Yes, we will. Anything for our customers." Football fans will appreciate the all-day and -night $5 happy hour to go along with football on the big screens. The other five days, happy hour rolls along until 8pm, making Cork & Co. a great place to stop in on the way home from work.

The Lake Travis Wine Trader offers a larger wine selection than most – 600 different labels – and they pour four 2-ounce shots on their flights instead of three. They have a great tasting on Saturdays with a flight of high-end wines for $15. Then, on Sundays, they offer a midpriced flight for $5. The Lake Travis Wine Trader sits between a sushi bar and a pizza joint and is just blocks from one of Austin's finest Chinese establishments, Pao's. Many customers will buy takeout, take the food into the Wine Trader, order a flight or a bottle, and have a nice dinner. The Wine Trader doesn't mind setting you up with napkins and cleaning up after you're done.

One other place in town deserves mention for its juxtaposition of retail wine and wine by the glass. Mandola's Italian Market has a small but thoughtfully chosen list of wines for sale, all at rock-bottom markups. "We try to keep about 50 wines," Damian Mandola Jr. says, "and will generally have two reds and two whites by the glass, along with the Mandola Estate Texas wines." Mandola's is the only place to have a big push on Texas wines. Damian Sr. has planted a vineyard and hired one of Texas' best winemakers, Mark Pena. Their wines have big acids and strong fruit flavors, all a good matchup for Mandola's food. And the prices really are low. Where the other wine bars are foremost wine stores, Mandola's is primarily a food place. Even though the wine list is small, you can always find a wine to match your food, and it's frequently less than you'd pay in a store. There's never a corkage fee.

Perhaps the greatest benefit from all of these new places is that they give people who love wine – not snobs, but people who appreciate it in all its guises – a place to congregate. I've met some of my best friends over a glass of wine. No worries about being undereducated: Each place is dead-set against stuffy, esoteric gab. They want customers who are open, inquisitive, and eager to learn. Who knows what you might discover? end story

Surveying the Savoring

Cork & Co.

308 Congress


Wines by the glass: 110

Wines by the bottle: 130

Food? Cheeses and chocolates

Pop any bottle in the house? Yes

Crú 2nd Street

235 W. Second


Wines by the glass: 50

Wines by the bottle: 300

Food? Full kitchen

Pop any bottle in the house? 90% of their wines available on request

Lake Travis Wine Trader

2422 RR 620 S. Ste. 118-A


Wines by the glass: 40

Wines by the bottle: 600

Food? Cheese plates; they welcome takeout

Pop any bottle in the house? Most wines

Mandola's Italian Market

4700 W. Guadalupe #12


Wines by the glass: 10

Wines by the bottle: 50

Food? Full kitchen with great food

Pop any bottle in the house? No

Vino 100

900 RR 620 in Lakeway, 512/402-9696

1019 W. University #220 in Georgetown, 512/686-1665

3021 S. I-35 #120 in Round Rock, 512/255-0526

Wines by the glass: 12

Wines by the bottle: 200

Food? Cheeses

Pop any bottle in the house? Yes, if you will buy at least two glasses

VinoVino (l-r): Kelley Bell, Jerry Reid, and Jeff Courington
VinoVino (l-r): Kelley Bell, Jerry Reid, and Jeff Courington (Photo By John Anderson)

VinoVino (up soon)

4119 Guadalupe


Wines by the glass: Varies daily

Wines by the bottle: 250

Food? Cold foods now; kitchen to open in early 2007

Pop any bottle in the house? Yes, if you will buy at least two glasses

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Crú, VinoVino, Mandola's Italian Market, Vino 100, Lake Travis Wine Trader, Cork & Co.

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