BY THE TASTE AND BY THE GLASS
I recently traveled to Austin for wine business, and being somewhat of a connoisseur of wine bars, decided to see how Texas’ capital city wine aligned in comparison to other culinary cities. I was surprised to learn that Austin is the 14th most populous city in the U.S., but certainly not by accident. The city has provided serious incentives to grow their downtown population to 25,000 by 2015, and this is well on its way to becoming a reality, replacing its small town feel with big city traffic.
But alas, I had only two short nights in which to explore the Downtown area, commencing with a mid-evening arrival on Sunday. Where to start? Following the advice of an Austin wine professional who told me that Uchiko (www.uchiaustin.com) was the happening place, I made sure they were open on Sunday evenings, then embarked on a mission to revel in great sushi and sake in this renowned Japanese farmhouse dining spot. A fifteen-dollar cab ride later, we pulled up to a darkened building and an empty lot. The cabbie swore the place was always crowded, especially Sunday evenings when other options were unavailable. Have you guessed yet? I walked to the door, upon which was a simple note explaining that they had chosen to close that evening so their employees could enjoy The SUPERBOWL!!! Ouch! Of course every other self-respecting citizen knew better, but that’s just not my universe. Now, where to go?
I had already planned my next evening, Monday, to meet friends of a friend at Google’s top listed Austin Wine Bar, Max’s Wine Dive (www.maxswinedive.com), which was just across the street from my hotel. Hating to spoil the next night’s adventure, but needing sustenance and a nice wine treat, I headed back there, and am so glad I did. Max’s was just as devoid of patronage, but they had left the lights on, so I ambled on in and sat at the bar ready to embark on a discovery of their vinous wares.
To my great delight, the wine-tender was happy to introduce me to all things Max, and what an operation they have! There is an impressive array of wines BTG (by the glass) and by the bottle from all regions, as well as weekly features of 9 Under $9 (nine wines for under $9 BTG). In addition, one can have a glass from any bottle on the menu, with a two-glass minimum.
Being a Sunday evening, and having opened many bottles the evening before, the wine-tender was especially forthcoming in offering me tastes of a myriad of exciting treats, including 2008 Etude Pinot Noir; 2009 Uppercut Cabernet Sauvignon, and a 2007 Fontanafredda Eremo Langhe Rosso. All were showing very nicely for having been open 24 hours. Additionally, they have an ongoing program of charging $2 less per glass on the second night and $4 less on the third night of being open...a gamble, but a bargain too. All wines were also available by the bottle to go, at retail prices.
Promising to return the next evening with friends, I was advised not to miss the 2008 Les Pensees de Pallus Chinon. When we gathered on Monday evening, I suggested we share this bottle and it turned out to be a quintessential Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley of France. Described as “distinctive, with a strong, racy graphite underpinning carrying the raspberry ganache, spice, incense and sweet olive notes through a long, fine-grained finish. Really enticing”, it provided great education for my cohorts who were unfamiliar with the Cabernet Franc grape.
So onward we went to explore another wine haunt, not far from the Wine Dive, but on the east side, called Uncorked Tasting Room and Wine Bar (www.uncorkedtastingroom.com). Set in a funky, cozy house with separate wining and dining areas, the ambience agreed with us all. I’ve always believed that education is one of the main functions/duties of a wine bar, and to that end Uncorked scored, as it had flights of wines with themes like Oh, Pinot and The Gaucho. In order to continue the Cabernet Franc theme, I suggested we order this latter flight, which featured a Don Baltazar Cabernet Franc from Argentina. A new world version of the grape, it has been described as “a strong structure and a combination of pleasant aromas such as cherries, herbs and sweet pepper. Scents of vanilla and caramel are also present.” But education is one thing and inundation is another, as I refer to their index of descriptions entitled Uncorked Winedex. With candlelit tables and a soothing ambience, this hard-to-read, over-the-top menu merely serves to confuse, if read at all. It is far better for the server to be informed and helpful.
And last stop on the Austin Wine Train was the Mother ship of all Whole Foods, which was a 20 minute walk from my hotel. I spent two days working with their Team Leader of Wine and Beer, and was delighted by several BTG outlets in the store. The one located within the wine department, named Bar Lamar (the store is located on Lamar Avenue) has a very savvy and affordable selection of 22 sparkling and still wines, available by a flight of 3, BTG or by the bottle.
Shop and sip….the only way to go!