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WINE Buyers and Cellars

A guide to Dallas wine shops that can help prevent some bargain-priced disap-pointments.
By ELMER RAY SPURR |

Das Leben ist zu kurz, um schlechten Wein zu trinken.

– German proverb



Life is, indeed, too short to drink bad wine; nevertheless, most consumers risk it every time they venture into their local wine shop. Whether it be a simple jug variety or an exotic chateau bottling, the choice is usually difficult and largely based on guesswork. Wine merchants should guide you to a good selection at a fair price, of course, but they don’t always succeed, so a bit of advice on what to look for and avoid should help ease your wine-shopping anxieties.

I tend to judge a store more by its bad merchandise than by its good. Obviously, the less junk wine a shop offers, the better your chance of making a good choice. When retailers get stuck with bad vintages (like 1972 Bordeaux), over-the-hill garbage, or such oddities as Mexican and Chilean wine, they often try to pass them on to the customer as “close-outs” or “specials.” View these so-called bargains with suspicion. A defective wine tastes no better at $1.99 than it did at $3.99. Also, try not to be dependent on the commercial brands that so many stores feature. Popular items like Mateus, Lancers, and Blue Nun are pleasant enough, but the cost of advertising them is inevitably passed on to you. Comparable or superior wines are available for half the price. Good stores should not only offer these alternatives, but bring them to your attention.

If God had wanted wine shops to be self-service, He would have made them gas stations. Tell the salesperson what you like – red or white, sweet or dry – and how much you care to spend. Beware of commission-crazed salesmen who badger you with wine trivia or scare tactics (“We’ll never have this again, or if we do, it’ll cost twice as much”). Dallas stores are notorious for pushing “promotional items,” which have a monetary incentive for the salesperson built into the price.

The wine is usually a nice product, but not always the best choice for your money.

Incidentally, a prop is available for those who wish to browse unbothered but still can’t figure out all the funny names on the labels. It’s Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Encyclopedia of Wine ($3.95), a microcosm of valuable wine information. On the same note, avoid those handy little vintage charts that wine stores and suppliers devise to rate the quality of years. If they are to be believed, every vintage is at least “very good” – understandable, since the stock must be sold regardless of its merits.

Wine is a fragile commodity, and merchants who showcase wine in open sunlight or store it in hot warehouses are inviting trouble. It’s not easy to know the condition of a bottle before opening it, however, so avoid bottles with faded labels (probably victims of sunlight storage), signs of leakage, and low fills. Be sure the wines are lying down on the racks (unless they are fast-selling items or display bottles). Dust is fine in a cellar, but indicates sloppiness in a wine shop. All in all, wine should be displayed intelligently, with the various countries and categories distinct and easy to find.

Although some stores have reputations for being “cut-rate,” there is surprisingly little difference in wine prices among Dallas’ major retailers; “price-shopping” often boils down to a long drive on Central Expressway to save 30 cents on Mouton-Cadet. Many price differences are the result of turnover: A shop that moves a lot of merchandise may appear high-priced because it reflects present-day (read expensive) wine costs; stores with less traffic seem cheaper because their wines have been on the shelf for several years at old prices. Sometimes these can be real bar-gains; often, however, the wine has aged badly because of poor storage.

In Dallas, there are two basic approaches to retailing wine, represented by the chain store and the specialty shop. By purchasing wine in huge quantities, chain stores can often give better prices. Unfortunately, they are limited to selecting wines that can be bought in sufficient volume to supply all their stores. (However, it’s not unusual to find some truly noble wines languishing like unemployed actors in a remote outpost of a chain enterprise.) Another element of chain-store marketing is the handling of “exclusives.” While the exclusive line may be of sound quality, it usually dominates the shelves and detracts from the overall selection. Specialty shops can offer better variety by being more creative in their buying. These shops are usually more wine-oriented and can take the time to track down specific wines upon request.

The retail wine scene in Dallas has slipped over the past few years. Sales are probably up, but many stores have lost their pizzazz, and one of the best – the A&A Chateau in Highland Park – has closed. Nevertheless, wine lovers still have plenty to choose from, including some bright spots in newly wet Addison, where several chain stores have opened branches.

Listed below are the major retail outlets for wine in the area. All but La Cave double as liquor stores and several have gourmet food sections.

La Cave. Small wine bar that deserves more recognition as a retail shop. Personalized service and intriguing selection (mostly imports). Not a high-volume store, just a great place to buy, drink, and learn about wine.

Centennial. The largest chain, all locations carrying basically the same merchandise. Selections are limited almost entirely to “exclusives” and promotional items. The Burgundy section is dominated by one shipper (Alexis Lichine, not one of my favorites) and the San Martin winery has a near monopoly on the California section. Most of the wines are of good quality and well-priced.

Goody-Goody. You know you’re on Harry Hines when you enter the main store. If the name doesn’t put you off, the Harlequin’s Carnival setting certainly will. Too many wines, scattered about in almost hallucinogenic fashion. A few good values available if you don’t mind digging. The Greenville Ave. location is much nicer.

King’s (Fort Worth). Friends are always telling me about the amazing values tucked away in King’s corners. Five-and-dime atmosphere, but if you’re willing to grope around, it’s worth a trip.

Marty’s. Trendy Oak Lawn specialty shop with probably the best wine cellar in town. Some brilliant selections, from everyday wine to the exotics. No close-outs or sales, but watch out for promotional items. The atmosphere is geared toward the wine enthusiast, and frugal shoppers tend to be treated somewhat cavalierly. The old staff (the author included) has been replaced by a less wine-oriented crew of salesmen. Conveniently, Marty’s delivers, but only to wet areas.

Mr. V’s. The new kid in town, a chain with specialty-shop ambitions. Intelligent selections, good variety, and fair prices. The Addison store has the best wine shop in North Dallas.

Red Coleman’s. Busy cut-rate stores with a lot of close-out junk mixed with labels of high quality. Confusing.

Sigel’s. This established chain seems to have grown a bit tired lately. Still has a broad and reasonably priced selection, but nothing very new or creative. Has some exclusive lines and questionable close-outs. Sponsors occasional “Les Amis du Vin” wine tastings. Interesting to shop some of the more remote branches for older wines, but check the condition before buying.

The Vineyard. Last bastion of the old A&A chain. This store began as a serious wine and cheese shop, but seems uninspired today. Still, good variety and an excellent location make it a reliable shop.

Warehouse. Another chain store withnothing special to offer. Adequate selection and prices. Curiously, it stocks mostof its wines in standing position.