In his lustrous new shop, Buckley Wineholt asks one question of his wines.
"Does this wine over-deliver at its price point?" says the aptly surnamed owner of Urban Wine + Liquor. "If you taste 50 wines a week, you have a broader context."
Wineholt operates, with a silent partner, Urban Wine + Liquor at the Austonian condo tower, next to Caffé Medici.
One way of making sure his wines consistently exceed expectations is to carry only 500 options.
"At the point of over 1,500 wines — and some stores now offer 5,000 — the quality of the set begins degrading," the 52-year-old Wineholt says. "You'd have to have a large group of tasters constantly tasting. If one wine is a dud, it ruins the set."
If a discriminating customer wants, say, something that performs like a Brunello but doesn't break the bank, he'll recommend a "baby Brunello," such as Montecucco Sassetti at $19.
If another (like myself) dreams of a really good, thick Barolo for a special night but can't afford more than $100 a bottle, Wineholt will offer a Prinsi Barbaresco at $45.
Yet the heart and soul of his store's set are the Spanish wines made from grapes such as Tempranillo, Garnacha or Monastrell.
"They phenomenally over-deliver," he says. "Most are under $20, and they are all rocking good versions of Spanish wines."
Baltimore-born Wineholt, who talks with the fast intensity of a zealot, grew up in family businesses — King Syrup, founded by his grandparents, on his father's side and the long-gone Dietrich Brothers Steel on his mother's side.
One role model was a larger-than-life grandfather who dressed nattily and owned racehorses. The fast learner who attended the Boys' Latin School of Maryland enrolled in New Orleans' Tulane University in 1978.
"That's when the story begins to skew," he says. "I was schooled by New Orleans. Tulane had almost nothing to do with it."
Many years later, he earned his degree from the University of New Orleans. More important, however, to his future were experiences such as following around a band called the Radiators, attending culinary school and working as a saucier at the Sheraton New Orleans. For a while, he ran a catering company that provided food for a speakeasy.
"I didn't come to wine until very late in life," he says. "My grandmother in her later years would come to New Orleans regularly. She'd stay in the French Quarter. We'd go out and dine regally. We'd talk for a month planning our culinary schedule."
Two eateries opened his eyes: Commander's Palace and Gautreau's.
"Company sets the tone," he says about dining. "Context sets up the structure for a great meal. Then I hope my expectations are met."
For a high-end meal in Austin, he likes Congress, Perry's, Trio and the Driskill. For comfort food, it's Live Oak Barbecue, which operates out of a former biker bar at East Second Street and Pleasant Valley Road.
"You can get in the door," he starts off. "The food is reasonably priced. You can order whatever you want. And it's terrific. It's air-conditioned and smells like smoke. The people are friendly."
Wineholt's local culinary career took off while he was serving as a cooking instructor at Central Market Westgate. After taking a leave of absence to hit the road, he transferred to the wine and beer department.
"I love well-balanced wine," he says. "As an enthusiastic omnivore, I love wines that pair with foods. I don't like over-oaked, over-alcoholized, over-extracted, over-priced wines."
One particular tasting convinced him of the power of wine.
"There was a reasonably priced French Rhone — grenache-based," he says. "It was complex, it was juicy, it was acidic and tannic all at the same time. I remember how it tasted to this very day."
While the wine side of his shop thrives by keeping the number of alternatives down, his liquor department takes the opposite strategy. It reaches beyond the core brands that prop up most stores. That means more than 50 types of gin, more than 100 types each of rums and tequilas, and more than 200 kinds each of scotches and vodkas.
"We provide an elemental amenity," he says. "We deliver all over downtown and serve as the sommelier for the Austonian residents."
Wineholt particularly likes the electricity on the streets leading to Congress Avenue and Second Street.
"I'm married to Urban Wine + Liquor," he says. "It's my wife and children."
What about folks who just don't like wine?
"Anyone who says they don't like wine haven't bothered to try," he says. "I tell people, ‘Try as many as you wines as you can, then expand your palate.' "
Contact Michael Barnes at firstname.lastname@example.org