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East End Wines finds its sweet spot

On Rosewood Avenue, an old house with wood floors and 800 labels

Mike Sutter
The bottles Sam Hovland, below left, and Matt Miller choose for East End Wines must be exceptional, but that doesn't mean expensive. Their median price is about $17.

Matt Miller and Sam Hovland entered the wider world of wine through the same portal, the Austin Wine Merchant. The experience spoiled them for life.

"The first wine I had was a $60 Burgundy, before knowing anything about wine," Miller said. "It's like, `Oh, this is what wine's supposed to be like.'" Hovland's discovery of good taste was a bittersweet thing. "I learned, sadly, that my great love falls to these immaculate, very expensive wines.

It would have been much happier going for me if I'd learned that I really like $10 zinfandels more than anything else, but it turns out I like grand cru Burgundy."

So it was heaven and hell for Hovland and Miller at John Roenigk's respected shop on West Sixth Street, with what Hovland called one of the greatest Burgundy selections in the Southwest.

In April, Hovland and Miller staked out more terrestrial ground when they opened East End Wines. Taking a grand, wood-floored 1890s manor on a triangle lot where East 11th Street meets Rosewood Avenue, they found room for more than 800 wine labels from most corners of the wine-producing world.

The shop's inventory is like a restaurant wine list compiled by an obsessive savant, peppered with labels you've never heard of and some you've heard about in breathless conversations with wine people. It's Miller and Hovland's job to hear those conversations. They've tasted every label in the shop, fretted over price points, chased geographic diversity, made sure to represent as many grapes as possible. That's Hovland's background as a restaurant sommelier coming out.

There are still holes in the shelves, black bins stacked six bottle-heights tall, some with labels promising things to come, others waiting for the right bottle. That's Miller's retail background coming out. "I don't ever want our inventory to be looked at like product, like Coca-Cola," he said.

"We're taking it slow, growing organically. We can't fill all those holes and be confident without just starting to throw things in there. Everything has to count."

Hovland backed him up. "We're not just going to put something in here because it's $10 and white. It's going to have to be the best example of the particular grape, drinking like a $15 or $20 wine at $10," he said.

Value is a driving force for both men. On East End's list of 12 top-sellers (see the list, page D5), you won't see names you necessarily recognize from the grocery store, but the prices will feel familiar, hovering around $10, dipping as low as $6.97 for a vinho verde from Portugal and $7.27 for an Argentinian torrontés.

"We were making a conscious effort to shoot for a 12- to-15-dollar sweet spot," Hovland said. "The median price is now under $17 for all the wines in the shop. That means there are hundreds and hundreds of wines for under $10."

With so much wine on the market, Miller and Hovland can get creative. One scheduled tasting includes a Germanic-influenced Italian red called schiava, an Italian white called pecorino and a Spanish red called bobal.

But East End also carries wines that draw collectors and connoisseurs. Both men have the ability to go deep into wine-geek territory. They lose me completely in a discussion about Spanish wine, but when I confuse a grape with a region, they explain the difference without actually telling me I was wrong.

The two met when Miller was making deliveries for the Austin Wine Merchant to the private Headliners Club downtown, where Hovland was a sommelier and where he still works occasionally. Miller, 31, moved to Austin in 1997 from the small town of Columbus off Interstate 10 between San Antonio and Houston to attend the University of Texas.

You might remember him if you've bought wine or beer at the Westgate Central Market the past few years. I do. He talked me into a $12 four-pack of beer from Dogfish Head.

Hovland, 39, also has worked for the Austin Wine Merchant, as well as the late restaurants Sardine Rouge, Mars and Demi-Epicurious. He's a certified sommelier, an expert wine steward with a diploma from the International Sommelier Guild.

The Massachusetts native moved to Austin in 1972. He has an audio engineering degree from UT and played bass in a band called Psychovore. He and his wife, Lee, have an 18-month-old son and are expecting another baby. Also, he's 6-foot-7, something to mention mostly because he's the guy who can stock the top shelves without a stepladder.

The shop is building a local customer base, Miller said. "The energy over here in the past few years is amazing, as far as locally owned businesses," he said, citing the nearby pizza shop East Side Pies and the Mexican restaurant Takoba on East Seventh Street as supporters. "There's a large wine-drinking community over here who would prefer to shop at an independent shop, where it actually counts that we talk about hand-selection."

East End Wines is already adapting its business model. Hovland and Miller have a license to sell hard liquor, but they'll be dropping that and adding events, maybe bringing a food trailer onto the grounds.

"We think it'd be mutually beneficial," Hovland said. "We're in a prettier spot than lots of the conglomerations of food carts are. Having the ability to sell people beers or bottles of wine to take out to their tables would be a good attraction," Hovland said.; 912-5902

East End Wines

1209 Rosewood Ave. 904-9056, . Open: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays-Wednesdays, until 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays.

East End Wine's 12 top-sellers

1. Naveran Cava Brut '07 ($14.97)

2. Black Ridge Pinot Noir NV ($9.27)

3. Uma Torrontes '09 ($7.27)

4. Castillo de Monseran Garnacha '09 ($9.97)

5. Fuzelo Vinho Verde '09 ($7.97)

6. Tilia Malbec '09 ($9.27)

7. Louis Pedrier Rose NV ($9.77)

8. Three Winds Pinot Noir '09 ($9.97)

9. Chateau d'Oupia VDP Les Hérétiques '08 ($9.97)

10. Famega Vinho Verde ($6.97)

11. Baqueano Cab/Malbec '08 ($9.27)

12. Lichine Le Coq Rouge '07 ($10.27)

Update: This list was updated to include no. 4.