The rest of the 70’s and into the early 80’s were spent ensconced at the University Of Texas School of Business finishing my undergraduate business degree, MBA degree and teaching undergraduate business classes. Wine, however, remained a growing fascination. Those years were lean. Odd jobs generated what little spending money I had. Once, my prospects were so bleak, I even took a job catching live snakes at night for a campus area pet store and the occasional rattler for a university science project. Wrestling rattlers on the end of a snake stick is a bit off the wall and frightening. But I needed some, as we say, walkin’ around money, and hell, this is Texas. Finally, I ended up with a desk job at an insurance agency. At least that was safe from venomous reptiles. During this time I also received a small university paycheck as I continued my position as an instructor at the UT Business School. Certainly, not the income needed for a fine wine collection or even much consumption, but we did our best.
I began to hunt long and hard for good cheap wine. In graduate school and married, Donna’s paltry income as an entry level accountant barely kept us off the streets and out of student housing. Searching for those good cheap wines became our thing. More and more stores carried wine, so our options were expanding. We tried cheap Portuguese wines, Italian wines, South American wines, French wines, German wines and for a while were enamored with inexpensive South African wines before anyone knew South African wines existed.
We were far from wine collectors, more like wine geeks, cheap wine geeks. We soaked off and saved all the labels. When we had enough, I bought an old wine barrel at a garden shop, had a round top made, covered both with wine labels and finished it with clear shellac to create our first dinette table. That decoupage label laden table was definitely the creation of a true wine geek.
With the student side of academia behind me, I still taught part time for a number of years, and with our incomes beginning to rise from my budding consulting practice, we were able to afford better, albeit not collectable wines. Fortunately for us, the early 1980’s was an exciting time for the Austin wine scene. A few wine bars opened near our downtown offices, and we were the first ones in the door. Here, we were introduced to ever improving and expanding wine lists featuring wines from California. Let me say, while I like European wines, my wine heart prefers California wine. I still remember those first Caymus and Heitz Cabernets, not to mention Ridge Zinfandels, as though it were today.
One of those early and unfortunately short lived wine bars was nestled in a small space on Congress Avenue, Berry’s Wine Bar. From my perspective, Berry’s had a few unique twists going for it. First was the name, Berry being very close to my name, Beery, I was often assumed to be the owner; all the glamor with none of the risk or responsibility. The second and more interesting piece was their rentable wine lockers. For a small monthly fee, Berry’s offered 3’x3’ wine lockers complete with a small brass plaque bearing the box holder’s name. To make matters even better, Berry’s would sell just about any wine their distributors offered at a price barely over wholesale charging a small corkage fee when you opened it. This allowed me to fill my locker with the California wines I had been coveting, at a great price. Many nights I’d leave my office, walk to Berry’s, settle into the comfy living room like atmosphere and share one of my new finds with friends. It became a hub of sorts for the younger wine crowd, especially for those like me with bigger palates than wallets.
It was in Berry’s that I encountered my first true wine evangelist, Henry Schmidt. Kindred spirits, we bonded immediately. Bespectacled with a wickedly dry humor, Henry is the best I have ever met at understanding other people’s palates. Though his and mine are very different, he would consistently point me to wines that would excite me to no end. “Roger, I’ve got a wine you’ll love,” he’d say. “Do you like it, Henry?” I’d respond. Henry would look me square in the eye and say, “No, I think it sucks, but you’ll love it.” He was serious and usually correct. Though we are about the same age, Henry has a very Old World palate preferring the earthier wines of France and in particular Italy, rather than my New World California palate. If Henry had pushed me to drink his earthy favorites instead of the California wines that excited me, I wonder whether my passion for wine would have developed to the extent it has today. I think not. Occasionally, I’d enter the bar and Henry would say “Hey, check your locker.” I’d open it to find a bottle of a wine I’d wanted to try or something Henry wanted me to try, usually gratis.
Berry’s owner was more intent on having a great wine crowd and sharing wine with his friends than his bottom line. Soon, the place went broke. But not before I got a call from Henry, telling me to come early one night and clean out my locker. The next day Barry’s was closed for good. I remained however a keen disciple of the evangelist Schmidt for years to come. As Henry’s reputation grew for developing restaurant wine programs that now wanted to move beyond the staples of Mondavi, Simi, Beringer and so on, I like any good student, followed his master and friend.
My wife and I were also beginning to make friends in the growing Austin wine community. A few of my consulting clients were also wine enthusiasts and we began to build relationships, centered more on wine than business. It was in 1983, when one of those business-wine relationships would take us farther along in our wine-stained journey past the point of simple wine enthusiast and possibly no return.