The years that followed my wine revelations at the hands of Charlie Wagner continued to advance both my zeal and enthusiasm for the gospel of the grape. Austin’s wine scene grew exponentially, due in no small part to the hi-tech boom fueled by the meteoric rise of Dell Computers and the literally thousands of “Dellionaires” (many from California) looking to spend their good fortune on wine, food and a party time. Winemaker dinners, wine bars, wine friends and a few more trips to wine country filled the rest of the 1980’s and well into the 1990’s, often to excess. That period saw the birth of the Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival, a wonderful series of winemaker dinners at the newly opened Four Seasons Hotel and a bevy of restaurants with great wine lists and bars in the newly re-envisioned Warehouse District, near downtown.
At the center of the excess and wine scene was Mezzaluna, the final piece to my wine indoctrination. Standing at the helm of Mezzaluna’s opening was, Henry Schmidt. Located on a former brothel site, Mezzaluna immediately became the hub of the Austin wine and young professional crowds and was packed most every night. The wine bar area was almost as big as the restaurant and the staff knew their wines. Owner Reed Clemons, along with Henry, Jeff, Benny and Jay became the kings of Austin wine and Mezzaluna their domain. Probably more people were introduced to good wines by the staff at Mezzaluna than any place in Austin before and since. Mezzaluna was a lifestyle and we were deep in it. Wine here was cool, nothing geeky about it. I was in my early 30’s drinking the likes of Dunn and Caymus Cabernets, Ridge Zins and Rombauer Chardonnay like crazy. Winery owners like Doug Shafer of Shafer Vineyards and Koerner Rombauer of Rombauer Vineyards would drop by Mezzaluna and pour. This new wine world of Austin was worlds apart from my life in San Antonio and we loved it.
Henry to this day believes that much of the sexy frenetic energy that was Mezzaluna was influenced by the property’s illicit sexual past. From the 1870’s until 1913 when the Reverend Bob Shuler led a frenzied movement to close them down, the Warehouse District was known as Guy Town offering hookers of every race to men of every socio-economic level. While the spiritual sexual energy may have played a part, Mezzaluna was unique in many ways. While Chef Harvey offered up some truly inspired rustic Tuscan Italian cuisine from one of Austin’s first open concept kitchens, it was the wine and Mezzaluna’s excellent staff that kept the folks packing the restaurant and bar.
Henry insisted that all the wait staff be able to demonstrate a significant wine knowledge, unusual in such a casual setting. No one was seated without a discussion of wines. The wine list too had its unique qualities. The wines were divided by sparkling, white, red and rose only. Each category was listed by price so you may have a Cabernet followed by a Pinot Noir, followed by a Super-Tuscan. Henry’s theory was that most people know what color wine they want and how much they were willing to spend. His list made it easy to see all the choices in the patron’s price range. “Mez,” as it was often called, was also one of the first Austin eateries to offer a large wine-by-the-glass menu with a frequent rotation. Adventurous wine lovers always had new and exciting wines to try, even those of us who camped out a few nights every week.
The staff was enthusiastic about wine and it was contagious. Never was there a blank stare when a customer asked about the taste of a wine. No need to bring a stuffy sommelier to the table, the staff was that knowledgeable. All this in a casual, hip and popular setting, Mezzaluna had it goin’ on. It was the place to see and be seen, to taste and to eat, a beautiful crowd of the young rising stars of downtown Austin. The Mezzaluna bacchanalia went on most every night of the week. Nothing exemplified the unabashed hedonism of the clientele more than the fact that for a couple of years, this restaurant in Austin, Texas, led the entire nation in sales of Veuve Clicquot Brut Yellow Label Champagne. Times were good in Austin in the early 1990’s, and the young “Dellionaires” and real estate moguls partied hard. Veuve at Mez was more often served in a 2oz. shot glass for $10, than a flute. A circle would gather, some young techie hipster would plop down a $100 bill for 10 shots and the party crowd knocked back sparkling shots as if it were Tequila.
Much of the Mezzaluna staff went on to great wine careers. Jeff Courington now owns his own popular wine bar,Vino Vino, Jay Knepp is one of the state’s premiere winegrowers at Salt Lick Vineyards/Cellars (at the famed Salt Lick BBQ site in Driftwood, TX) and Ben Baroden is still my go-to wine guy at Reed’s current restaurant incarnation, The Grove Wine Bar.
It was during this time, in the exhilarating Mezzaluna wine scene, that I graduated from student to full-fledged wine evangelist. My cellar and knowledge was now respectable and my wine passion was boundless, if not annoying to some. A young man had come to work for me after being one my top university students. Robert Garza and I became and remain close friends. He had grown up in far south Texas near the Mexico border and like me at his age, had no experience with wine. I felt it was my duty, if not obligation, to show young Robert the way to the grape. It wasn’t a very challenging task; Robert took to wine like a cork to bottle. By the time Mezzaluna opened, Robert was fully converted and we were there after work 2-5 nights a week.
One night, while sitting at the pale green concrete Mezzaluna shaped bar at its namesake restaurant, we devised a wine-stained plan to help him find just the right girl to date. Robert, being strikingly handsome in a Jimmy Smits kind of way and very outgoing, had no problem meeting women, especially at Mez. The problem was that Robert was convinced any girl worth spending time with must share his newly developed love of wine. The plan we concocted was simple, maybe silly but it worked to perfection.
White Zinfandel was at its zenith of popularity at that time. The girls who 10 years earlier would have drinking, “Ripple on ice, “a light wine that goes with people who set the pace!” or even God forbid, Cold Duck were now drinking the pink colored White Zin. Of course, I can’t be too hard on them; I, the randy 18-year-old who drank Mateus Rose´. For those of us who love the deep rich spiciness of old vine Zinfandel, it is important to remember that those old vines (some well over 100 years old) were in fact saved by cheap sweet White Zin. If fact the wine we now know as White Zin was an accident of sorts.
Sutter Home was the first major producer of white Zinfandel in the sweet pink form we know now. As the story goes, Sutter Home’s winemaker (now chairman and Vintner Hall of Fame inductee) Bob Trinchero was a big fan of rich red Zinfandels. To create those concentrated jammy Zin flavors, he would bleed off some of the free run juice early in the process. Not wanting to waste good Zinfandel juice, it was fermented into a dry rose´ they called “Oeil de Perdrix,” or “Eye of the Partridge.” In 1975, a portion of the fermenting free-run juice stuck. Stuck fermentation is a term for the fermentation process coming to a premature end, leaving unfermented sugars and thus adding a level of sweetness commensurate with the residual sugar. In this case, the residual sugar was around 2%, not excessively sweet but still sweet to the taste. Trinchero decided the sweet wine tasted better and was more marketable than the dry version and began to bottle it as White Zinfandel. In the 1980’s, White Zinfandel sales soared and the wine became a popular easy drinker, particularly with women. In 1990 alone, Sutter Home sold three million cases.
But the best part of the story for those of us who love red Zinfandel is this: Zinfandel in the 1970’s was not terribly popular though a few winemakers like Trinchero, Joel Peterson (founder of Ravenswood), Paul Draper at Ridge Vineyards and others produced some amazing juice. Even so, the old vine vineyards, many in Sonoma, were in danger of being ripped out and replanted due to their low production. The demand for Zinfandel grapes grew exponentially with the increasingly popularity of white Zinfandel. The owners of these older vineyards found a new market and as a result did not replant their vineyards with more popular grapes.
With increased demand came increased prices for Zinfandel grapes. White Zin was outselling red Zinfandel by 6 to1. The producers of White Zinfandel, like Sutter Home and Beringer, realized that the old vine grapes were far better in quality than they needed for the sweet wine and so they planted large vigorous vineyards in the California Central Coast area, where land and labor costs were less. Once these vineyards came on line, there was no need to buy from the higher quality, lower production old vine vineyards. But by then, the popularity of red Zinfandel, especially old vine Zinfandel was on the rise. So it is fair to say the meteoric rise of cheap White Zinfandel saved many old vineyards from being ripped out until the public was ready for those spicy jammy Old Vine Zinfandels we love today.
So what was the simple, if not silly, Zin plan? Robert and I would go into Mezzaluna and order a bottle of Zinfandel and pour ourselves a glass. If he found a girl who enticed him, he would walk over to her, start a conversation and if that went well, offer her a glass of wine. The wine he would offer was a “Zinfandel.” With glasses of Ridge or Dry Creek Zin in hand, he would return and offer one to his prospect. If the response was surprise or confusion over seeing a red wine instead of pink, Robert knew she wasn’t right for him. He would replace the glass with White Zin and move on.
Did it work? To some extent it did. While he didn’t marry a girl from Mezzaluna, he did marry the manager and fellow wineaux from a restaurant, Gilligan’s, just a block away. Today, I can report they are still happily married and great wine is still very much a part of their lives.