Restaurant Reviews

Sour Grapes

On an October evening, James Winkler works a crowd of some two dozen mostly young, attractive professionals. The group sits in rapt attention as he evangelizes for a substance that is as intimidating and inscrutable as it is coveted: wine. They laugh at his anecdotes, such as the one involving a customer who demands that her husband pour French wine over her body as she lies sprawled across a table in the buff. Champagne is poured.

"I think every woman in America should start off with a glass of champagne at about 6:30 in the morning," he insists. "I'm thinking two would be perfect, but I'll be satisfied with one. I think you'll be a better woman for it, you'll live longer, and I think your day would go much better."

Dark-haired and plump, Winkler is a class instructor at Tony's Wine Warehouse and Gourmet Restaurant on Oak Lawn Avenue. For years Tony's has chiseled a lucrative niche by donating wine classes to charity and loading them up with naïve connoisseur wannabes to taste 18-20 wines before leveling a sales pitch for offbeat wines at steep prices. How lucrative? Dun and Bradstreet Inc. estimates Tony's rakes in $1.7 million in annual sales from the 3,500-square-foot restaurant and retail shop. Owner Michel Monzain says actual revenues are much higher.

This deeply irks many longtime professionals in the Dallas wine trade. Tony's, they insist, butters its bread by dispensing instructional swill during class sessions--preying on participants' gullibility to justify inflated prices, often for wines well past their prime obtained mostly from distributor closeout lists. This sullies the whole wine trade, they say.

Exhibit One: The tasting sheet dispensed at the beginning of each wine class. "Tony's is a professional wine merchant specializing in wines from small boutique wineries," it reads. "These chemical-free wines mean no headaches, allergies or harmful reactions."

The message is unmistakable: Tony's wines are carefully selected to keep you free of hives, pulsing migraines, puffy eyes and other symptoms of rogue allergens. Or overindulgence, it turns out. Buy your wines at a grocer or a less careful merchant and the errant additives might wrack you with dry heaves or turn your bed into a whirling dervish.

Exhibit Two: Bizarre classroom oratory. "Rating systems and books written about wine are kind of silly to me," Winkler says to his class. "I've read them all, I've studied them all."

Talk quickly turns to oak.

Wine fermented and aged in French oak barrels tastes like mushrooms, Winkler says. Wine matured in American oak tastes like a campfire. The reason? In America, winery workers jump inside the barrels and scorch the sides to a thick char before they're filled with juice. In France, it all boils down to what the trees eat.

"The tree that produces this barrel grows up against every black and white truffle in the world," he explains. "When you cut this tree down, the tree has been feeding off these mushrooms for centuries. And when you cut the tree down, all of the oil that's in these truffles is inherently in this oak."

Hence, these barrels are expensive. Typically, a single 50-gallon French oak barrel costs between $35,000 and $65,000, Winkler says. Burnt American oak barrels carry a $30,000 price tag. Oak barrels coopered in Australia--produced from a French oak forest replica (Australia is the first country in the world to successfully replicate a French oak forest, according to Winkler)--cost roughly $40,000. This is why wines fermented and aged in oak aren't cheap. Presumably, it's also why Tony's wines aren't cheap.

None of this is true. Viticulture and enology scientists at the University of California, Davis, insist Tony's health claims are false--even libelous to high-volume wine producers. And while the flavors imparted by French and American oak barrels are distinct, they have nothing to do with mushrooms or burnt barrel staves. Actual oak barrel costs range in the hundreds--not tens of thousands--of dollars: roughly $700-$1,100 for French and $350-$550 for American.

When asked to defend statements dispensed as fact during Tony's wine classes, Monzain says he can't be held responsible for what his instructors tell customers. "I don't control everything they say," he says. When pressed further, he characterizes my questions as a witch hunt and issues a threat. "Me, I don't use court," he says flatly. "Besides court, I use the best investigation company in the country. And I'll find out everything about that person since the day he was born."

When questioned on pricing, Monzain points to the "group discounts" offered during wine classes. As the last few tastes are splashed and the buzzes drone, the class specials pop up like clover blossoms. A rare wine is introduced: a 2002 Beckmen Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. "Don't mention that we poured the Beckmen," Winkler says slyly. "This is a wine that never gets poured in class." He says this wine carries prices ranging from several hundred dollars to $1,200 on restaurant wine lists (restaurant wine list markups are roughly twice retail). But if you make a class purchase, he will slash the bottle price to $59 from Tony's regular price of $89. But hurry. Only three or four cases remain.