Roger Cooper (2001)

Oenophile, Bert Wheeler's Liquors, 6518 Westheimer

Every now and then, without much hope, a wine drinker drifts into Bert Wheeler's. It's a liquor store, not a wine boutique, and you expect the guy behind the counter to make change, not steer you to a great little Pouilly-Fumé. And certainly Roger Cooper doesn't look or sound anything like Robert Parker. Cooper laughs about that: "I'm a black dude, for God's sake."

So he doesn't wait to be asked. He chats up all his customers -- even the occasional goober wearing a Confederate-flag shirt -- and if you express an interest in wine, he'll ask about your dinner plans and tannin preferences. He steers newbies to Italian or Chilean "starter wines" and questions aficionados about their preferences. Do you prefer subtlety or youthfulness? Do you like your chardonnay creamy or citrusy-crisp? Do you want a hearty Burgundy, or do you gravitate toward mellower blends?

He speaks the lingo with such enthusiasm that you're surprised to hear he's a teetotaler -- and the son of teetotalers. He studies wine the same way he studies electrical engineering at UH-Downtown: as an academic subject, something he reads about. "I drank a bottle one time, and I threw up," he says. "I might swirl a wine, or smell it, but other than that, it's not me."

Five years ago he applied to work at Bert Wheeler's because he doesn't have a car. Six days a week, he walks to the store from his house. "It's not the greatest job in the world," he says, "and it certainly doesn't pay a hell of a lot. But it's like Dr. King said: If you're going to do a job, you should do it so well that nobody living or dead could do it better."

After school and work, Cooper kicks back with a book and a soda. Of course, for a cultivated palate, not just any soda will do. "Coke's too strong," he explains. "And A&W is too sweet. But Barq's! Oh, man, that Barq's!"


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