A Houston-based wine writer had just stepped into the neon-lit wine section at the Kroger on Shepherd in the Heights when an apron-garbed manager asked him if he needed any help finding something.
"I was looking for something white and oxidative, ideally from a family-run estate and if possible under $25," he queried, doubtful that such a wine could be found beyond the cloistered circle of Houston's hipper-than-thou sommelier set.
As the bottles sparkled like glistening Mardi Gras beads under the glaring light, the manager didn't skip a beat before informing the writer that he had a wonderful Savennières from the Loire Valley of France, a classic expression of the Chenin Blanc grape, a label imported by one of America's leading boutique purveyors of "natural" and artisanal wines. And yes, it cost $24.99, and even less with the purchase of five more bottles.
This was no ordinary supermarket sommelier and this was no run-of-the-mill wine department.
For nearly 30 years, fortysomething Houston-born wine professional Jaime "James" De Leon has worked for the Cincinnati-based supermarket chain Kroger, which runs more than 200 stores in the state of Texas. When still a teen, he started out as a bagger for the commercial grocer, which is known for its family-friendly, discount-oriented selection.
It was while he was working for the chain's outpost in The Woodlands as a teen that he first began to be interested in fine wine, thanks to a retired restaurant sommelier who had found a second career there as a grocer.
Today, De Leon oversees one of the most ambitious wine programs in Houston, including the by-the-glass selection at the location's newly opened wine and beer bar, Cork and Tap, the third such venue launched by Kroger in the past 12 months (Katy and Cypress were the first to open).
From top-growth Bordeaux to single-vineyard Barolo and Burgundy, from best-kept-secret Rhône Valley reds to esoteric biodynamic wines from the Italian alps, De Leon's cellar would not seem out of place in Williamsburg, Brooklyn or Russian Hill in San Francisco, where some of the country's best progressive wine shops are found today.
Currently, De Leon also oversees wine training for Kroger stores across Texas and he is mentoring ten wine professionals employed by the retailer.
Not only has Kroger embraced De Leon's ambitious program, the chain also underwrites his wine education and even sponsored him in his quest to become a member of the Court of Master Sommeliers, one of the most coveted and challenging titles in fine wine today.
He recently suffered a setback when he failed to pass the first and most challenging exam in his quest to become a Master Sommelier, "Theory," which tests the candidates' wine knowledge, including the arcane and technical aspects of grape growing and winemaking.
Few Masters pass on their first attempt (Houston's most recently minted Master, David Keck, for example, didn't pass the first time he was seated for the theory exam either). But the exam's proctor praised his performance nonetheless and encouraged him "to sit" for the exam next year when it is offered again.
When asked whether he intended to continue to pursue the title, he grinned widely and said, "It's going to happen and I can guarantee that!"