La Bête Noire du Cepage Noir

Photo courtesy of Bob.Fornal

Cepage Noir, the wine store begun in 1999 as Christopher's Wine Warehouse, closed its doors last week.

The store's ten year run under the stewardship of owner Christopher Massie was a bumpy one that included name changes, price wars with Spec's and other large retailers, and exchanges of words between Massie and customers who didn't always see eye-to-eye with his business model.

People who'd visited Cepage Noir seemed to fall squarely into two camps: Fellow enthusiasts who felt as strongly about wine as Massie and didn't mind his occasionally cantankerous nature, becoming steadfastly loyal patrons over the years.  And those who looked for a more traditional type of customer service -- whether they be casual wine-drinkers or aficionados -- and instead took their business to places like Spec's and Houston Wine Merchant.

Unfortunately, more of the visitors fell into the latter camp.  And through a combination of the economy, competitive pricing and a waning customer base, the tough decision was made to close Cepage Noir.

But Christopher Massie wasn't going to take this lying down.

After announcing the store's closing in an email to his customers, Massie took to his peronal blog to document the dying of a dream.  In his first post-closing entry, titled "And They Always Told Us Winter Kills," he lashed out at Richard Trabulsi -- of Richard's Liquors and Fine Wines -- for not wanting to partner with him on a project and at Houston for not being supportive of his endeavors:

Houston simply isn't a boutique kind of town, I've learned the lesson the hard way.

But he wasn't done with us yet.  In a post three days later, titled "Cork Taint -- Recognizing the Obvious," Massie let the city have it with both barrels:

Over these years, I've come to recognize the aroma of a wine tainted with cork taint.  It is an aroma that can not be ignored, it is an aroma that can not be reversed.  Once affected by this stench, there is but one remedy: you simply pour the wine down the drain.  The bottle can not be saved, even the wine maker doesn't want the bottle back.

This city, be it the fault of the inhabitants, for they have allowed the monopoly to spread as a cancer in a dying man; or be it the fault of the cancer itself, is "corked".  I have finally arrived at the realization that no amount of additional patience, coaxing, decanting nor caring is going to reverse the stench that has permanently and forever coated this city with a rancid, undeniable and irreversible vinous bouquet.


Houston, you have now lost the third, admittedly least shining, of the trio of stars once so determined to share wine's most gifted treasures with your city. 

I can not speak for the rest of them, but I will ask, "Will you ever wake up and smell the taint?"

These two posts sparked a volley of words, both on various local food and wine blogs as well as on Twitter (where Massie posts under @chambertin).  One particularly hard-hitting post by a local food blogger questioned whether Houston was worth the "world-class" wines that Massie had bestowed upon the city, which led to more heated arguments and the suggestion from a local chef that the aforementioned food blogger should simply "move."

Despite the raw feelings and half-cocked sentiment from all sides, the closing of Cepage Noir has brought a lot of questions to the table: Is Houston supportive of small and boutique businesses?  Is Houston supportive of wine or is it just a beer drinker's paradise?  Is Houston supportive of new business models or does it adhere blindly to old trends and traditions?

It's hard to buy into the idea that "Houston simply isn't a boutique kind of town."  This is a city which is dominated by restaurants which are -- admittedly -- run by powerful restaurant families and groups, but which are decidedly local.  We aren't a city of chain restaurants; our sister to the north waves that sad banner.  We aren't a city with restaurants run by celebrity chefs, nor are we a city that voraciously consumes trendy cuisines.

Our local wine scene, more to the point, is as strong as ever.  Yes, we've experienced the one-two blow of Salud! Winery and Cepage Noir closing, but we also have establishments like The Tasting Room, 13 Celsius, The Corkscrew, Boheme, The Vine Wine Room, Sonoma and Vintropolis (to name only a few) catering to our city's love affair with wine.  And none of these are "big-box retailers" who keep their stock at 80° or offer discounts for cash.

And while the idea of Spec's may be distasteful to some, the truth is that we have them to thank for introducing wine to a wider audience than boutiques are able to do.  Someone who may start out as a casual wine drinker -- purchasing a $7.99 bottle of white zin from Spec's because it's cheap and they don't feel the pressure exerted by shopping at a full-on wine shop -- may eventually become a serious connoisseur and consumer of fine wines.  And even if they don't?  They'll still be more likely to frequent wine bars and wine shops as a result of their experience.

As for Massie, he's currently toying with the idea of opening his own winery.  With his perfectionistic and finicky nature, this seems more suited to his ideals.  And, frankly, I imagine his wine would be absolutely superb.