Houston's French Country Wines Set to Help You Comprendre le vin français

The easiest way to get to French Country Wines, oddly enough, is by way of a giant metal armadillo. Located on an unassuming side street off the increasingly garish Kirby Drive, the wine store and tasting room may be easily missed in the presence of larger businesses (e.g., Armadillo Palace). "Easily missed," however, is not to say that French Country Wine is overshadowed by these other commercial establishments.

There is something very cool going on in this shop, which is technically mom-and-pop, though to describe its owners, Phyllis and Tim Smith, in such a fashion seems a disservice to this chic yet approachable couple. Since 2006, Phyllis and Tim have been introducing the Houston community to select affordable wines from small, family-owned vineyards in France. It's a second go-around for both of them professionally, each having enjoyed successful careers in the scientific research and financial worlds, respectively. I never spent time with Phyllis and Tim when they were engaged in their previous jobs, but watching them at work now nevertheless suggests wine is their true vocational passion.

They speak enthusiastically but without pretension about biannual trips to France, where they seek out new clients as well as visit old ones, some of whom, Phyllis says fondly, have gone from being mere acquaintances to "very good friends" over the years. The camaraderie extends to their domestic team in Houston, which includes wholesale manager Jean-Phillipe Guy (formerly of Bistro Provence) and their zealous associate Lindsay Montreuil, whom they tease for selling bottles too quickly.

Phyllis and Tim's mission is quite simple: to bring quality affordable French wines to Houston. Oh, yes -- they also want to rid Americans of the belief that French wines are "too confusing" as well as show how varietal blends, even inexpensive ones, can wonderfully complement all types of cuisine.

To that end, they not only source wines for a diverse range of local restaurants, including, but certainly not limited to, Empire Cafe, Brasserie 19, Corner Table and Indika. They also pair their weekly Wednesday (5 p.m.-7 p.m.) and Saturday (noon-6 p.m.) wine-tastings with a selection of cheeses from Houston's premier cheesemongers, the venerable Dairymaids. Although Phyllis resolutely refused to name any particular French wine as her favorite, she did admit a penchant for one particular cheese, the "Barely Buzzed," whose distinct taste is a product of the spritely combination of lavender and espresso.

And while French Country Wines enjoys a certain type of romantic elusiveness thanks to its petite, barely marked storefront, that will change in late fall when the business completes a series of significant renovations, including an expanded and revamped tasting room, additional storage areas and a new upstairs tenant, The Texas Wine School. With these changes, French Country Wines may become the most exciting thing just off of Kirby and certainly worth a bypass of the giant armored reptile.

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