by Robin English-Bircher, Senior Writer, Texas Wine and Trail Magazine
Tucked behind a McDonald’s and next door to a computer shop, sits one of San Antonio’s best kept wine secrets. In this little strip center in the heart of San Antonio’s medical center sits Vinously Speaking. Inside, Veronique Cecilia Barretto, better known as Ceci, and Melissa Unsell showcase an assortment of eclectic wines from all over the world. And just as the store is a hidden treasure, some of the wine is as well. Texas wine can be found tucked among wines from Europe and other great wine regions.
Ceci says it was all about being at the right place at the right time. She had gone with a friend to buy wine at a little local shop. She talked with the owner and shared her current work, a wine blog called Vinously Speaking, started with friend Melissa Unsell, and her work on her Masters in Wine Business from the Burgundy School of Business in Dijon, France. Not long after that fateful meeting, the owner called Ceci to let her know the shop was closing. Thankful, the store closing gave Ceci and Melissa to start a new adventure. In April 2012, Rio de Vino became Vinously Speaking.
The newly acquired shop was everything Ceci and, now partner, Melissa could hope for. The shop allowed the two to make real the goals of the blog. They hoped to provide San Antonio with an opportunity to learn about, taste, and enjoy wine, specifically those wines the pair deem eclectic, at reasonable prices. In the best case scenario, they could make a profit, and at the worst, they would have a cool experience. And for Ceci, it also ended up being part of her Master’s thesis.
Today, the shop provides a vast array of different varieties and blends. Wines at the shop include popular varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay – as well as wines such as Viognier and Tempranillo – popular Texas varieties. And these wines come from all over. Yes, French, California, and Italian wines are common, but so are wines from the Holy Land, Portugal, Eastern European, and yes, Texas. This wine is special, as much of it comes from small production vineyards and wineries; these are not the wines found at the local grocery or liquor store. And the best part of all: these wines are available at great prices. In general, the wines are less than $30, and most are available at $20 or less.
To aid in spreading the word, Ceci and Melissa took their regular Saturday tastings and turned them into tastings and pairings. Late last summer it started simple, cheese and wine. Since then, there has been the expected pairings – chocolate, pasta, herbs, etc. – with less expected ones – pizza, barbeque (provided by Ramon Barretto’s Monz Bonz), and popcorn. And as of August, there have been 52 consecutive tastings. Now the issue now isn’t continuing, but what to next pair with the wine.
So how did Texas wines find themselves on the shelves of a shop managed by someone who studied wine business in France? Well, it all started at a restaurant. After her undergraduate, Ceci returned to home to San Antonio. Like most undergraduates, she needed work and started working as a server at the Vineyards Restaurant (northeast San Antonio). There, she found herself exposed to Texas wine. She became curious, and with her parents, she trekked out into the nearby wine country. She became interested after this first wine tasting experience. From there, she pursued her wine education, earning a WSET (Wine and Spirits Education Trust) Level 3, as well as her MS in wine business.
Now with the shop, Ceci can share what she found those early days. She could bring wines from wineries not often showcased at the local grocery store or liquor store to her hometown. And if that wasn’t enough, Vinously Speaking leads the charge against the negative image many have about Texas wine. San Antonio already has a struggling wine community – it is easily outpaced by beer and tequila – and the Texas wine community is even more embattled. So, Vinously Speaking has been turning the tide one person at a time. Carrying wines that are excellent representations of the industry, the store’s selection of local wines presents the greatness and affordability of Texas wine. Add to that regular Saturday tastings – often including Texas wines and sometimes dominated by them – and events, and you have all the material needed for success.
Over the past year since the shop opened, Vinously Speaking has sold a number of Texas wines. Some of the wineries that have enjoyed some of the shelf space include Messina Hof, McPherson Cellars, Chisholm Trail Winery, Spicewood Vineyards, and Hilmy Cellars. Some of the most popular have been Bending Branch Winery and Pedernales Cellars, who have made visits to the shop, Sandstone Cellars and Tranquilo Cellars. Though some of the wines are acquired through wine distributors, like Republic, most of the Texas selection comes from the wineries that Ceci and Melissa have visited and built a relationship with. In fact, Ceci now facilitates Pedernales Cellars’ monthly wine education courses.
I have heard it many times from many people: Texas seems to be experiencing a similar situation to that of California in the 1970s, a Texas Bottle Shock if you will. Vinously Speaking has decided to enjoy this moment as best as they can. One way they hope to take part in this is a blind taste-off. Following the example of many of groups, Vinously Speaking is planning an event that will allow locals – and other wine lovers – to blind taste Texas wines against wines similar wines from their region of origin.
The premise is simple: guests will taste and spit forty different wines. Twenty of those will be great Texas varieties. These Texas wines will be paired alongside a wine of the same grape variety. Tasters will get a chance to judge the wines, trying to figure out which is which, and which is better.
After the wine gauntlet, guests will enjoy a more leisurely atmosphere. They can sip on the previous Texas wines and nibble on great food; Ceci hopes to get her friends at the Texas Cook’s Co-Op to create great food pairings. Entertainment is also being planned as well. Right now, they are thinking it will cost a person $100. This may sound steep, but a part of the proceeds will be going towards a scholarship to the viticulture program at Texas Tech.
Besides planning a rollicking good Texas wine time, Vinously Speaking has one other grand goal: to become a wine shop and a wine bar. Earlier this year, Ceci and Melissa started a crowd funding campaign through GoFundMe. They are about third of the way towards their $30,000 goal, and the campaign is still going. There will be some other upcoming events to help raise money, in addition to the steady stream of contributions; to help, donate at the shop or at the shop’s GoFundMe page.
The upcoming bar will be an extension of the retail space, except it will allow people to sit and enjoy the wine. The plan, for now, is to have a rotating menu of about 10 wines by the glass, with at least one being a Texas wine. Of course, for a small fee, guests will be able to buy any bottle from the shop and enjoy it there at the bar. Beer and wine cocktails may also be in the wine bar‘s future.
Despite San Antonio being a neighbor to one of Texas’ strongest wine communities, it hasn’t quite embraced wine and Texas wine culture. However, if the success of Vinously Speaking says anything, that situation is changing, and will continue to change as Ceci Baretto and Melissa Unsell bring a bit more vino to the river city.