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Value Vino

Value Vino: Nothing but Smart Wine Direct

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"My wife wouldn't let me stay home after retirement," admitted Rob Ziegler. And thus was born Smart Wine Direct. It's physical home is in a modest strip center at Ralph Fair Road and IH 10, but its larger presence is internet-based. We might as well get used to it, even for wine.

Ziegler, who until two years ago was with powerhouse wine wholesaler Republic National Distributing Company, confessed to a lot of things during our conversation in his seminar room. "I could have catered to geeks and specialty groups, but there's a big demand for wines under $20 — under $10, to tell the truth," he says. And while he might prefer to be drinking fine Burgundies himself, Ziegler says "I'll sell anything, even box wines if somebody wants them." He didn't say it was off the record, but apparently a lot of chocolate-flavored wines passed through his hands during the holidays. Moscato, with its sometimes less-than-subtle sweetness, is the new white zin, he contends.

The seminar room, as it turns out, is important to Ziegler's business model. At Republic, one of his jobs was training sales staff. "I wanted the white zin drinker, not the Burgundy guy [who already thought he knew everything]. When we were through, they would be into big cabs. I like to teach, and now I go for the everyday drinker," he says. "I see the same kind of movement in customers, but if they don't, well… " Take down another order for moscato.

A recent seminar was titled "Nothing but Red," cost $25, and was limited to 12 participants, the number that fits nicely around the table in a room whose major décor is maps of wine country. "I try to present the best examples of a variety of wines from around the world, then at the end, we do a blind tasting to try to identify one of the wines already tasted. There's a cheat sheet," he adds. "We just want to have fun." The same kind of program can also be done in homes and offices. Wine clubs sometimes pick their own topic for a custom-tailored evening.

Ultimately, though, it's about selling wine, and there are several ways Ziegler does this. There is a small sales space at the front of his strip-center offices, but drop-in traffic isn't exactly intense. A wine club with quarterly selections — delivered, as are all wines not bought on the premises — is built around a three-level system with the middle level of $20 being the most popular, according to Ziegler. "One guy does three reds for himself and three whites for his wife. Nobody has dropped out yet."

The website also has numerous wines listed at prices under VV's $20 cap; many of them don't make it to local retail shelves. But a large part of Ziegler's business seems to be established customers who call and say "find this."

"I often get late-night texts from folks who have just had a great wine at a restaurant and want to know if I can get it," he says. We assume his wife doesn't mind if he brings that part of the business home. •

Veteran food, wine, and spirits writer Ron Bechtol has been a Current contributor since 1993 and is the local editor of the Fearless Critic restaurant guide to San Antonio.

Smart Wine Direct

25298 IH-10 W, Ste 3
(210) 422-5196

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