French Country Wines in Rice Village Still Thriving Thanks to New Services
Bars were not the only businesses impacted by the shutdowns necessitated by COVID-19. In Houston, French Country Wines at 2433 Bartlett, a small, independent wine shop established by Tim and Phyllis Smith over a decade ago and owned and operated by Jean-Philippe Guy for the past seven years, is a beloved Rice Village mainstay. As a wine shop that also has a winery license, though, just like bars, it was forced to close down indoor operations in mid-March. While some bars managed to get re-licensed as restaurants by offering food, that’s not really an option for French Country Wines.
So, instead, Guy added new services and built upon others. Customers can now order any wine that the store carries online and it can be brought to their cars curbside. He’s finding new distribution points for inventory (important in light of the reduced sales at many of his restaurant customers), is delivering wine orders of $85 or more for free inside the 610 Loop and welcoming new members to a very reasonably priced monthly wine club subscription. The popular Saturday wine tastings continue, but now as a take-home option, with Guy hosting a virtual Zoom presentation at 6 p.m. the same night. French Country Wines also ships anywhere within Texas and in a more limited capacity to most states in the U.S.
We talked with Guy about his history in Houston as a member of a longtime and well-respected restaurant family and how he got involved with French Country Wines. He also elaborated on the new services.
You’ve been in Houston’s wine scene for a long time. How did you first get into wine?
By mistake. (laughs) I was born and raised in the restaurant industry. My father was a chef and my parents always owned restaurants. From working with wine and restaurants, it grew from there. I never expected to be in wine sales, that’s for sure.
Where are you from originally?
Originally, I am from Clermont-Ferrand, which is near Vichy, but I’ve been in Houston now for 38 years.
What brought you to Houston?
My parents, who I mentioned were in the restaurant industry, came to seek the American dream.
I bet a lot of people remember your parents’ restaurants in Houston. (Note: Guy’s parents are the well-respected chef Georges Guy and his wife, Monique.)
Their restaurant, Chez George, was one of the top restaurants in Houston. they went into retirement several times but then would come back out and open another restaurant. I worked for them for about 15 years.
I remember their final restaurant on Westheimer, Georges Bistro. After that, they retired in France, right?
They retired in Provence. That was supposed to be the deal from the start — retire in Provence.
Good for them. They certainly deserve it after their long careers in Houston. So, you worked for your family for 15 years. How did you get involved with French Country Wines?
Eventually, I took over one of my parents’ restaurants — Bistro Provence at the time. The original owner, Tim Smith’s daughter, who had dinner at the restaurant, said, “You know, my father imports French wine.” We only served French wine at the restaurant, so I said, “Oh really?”
So that’s how we got to know French Country Wines, as well as Tim and Phyllis. For several years, we bought wine from them. We became friends, and Tim and Phyllis came to talk to me one day and said, “We’re looking for a manager — someone who can help with the business.” I don’t think they were thinking of me and were hoping I could guide them to someone.
I said, “I’m interested in jumping in and helping you out, but I would not be interested in an employee-type relationship. I’d be more interested in a partnership.
So, from the start, when I started working with them — roughly seven years ago now — it was with the idea that they’d eventually retire and I’d take over the business. (Author’s note: at that point, Guy’s wife, Genevieve, took over ownership of Bistro Provence, which is now Bistro 555.)
How long has French Country Wines been in Rice Village?
It’s been here about 10 years. It started on West Alabama, which was before my time. Eventually, it moved here off of Bartlett Street.
How long in total has it been open?
You must have quite a neighborhood following. French Country Wines is a fixture of Rice Village now.
We definitely have our regulars! We’re still very much a destination location and once we acquire a customer, we have an excellent retention rate. Once they become familiar with our wines, they’ll seek us out for new ones.
I know you carry French wines, but is there a specialty or certain kinds that you look for?
We look for small, family-owned vineyards and they need to operate with a strict minimum of sustainable ways. Sustainability is key. I don’t import anything that I wouldn’t drink myself.
That’s good to know. Your shop is probably an important distribution point for these owners of smaller vineyards.
I like to say that at French Country Wines, we give a voice to small vineyards that wouldn’t have one if it wasn’t for us.
Yeah, I think larger distributors don’t work with these small producers, do they?
Well no, because it’s a lot of work! We have some labels that only make 1,200 bottles. I love it, because I’ll import half of it and when it runs out, it runs out. A lot of large distributors, though, don’t want to deal with those kinds of vineyards. It’s complicated. You have to get label approval, then find a market for it and then it’s, “Hey, we’re out of stock!” That’s okay for us. It’s how we work and I love those kind of labels.
As someone who enjoys wine, I also love small producers. Many seem to take a lot of care and know what they’re doing.
Before I got into the business, I thought it would be so cool to own a vineyard. When I started traveling to France and saw all of the hard work that goes into putting wine into a bottle. Then, I very much decided that I’d stick with selling and drinking it.
I was going to ask if you are able to travel and visit the vineyards of what you carry.
At least twice a year. January is usually my travel month and I’ll spend a couple of weeks [in France]. In the summer, I join a business/family trip. It’s a vacation, but we also visit several vineyards at the same time.
Can I come with you? Maybe you should do wine tours. Take us to France! (laughs)
I have so many people ask me about that and it sounds like a lot of work.
I know you have a lot of regular customers, as well as new customers who come to check out the shop, but you also sell to restaurants, correct?
A large part of our business is restaurants. It’s been an odd year for everyone because of this COVID thing, but before this 70% of our sales were restaurant-based. It’s really great because it permits me to bring in a fairly large amount from different labels versus if I was only [running] a store. I might not even be of interest to some of those vineyards. They enjoy the small distribution of what I do, but not if I sell 60 bottles a year.
How many different restaurants purchase from you?
About 75 or 80 restaurants, some of which we’ve worked with for about 10 years.
Can you tell us about a couple of restaurants where people can find your wines?
Sure! Just a couple are the Italian restaurant on Westheimer called Giacomo’s Cibo e Vino. Chef Lynette [Hawkins] has been a huge supporter of French Country Wines since day one. We have Bistro Menil with chef Greg [Martin], another avid supporter of our wines, and Tiny Boxwoods, both #1 and #5. Out west, we have Café Benedicte and Bistro 555 (which used to be Bistro Provence). Downtown we have Weights + Measures, then there’s 1751 Sea & Bar, a great seafood place.
You just named some of my own favorites. At 1751, chef J.D. Woodward serves a lot of raw seafood, such as oysters and crudo. What wine would you pair with that?
They’ve been ordering Sancerre, which is a really, really beautiful pairing with crudo and oysters. It’s 100% Sauvignon Blanc with beautiful minerality, and they’ve been running through a lot of it.
Are there particular varietals or regions that you really love?
I love Rhone wines. I used to drink lots of Burgundies and then I moved to Rhone blends, in general. I told my wife, “I just don’t appreciate Burgundies like I used to. I just love Rhones.” Then, one evening, we had this old bottle of Burgundy that was in the cellar. I opened it and realized it’s not that I don’t like Burgundy anymore. It’s just that I can’t afford them.
There’s tremendous value in Rhone wines, both white and red. There are lots of beautiful wines. It’s something that you can enjoy.
I love Rhone wines, too. When you’ve got people buying Burgundy and Bordeaux as commodities, it really drives the price up.
Yes. I love them, but what do I drink? When I get home, if I open up a bottle of wine, it’s a bottle of Rhone.
Now, white Burgundies though: those haven’t escalated in price much, have they?
A lot of the white Burgundies are from the Maconnais and from southern Burgundy. These have been stable in price, like the Macon-Villages and Pouilly-Fuissé. It’s the red burgundies that are outrageously expensive. Over the past 20 years, [the prices] have become incredible. I mean, they’re enjoyable…
Oh sure, if you have a friend who’ll buy it.
COVID has affected the entire restaurant and beverage industry. How have you had to adapt French Country Wines?
When we started, we were 70% restaurant sales. The only retail spot where you could find our wines was here at French Country Wines. I believe it was on a Monday morning when (the state of Texas… or was it Harris County?) announced they were shutting all restaurants down. I went from disbelief to pure panic to, “OK, how we do we make this work?”
Within 48 hours, our wines were online. We sell all of our wines online with curbside pickup. I’d previously resisted that. Our wines were special and did not need to be online. Our sales shifted from 70% restaurants to 70% retail, and we’ve actually found some retail spots around town that now carry our wines. In The Woodlands, we have a retail spot called Panther’s Creek that carries a lot of wine.
It was like, okay, I know people love our wine and that we’re a destination place, but who’s going to come down from The Woodlands on the weekend to come buy a bottle of wine from me? No one. Let’s get serious. So, they’re not hurting us and it gives people an opportunity to find our wines there.
Every Saturday, you have a wine tasting.
Oh yeah, and that’s something we had to adapt for COVID. It used to be that our wine tastings were in house every Saturday. People would just wander in and out anytime between noon and 6 p.m. Obviously, we can’t do it like this now and when I pitched an idea to my staff, everyone thought I was crazy. I said, “You know what? Let’s do some tasting kits.”
The first tasting kit came out that Saturday and it went pretty well. We had 10 or 15 people who came and picked up that tasting kit in paper bags. We weren’t very well organized, but I said, “Okay, this could really work.” Last Saturday, we passed out 35 tasting kits. It’s an ounce each of six different wines. Now the to-go cups are in nice little boxes that I found to pack them. They can pick up between noon and 4 p.m. and then I host a Zoom event at 6 p.m. on Saturday evening.
So, the tasters get to ask you questions over Zoom?
Yeah, we have a few people that ask questions. We have a few who I think might be a little shy? I do want to stress that it’s not a wine education class. I talk to everybody about the vineyard and the wine. I might grab some videos to play about the wine, the vineyard or the region. It’s a very low-key event. It is not a wine education event because I am not qualified for that. I am qualified to buy, drink and enjoy wine! (laughs) I am not a wine educator.
Oh, I don’t know about that. I bet you’re qualified. What’s the cost [for the Saturday tasting]?
There are two ways to get your kit. You can buy a bottle of wine and with a purchase of $20 or more, you get a free kit, or you can just buy the kit for $12.
Oh wow! That’s a great deal.
It is, because you get six ounces of wine and that’s about what you’d pay for a glass of wine at a restaurant. Plus, you get to try six different wines and join all the fun!
I’d be inclined to just buy a bottle of wine. I’d taste all of those wines and then say, “Well, now I’m out of wine. I need more wine.” Do you get people who get the tasting kits and then call you and say, “Hey, this one or these two, I need to get bottles of these.”
Yeah, that’s really the idea. Some people stay stuck with what they’re familiar with. So, this gives them a chance to try them new wines and after [the tasting], I’ll send the participants a 10% off coupon on all of the wines they tasted that Saturday.
What would you say is your average bottle price?
Most of our wines are about $20 — white and red. We have a lot of wines in that $15 to $25 price point. We have a few higher-end wines. We have people coming in who say, “I want to buy a gift for so-and-so. What $100 bottle do you recommend?” I have got very few at that price point. I have very few even above $60.
That’s an important point you just made: someone can come to your shop and you or your staff can personally help them decide on a wine, as opposed to walking into a big-box liquor store and staring blankly at the shelf thinking, “I don’t know. What should I get?” Someone can tell you, “I’m looking for a wine to pair with braised short rib, roasted chicken or whatever,” and you’ll actually help them out.
Yes, and we love doing this. We’ll have the backstory on that bottle of wine, too. It’s not just about what you should grab off of the shelf. You can have the story that goes along with that bottle of wine.
I think the general public over maybe the past 15 years has gotten a little more knowledgeable about wine, but I think there’s still an intimidation factor with a lot of places. There are so many wines. At a box store, there are thousands and it’s overwhelming. Being able to get personal advice is so important.
We have another advantage over big box stores. I only import wines that I feel are of great value, something I would be proud to have on my shelf and something I would drink myself. Let me stress that I don’t only import wines that I like, because that would only be very one-dimensional. I import wines that I believe are well-made and good values. That’s something most stores can’t say. There are a lot of wines that I could buy cheaply and make a bundle of money. Would I feel proud to have them on my shelf? No.
I have friends who work for large distributors. I don’t think people realize that when distributors buy wine that they need to unload, they’re going to unload it somewhere. They have to.
Even in France, we’ve got a lot of bad wine!
Does everyone in France think they’re winemakers? (laughs)
The thing is that there’s a lot of money to be made in wine, so a lot of people make it and sell it just to make a buck. That’s not what we’re about here at French Country Wines. We’re proud of every single bottle on the shelf. It might not fit your taste profile, but the wine is good. I promise you that.
In addition to the Saturday tastings, are there other ways for people to stay connected to your shop?
There was popular demand, and it took us so long to come up with it, but about a year ago, we started a wine club. We have three different price points on the website. We’ll put together three or four bottles for that particular month and your credit card gets charged. These bottles are are small production; something that might not be on the shelves very long. Some of them aren’t even on the shelves any longer. Last month, I pulled a Châteauneuf-du-Pape that was in my storeroom — something that had been off the shelf for three years.
Wow, so in a sense, [members] are getting an exclusive if you only have a certain number of bottles.
That’s the idea. We want to give our guests a little something extra — a little extra experience. We have three tiers. The lowest is $50 and definitely has some of the more common wines that we have with good stock on the shelves, but once you get to the third tier ($160), that’s when I’m looking at allocated stock and saying, “You know what? We’ve only got 24 bottles of this wine. That’s what I’m going to put in.” (The middle tier is $100, and these costs do not include tax.)
Those are very approachable price points, and even if someone gets in on the lowest tier, that’s still three or four bottles of wine!
It works out to a 10 to 15% discount compared to if you bought those bottles off the shelf. We have people who get very excited when they get the email that their wine club packages are ready for pick-up. A lot of times, they’ll call us before the email even goes out! “Isn’t the wine club coming out?” “Not until Friday!”
Are you able to ship out of state or is it local pickup only?
We can ship anywhere within the state of Texas. We ship with FedEx with ice packs in the boxes. We can ship a more restricted amount of wine to most states because we have a winery license.
When you say “restricted amount”, what does that mean?
Some states have limitations on how much wine we can ship into the state per year.
It’s helpful to have that winery license. Regular people cannot [legally] ship wine out of state!
Noooo! (Laughs) The license is a way for us to work on all three tiers: we import, we distribute and we retail. We only have to make a small amount of wine per year that we don’t have to sell — and I do not want to sell it. It’s barely good enough to put into my vinegar.
You’re just meeting the requirements.
I’m just meeting the requirement.
Is there anything else we should know about French Country Wines?
We’re always bringing in new wines from new vineyards. There’s always something new going on. I tell all of my friends, “You don’t have to buy from French Country Wines, but you do want to buy from small, family-owned vineyards — people who respect the trade.”
What are your operating hours?
Tuesday through Saturday from noon until 5 p.m. If you need to pick up a little earlier, we’re usually here. We also have free delivery within the 610 Loop.
Oh, delivery? Is there a minimum purchase?
Minimum purchase is $85. Get three or four bottles of wine and you can get a delivery.
Visit the French Country Wines website to check out the wines, order the Saturday wine tasting and more.