Garden Café, a Case of Wine Controversy in Dallas

“Whenever we had a photographer,” explained Dale Wootten, owner of Dallas’ Garden Café, “we’d offer complimentary wine and cheese and promote their art.  We had a lot of birthday parties or anniversary parties or whatever and we just can’t do it anymore.”

Wootten refers to the recent rejection of a proposal that would have allowed his small café to continue hosting private events where guests could bring their own alcohol, and potentially begin selling and serving beer and wine.  “We filed the application because a lot the neighbors kept saying ‘why don’t you have wine with dinner?’ ” he said.

In the midst of my conversations with Dale and his son Mark, the café’s General Manager and lead cook, I became more curious about how the presence of wine (or lack thereof) could impact a business.  Questions from various angles formed in my head, as I tried to sort through why wine represented a restaurant’s ticket to growth, and the implications a surrounding community saw with that privilege.

Dale purchased the space that is now Garden Café in 1991, at which point he used it as an office.  Rather than pursue the completion of plans considered the highest and best use of land, Dale saw the potential of catering to his pastime of gardening in the building’s back lot.  He decided to expand his vision into a café because, he remarked, “I have always liked little places like this.”  It has evolved into a Junius Heights institution with its picturesque patio by a garden that takes up half the space.

A photo of the original building purchased by Dale Wootten in 1991

Garden Café in its current state

The limitation of offering beer and wine stems from a zoning ordinance that deemed the space a dry overlay.  Though properties can no longer receive this designation, any overlays made before 1987 still stand, and Garden Café falls into this category.

In spite of the overlay, they had been serving beer and wine at private functions and allowing guests to bring their own for nearly nine years.  The city suddenly took notice of these activities as illegal “because we had the application,” said Dale, and “the city attorney explained that what we’d been doing was illegal.”

After a vote defeated their bid for offering beer and wine, Garden Café is reassessing how they will make up for what they believe helped their business remain economically viable.  “We were going to do dinner service,” Mark Wootten began, but “it was going to be more pop-up dinners with other chefs, and we were going to do some of our own with poetry dinners.”  Mark continued that these dinners were a long tradition for the café, and he felt skeptical they could retain the same spirit they evoked, and fill up such events without the ability to bring or purchase alcohol.

A vision unfulfilled

I recently attended a pop-up dinner at a different location, hosted by My Private Chef and cooked by Nicole Van Camp.  It was a rare opportunity for me to open one of my bottles of wine in the intimate company of friends with a meal cooked by a full-time chef.  Something about this opportunity is unusually gratifying for the cook and the diners, an opportunity for everyone to literally bring something to the table and spark conversation about the different flavors around the room.

I have difficulty relating specifically to how this intimacy and curiosity manifests itself at Garden Café’s events, since I have not attended any, but I gather Mark felt similarly about such events: “the spirit of these dinners is really beautiful,” he remarked.  “In the beginning you’ve got thirty near strangers and by the end you have thirty people hanging out.”

I still find myself struggling with the role wine and beer play in fostering this unique sense of curiosity and camaraderie.  Something intangible makes us feel relieved or intrigued by a glass of rotten grape juice, so much so that it puts the economic viability of an event in question.  At the same time, however, the mere presence of alcohol in a beverage sparks controversy over our desire for intoxication.  And while beer and wine often fall under a separate category, more geared toward a food-loving, controlled crowd, they still end up privy to controversies such as the one I have described.  Would you attend an alcohol-free pop-up dinner?

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At Ease with Spaniards

I opened my jet-lagged eyes and gazed out the long window on the opposite side of the train at a long field of grapevines in front of large dark-grey mountains.  The train was slowing, and I looked up front toward the screen displaying the next stop and time of day, to estimate how much longer remained until my arrival in Pamplona.  The screen displayed the name “CALATAYUD,” a region that had become recently familiar to me, with a big push at work to sell a Garnacha imported from there.  I looked out again, trying to take in the sight as best I could with my hazy vision.  I wonder if there will be any time to visit a producer, I thought.

My inclination to walk along those grapevines was not met in Spain, but I instead walked amongst something more lively and intriguing during Pamplona’s historical San Fermín Festival: a culture of wine drinkers.  I arrived and got the key to the apartment where I would be staying the next few nights, then immediately went out to explore the active night-life along Estafeta.

Most of the bars had large entryways and few chairs, and people congregated for a couple glasses of wine or beer, some bites of creative bar food heated in the microwave, then moved to another bar.  All wines were local, from directly in Navarra or just outside in the Rioja region.

After the first day of festival bull-runs, all the party-planning had tired many of my friends out, and they took advantage of siesta by napping.  I instead borrowed a camera and took it to the streets to document iconic images of art and daytime bar-goers outside the main drag where the runs, parades, and daily activities occurred.  As I stopped and took candid photographs of groups enjoying the weather with open bottles, they happily posed, asked me to take pictures with their own cameras, and even invited me to share a couple glasses over conversation and some pintxos of jamón ibérico and gambas.

As I was snapping a photo of four ladies witting inside an open window, they noticed I was the same person who had taken their picture earlier in a different location with their iPhone.  They handed me the same iPhone and I took another picture of them, and they then invited me to join them.

A glass of wine with new friends

“Is it your first time in Pamplona,” the blonde lady asked me in Spanish, as another one handed me a glass of Chardonnay.

“Yes,” I responded.  “First time in Spain.”

“Oh, where else have you been?” another one asked.

“Just Pamplona.  Are you all from Pamplona?”

“No we’re from Madrid.  We’re going here for a day and then to Barcelona.”

“Qué bueno.  Wish I could go to Barcelona on this trip.  I’m helping a friend here with his business.”

“What do you think of San Fermín?”

“I’ve never seen anything like it.”

I give the same advice to everyone who seeks my insight about traveling and the apprehensions that come with encountering foreign languages.  “Drink with the locals,” I say.  “You’ll learn everything you couldn’t learn in school, and feel less inhibited and thus more willing to practice and hone your language skills.”  As with any place, language is a product of its environment, and it no doubt makes me more at ease to stand outside with a full wine glass in my hand with the sun shining.

A gentleman pours a bottle of Freixenet Cava made entirely from Trepat grapes

While the mood was celebratory by default during my time in Pamplona, casual conversation over wine felt like an everyday occurrence, a break from the fiesta in many ways.  I want to wrap my head around what gave rise to this life at ease, and how wine is such an essential characteristic to it.  The answer eludes me, and makes me want another glass of Navarran Chardonnay.

Ralph Steadman, the Modern Wine Artist

Months before taking the Certified Sommelier Exam with the Court of Master Sommeliers, I sat by the pool with some friends, studying Ralph Steadman’s run-down of German wine classifications with accompanying pictures in his book The Grapes of Ralph: Wine According to Ralph Steadman. “Tafelwein is the wine that Mercedes advise you to use in an emergency to top up the brake reservoir in the rare event of a disc brake leakage caused by a temperature burst at boiling point because you have just seen the whole of the Rhine valley over a period of six hours at 200 km per hour,” I read aloud to a friend, and then showed him some of the paintings with sinister-looking grapes on the vine with eyes.  “Adam,” my roommate remarked, “I think you’re probably the only one using that book to study for the exam.”

“You’re probably right,” I responded, “but I can actually remember some of what’s in this book.”

It seems fitting that my preferred gift for the wine professional, novice, art lover, or curious thinker is one I can never seem to find in a bookstore.  The Grapes of Ralph is a wholly original account of the artist’s many experiences tasting wine around the world.  I first happened upon the book through his follow-up to it, Untrodden Grapes, when I found the latter in Half Price Books a few years ago.  As is my penchant with this blog, I am interested in wine writing that says more than someone’s subjective tasting notes or technical data.  Steadman’s signature art and underrated writing style hooked me immediately.

Untrodden Grapes reads like the artist’s collection of notes, outtakes, and B-Sides that did not make the final cut for The Grapes of Ralph, yet it seems to appear on shelves more frequently (and more stores are capable of special-ordering it) even though the first book won a Glenfiddich Award for Food and Drink Book of the Year.

Steadman is best known in the U.S. for his collaborations with late journalist Hunter S. Thompson, for whom he illustrated Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.  The artwork added to Thompson’s signature hyperbole with sensationalized depictions of long cigarette holders and skeleton-like limbs.  This work and other cartoons caught the attention of English wine purveyor Oddbins, who commissioned him to illustrate a wine list and then visit various producers in the world.  These travels unlocked what comes off to me as a more personal artistic expression from him.  We see how wine spoke to him, and literally see it through his eyes in the collection of paintings he composed.

Even when Steadman does provide his tasting notes, his unconventional prose brings a different perspective on how we can taste wine: “we drink a bottle of Santa Rita Medalla Real Cabernet Sauvignon.  This has a more interesting, homespun Chilean taste.  It is much sharper and brighter in colour — more the child, and livelier for its innocence.”  I can think of no professional, focused tasting where someone describes a wine as a lively, innocent child.  It seems ironic that the wine business has a need to exude charm in every aspect of its products, yet seems to miss the point when honing in on a wine’s acidity level instead of its personality.

As I look back through the book each time I show it to someone, I always find familiar wines I now sell but did not previously recognize, a reminder that the artist’s knowledge was far ahead of mine.  One of those books that changes how I view a fundamental aspect of my life, Steadman brings wine to life through his words and images.  Perhaps he and Hunter S. Thompson found kindred spirits with one another because they chose not to hide their presence from their work, recognizing that readers were seeing the world through their eyes.  And through the eyes of such passionate observer, there is no doubt much more to excite our taste buds, nostrils, and thoughts.