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February 05, 2007

Spec's, 5775 Airport Blvd.

Spec's arrived in Austin late last year with moderate fanfare, a bespectacled, flag-waving rabbit, and a warning from a wine distributor friend in Houston that the chain would put a serious dent in the business of places like Central Market and Grapevine Market. Unless Austin foodies and wine drinkers really wish to adopt the monochromatic, California-cum-Franco-centric predilections of Houstonians, I'm not sure that the major fine wine and food retailers in Austin have that much to worry about.

Let's start with the wine. The focus seems to be French wines and big California reds, to the notable exclusion of much of the rest of the world. In the midst of 25,000 square feet of wine and food, I counted perhaps 20 bottles of Italian wine, although it may have been closer to a dozen. Much the same can be said for Spanish, Australian, New Zealand and many other prominent producers. The ratio of French and California reds to all of the other wines combined is probably two to one.

I'm not sure if this reflects a philosophical/gastronomical direction or is merely the result of a particular purchasing and distribution strategy, but it certainly doesn't make for a very exciting wine buying experience. Both Central Market and Grapevine pack much more compelling wine selections into smaller spaces than Spec's. Spec's may have better pricing, but if I can't find a decent Priorat or a Lagrein there, what's the point?

Despite the odd selection, there are some good wines to be had, and I appreciate the chain's 5% discount for cash/check/debit purchases. The beer selection is good, though not great — if you want that really obscure Trappist ale, you're still better off with Grapevine or CM.

On the gourmet food side, Spec's packs in a competent array of chocolates, coffees, sauces, olives, crackers, chips and a few unique items in the freezer section. The meat counter houses a small selection of prosciutto, ham, turkey and other meats, along with very good take-and-bake bread, including a pesto loaf that was spectacularly rich and satisfying.

Two small cheese cases frame the meat counter, but I found the cheese I purchased (a Montegrappa and a Cabrales) improperly wrapped; both grew additional surface mold quickly and were dried out within 4-5 days. Someone needs to turn on the heat on the shrink-wrapper.

I hope Spec's adjusts their wine mix for a wider audience. Classic French wines are wonderful — and there is much to discover here in the Rhones and others — but I'm not sure that they deserve to completely dominate a modern wine shop along with entire rows of merlots and cabs. Give us some variety and we'll be back.

Not Recommended.

Posted by brentbuford at 09:04 PM | Comments (0)