by MM Pack
Photography by Melanie Grizzel
On the triangle lot formed by East 11th Street and Rosewood Avenue in East Austin, there’s a Victorian house that looks out over the neighborhood. This venerable building, with its round, pointy-roofed turret, has witnessed lots of change since it was built in 1890. Its first occupant was Harry L. Haynes, an Austin city council member for 29 years, and later, it was the family home of Thomas DeLashwah, the first African-American pharmacist in Austin. Since 2010, reflecting contemporary neighborhood changes, it’s been the site of East End Wines. “We don't live here and the place hasn’t been a residence since the seventies,” says owner Matt Miller. “But sometimes it feels like we’re just people in our house and customers are the neighbors coming in.”
In fact, many of the shop’s customers are the neighbors. Miller and wine buyer Sam Hovland estimate that two-thirds of the clientele live nearby, often arriving via shoe-leather or bicycle. The remainder are the wine lovers and the wine-curious who have made this bijou shop a reason to cross town—for the carefully selected collection of unusual and moderately priced wines, for the very personal attention offered by the proprietors and the sole employee Bill McGuire, and for the small wine classes and informal tastings on Friday afternoons.
Miller and Hovland have been friends for 15 years. They met when Miller was a delivery driver for one of Austin’s signature wine shops, The Austin Wine Merchant, and Hovland was sommelier at The Headliners Club. When asked if he grew up with a wine background, Miller laughs, “No, I grew up with a hay-baling background in Columbus, Texas.” But once he arrived at the University of Texas to study computer science and began working at The Austin Wine Merchant, he wasted no time getting up to speed—learning, he says, from some of the best palates in town. Later, he served for six years as wine steward and buyer for Central Market Westgate.
East End Wines is a compatible collaboration of skills and interests shared by Miller and Hovland. “We just seem to prefer the same wines,” he says. “We’ll taste wines separately and later compare our notes to find that we often say the same things.” At first, they both tasted every single wine before adding it to the inventory, but their palates are so similar, they soon found that wasn’t necessary. Now, Hovland focuses on tasting, buying and teaching, while Miller concentrates on the nuts and bolts of running the business.
Their current collection includes wines from across the globe but has a distinct Eurocentric bent; the list fluctuates—they work with 50 distributors, many representing obscure family wineries. “Everything about our business reflects our values. Our personalities are stamped on our wines,” says Hovland, a certified sommelier who’s been in the business for more than 20 years. He’s responsible for the wine lists of several past and present Austin restaurants, including Swift’s Attic and the upcoming Wu Chow, as well for as the Headliners Club. “We run the shop as if it were a great restaurant wine list. We focus on wines that go well with food, and our goal is to offer great examples of each type of wine we carry at affordable price points.”
A key word is “affordable”—the average bottle price is $18—and Hovland says there are only 100 wines over $35. “We normally keep around eight hundred wines on our list, and we’re not planning on increasing much. Eight hundred is about all I can keep straight in my head, and this is a small place—we almost make wines fight for their spots on the shelf. While we may love a wine, if the customers don’t, it doesn’t stay on the list.”
“We help people find the words to describe what they like in a wine and then point them to suitable matches,” continues Hovland. “There are a number of regulars who trust our tastes and ask us to put together mixed cases. Once we understand what they like, they know we’ll provide the best of those types.”
Even with the steady stream of new and repeat customers, Miller asserts they want to grow the business slowly. “We’re trying to build our reputation one-on-one with customers, but we’ve already grown beyond our expectations,” he says. “We’re about serious, well-made, food-friendly wines with good value. These are available if you know where to look, and that’s what we’re here for.”