John Roenigk, the founder of the retail shop The Austin Wine Merchant in Austin, Texas, started to develop his passion for wine in Houston in the mid-1970s, after he landed a job organizing the wine cellar at Antone’s Foreign Foods in 1978, an old-school importer of international products that has since gone out of business. He went on to take a position at Richard’s Liquors, working under Henryk Kucharzyk, who showed him the ropes of the wine business. “Without really meaning to,” Roenigk says, “Mr. Henry served as my mentor.” After moving to Austin in 1987 and taking a position at a local wine retailer, Roenigk decided he wanted to start his own business. With the help of two financial investors—and his wife, Lucinda—he launched The Austin Wine Merchant in 1991.
Inspired by his time working under Kucharzyk, Roenigk modeled his business, in part, after Richard’s. Kucharzyk’s business philosophy, which emphasized high-quality products and handpicked selections, competitive pricing, and strong customer service, made a deep impression on Roenigk. “We still try to run our store,” he says, “as I learned working under Mr. Henry.”
The other retail outlet that served as inspiration for Roenigk’s Austin Wine Merchant was Soho Wine Supply, a small yet finely stocked shop that Roenigk discovered on a trip to London in the early ’90s. Visiting Soho Wine Supply was the Aha moment when he realized that a similar model could be successful in downtown Austin. That Austin Wine Merchant has thrived for 27 years is a testament to Roenigk’s foresight.
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When defining the original concept for the shop, Roenigk focused on fine wines from classic European regions—France, Italy, and Germany. Over time, he expanded the store’s offerings to include craft spirits and a hand-picked selection of West Coast and New World wines. The Austin Wine Merchant’s clientele is discerning and enthusiastic, says Roenigk, adding that many of them come in seeking bottles that are “transportive.” In other words, they evoke the time and place where the wine was made.
Tom Thornton, a local food and wine writer, suggests that one reason Austin Wine Merchant has succeeded in its original location—on a street, he adds, that has seen plenty of businesses come and go—is that Roenigk never spread himself too thin. “John always kept that location and delivered to a certain type of audience,” says Thornton, “rather than being all things to all people.”
A staff that started with just John and Lucinda now numbers 10 to 15 people who are at work at any given time. And it’s not just the staff that’s grown. The store’s clientele that has increased slowly but surely over the years. Word of mouth and the rise in nationwide alcohol shipping have all contributed to a customer base that continues to expand. Sales, says Roenigk, have roughly doubled since 2004.
Paying It Forward
Brian Smith, a senior staff member who has worked at the shop since 2013, originally sought a position there because an industry friend suggested it’d be a great hands-on learning opportunity for him. He recalls his persistence in seeking employment, and though the shop was fully staffed at the time, Roenigk hired Smith anyway. He began as a shelf stocker and delivery driver, later moving into client sales and, shortly after, leading Saturday wine tastings and VIP events.
Smith planned to stay at Austin Wine Merchants for only a year. He wanted to learn how the industry worked and then move on to his own business endeavor. His desire to continue learning the retail business, however—especially from someone as successful as Roenigk—has made him stay. “John has been kind enough to share his wisdom from decades in the wine business and his knowledge of wine,” Smith says, and he underscores that one of the most valuable lessons Roenigk has taught him is that “it’s not all just about review points.” Rather, it’s their job to “try to intuit what the customer likes.” Smith continues to learn from Roenigk, and he says that overall, his position at the shop has been an “eye-opener to the inside of the industry.”
A Pillar of the Community
“John Roenigk has greatly impacted and influenced the wine community here in Austin,” says Mandi Nelson, a regional sales manager at European Cellars, who is based in Austin. “I don’t know that many [shops] that can compete with his amazing depth of producers.” In addition to working with The Austin Wine Market professionally, Nelson also regularly visits the store as a customer. “I know that I can come and purchase wines that will be classic,” she says, “a great representation of what [they] should be.” Nelson has a deep appreciation for Roenigk’s exacting wine standards, noting that one would never find a “wine without soul” in the shop. Another thing she admires about Roenigk is that “he takes time to taste everything and to listen to the stories behind the wine.”
When she moved to Texas 15 years ago, Diane Dixon, the founder of Keeper Collection, a company that organizes wine- and food-related events, was introduced to The Austin Wine Merchant through her former local wineseller in Louisiana. “When we visited Austin Wine Merchant for the first time,” she says, “it was everything we expected and more.” She praises the staff for its devoted efforts to fulfill customer requests and adds that Roenigk supports the wine community in many ways. “He’s dedicated to his work,” she says, “and offers a place where people interested in beverages can come, whether they’re beginners or long-term collectors.” Dixon says also that Roenigk and his staff have been helpful in assisting her with her events business by “always creating an avenue for people to purchase the wines they like from the events.”
Because Roenigk is a soft-spoken, reserved sort, he’s somewhat unassuming as an authority on wine, suggests Thornton, but he adds that “his shop is impeccably curated.” The in-store tastings, he says, are a boon to the community. “Sometimes it’s $9 rosé,” he says. “Sometimes it’s Chateau Montelena. It’s an amazing, free educational opportunity for those who want to learn more about wine.” Thornton also emphasizes that Roenigk has succeeded in Austin, where many others have tried and failed: “There’s really nothing independently thriving in town in that same way.”
Perhaps more than his finely tuned selection of wine and spirits, the popular in-store tastings, and his and his staff’s devotion to customer service, it’s The Austin Wine Merchant himself who really keeps people coming back. “John works relentlessly to taste wines as they enter the Texas market, as well as traveling to various wine regions to learn what’s new,” says Dixon. “He does every job in the shop, whether it’s moving boxes, inventory, customer checkout—or whatever is needed to take care of the customer.” Nelson agrees: “The Austin community is truly blessed to have such a special wine shop.”
Vicki Denig is a New York-based wine and spirits journalist and wine educator, discovering the world through the lens of a glass, one sip at a time. When not tasting or traveling, she can most likely be found running through Astoria Park or sipping on Cabernet Franc.