Houston’s New Wave of Wine Shops Offer More Than Wine

Gina and Joe Stayshich always knew that the business they were going to open together, the one they had envisioned over the past decade, would be centered around wine. They opened Bodega Bellaire Thanksgiving week with lots more.

“Our vision for the store was to bring our favorite things,” Gina said. “We’re primarily a bottle store, but we have all the components of everything we love in our own lives.”

Joe moved to Houston in 1997 and worked as a restaurant chef for 20 years, most recently as head chef at Indianola in East Downtown. The COVID-19 pandemic was his cue to leave the industry. Gina, originally from Houston, had worked at the Glassell School of Art for 14 years before embarking on this new adventure.

The couple still drank wine but didn’t know much about it. One day Joe started bringing back some interesting bottles from one of his restoration jobs. These were so-called “natural” wines, a generic term designating wines with little intervention, organic or biodynamic. Natural wine was hard to come by in Houston at the time. As their interest grew and they drank more of it, they began to seek it out.

Their discoveries over the years have become the basis of their boutique Bellaire’s wine selection.

“We’ll tell people right away: we’re not experts,” Gina said. “It’s really just us drinking wine over time and learning things on our own.”

To complement the wine, Joe said they wanted to emulate places they had visited on the West Coast and in Austin that resembled modern, curated convenience stores, aiming to offer products that have similar sensibilities to their selection of wines. Bodega Bellaire offers items from small, independent makers, often handcrafted or sustainably sourced from both local businesses and finds from across the United States.

Some of their bestsellers come from Grit & Grace Studio, a Charleston, South Carolina company that turns oyster shells into small dishes and ornaments, with designs ranging from lemons to Frida Kahlo; and colorful Smell Club candles sculpted into fun shapes by a woman who lives in West University Place.

Bodega Bellaire items are grouped in thematic departments: mugs and other crockery on one side, gourmet chocolates and vegan marshmallows on the other. A range of CBD products are displayed alongside non-alcoholic functional drinks, which the couple stocked up on for Dry January. Pasta and tomato sauce imported from Italy sits on a shelf with printouts of a baked tagliolini recipe from Harry’s Bar in Venice, Italy, hanging from a clipboard, which people can take away with them.

A wall at the back of the store displays paintings by Patrick Palmer, the dean of Glassell. Gina plans to tap into her global art network to bring in local artists who can exhibit and sell their works on rotation.

The storefront is strategically stocked with food items that can complement customers’ wine purchases: crackers and snacks, a cooler filled with Dairy Maids cheeses and deli meats, and other fun items. Joe says he also brings fresh baguettes from Magnol French Baking.

Dodie’s, a wine shop that opened last October in the heights, also sells food items such as salamis and cheeses, canned sardines from Spain and olive oil from Texas. For owner Dodie Wilson, it’s “a matter of convenience” for her customers, who don’t have to make multiple stops if they want a snack with their wine.

As at Bodega Bellaire, Wilson offers a more focused wine selection at Dodie’s than in department stores. Her 345-square-foot store specializes in small wineries and women-owned vineyards, and the average price is $25 a bottle. It also sells beer, sake and aperitifs like Aperol.

The concept of the curated bottle shop that extends beyond wine is in its infancy in Houston, but it’s not new. Heights Grocer, which opened in 2018, offers natural wine as well as various home and gift items. Owner James Havens decided it would be part of his shop from the start.

“Margins on retail wine are really terrible,” he said. “Candles keep the lights on on a slow wine day.”

Beyond the economy, Havens says half the fun of running Heights Grocer is finding small-batch products you won’t find anywhere else. It’s the “driving force” behind the wine selection and the rest of the store, he says.

Havens sells lots of cold meats, cheeses, crackers and sweets, as well as lots of candles. Over the past two years, it has beefed up its inventory of CBD products and soft drinks, citing a move away from overconsumption during the pandemic.

For some customers who stop by Heights Grocer, wine is a secondary reason for their visit. Havens says there are swarms of people at the shop on Christmas Eve and before Valentine’s Day looking for last-minute gifts.

At Bodega Bellaire, Stayshiches are also looking for ways to integrate into the Bellaire community and beyond. They have a cork board in the store where neighbors are free to post their event flyers and other notices. They bond with other business owners, including a local restaurant where they are planning a collaborative dinner soon.

They donated a portion of their opening weekend sales to the PX Project, which teaches restaurant skills to young people in Gulfton and Sharpstown; some of the organization’s scholars worked on the inauguration of Bodega Bellaire.

The couple hopes that their shop will eventually become a community space. In one corner, a mustard-colored velvet sofa is inviting in front of a coffee table stacked with cookbooks and other books on food and wine. It hasn’t happened much yet, but they encourage customers to sit down and relax a bit after a long day at work.

The bottle or two of wine they open daily for sampling can help.

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