Cafe Reviews

Second Helpings

Up in Smoke: If you run a wine and liquor retail operation, you look forward to the holiday season with the same sense of anticipation as a kid with a notarized "good behavior" certificate from Santa. That's when the profits roll in.

On November 8 the Valley's premier wine outlet had a visit from the Grinch. An electrical fire gutted Sportsman's Wines, Spirits and (Other) Flavours. As temperatures soared above 700 degrees, "the inventory was toasted," says Michael Fine, who, along with his father Elliott, heads Sportsman's.

But 10 days later, just in time for the arrival of this year's Beaujolais Nouveau, the business emerged from the ashes. The Fines set up a big tent outside the rubble, in the parking lot at 3205 East Camelback.

It took some pluck and luck. The insurance company came through; suppliers and distributors came through; employees came through; and the city came through, swiftly processing the six permits Sportsman's needed to put up its Tent City.

Why should wine lovers care? Well, if you were here before 1987, when Sportsman's arrived, you'll recall that wine retailing was pretty primitive. Then, most Arizona merchants used a simple system to display their wares: On one shelf sat the wine with corks; on another sat the bottles with screw caps.

Sportsman's brought big-city sophistication to the Sonoran Desert. But it took time. At first, says Michael, the shop was chiefly notable for "a drive-through lane and bad wine." As the city grew, however, so did demand for quality. And Elliott, who ran Paul Masson for many years (remember Orson Welles intoning the company slogan: "We sell no wine before its time"), had the experience, expertise and connections to meet it.

When I got here nine years ago, Sportsman's was the only place in town to carry hard-to-find Beaumes-de-Venise, Banyuls, Lustau sherries, Alsatian whites, boutique California reds and a line of Spanish, Italian and Australian varietals. Now, you find them in just about every liquor store and on every restaurant wine list.

These days, the Fines are still ahead of the curve. They'd better be--the competition is right on their tail. What's hot for 1999? I asked. "Pinot Gris," answers Michael emphatically, "the next Chardonnay." It's a gently perfumed, rich, dry white varietal (known as Pinot Grigio in Italy) that's both affordable and great with food. (I love the luscious Domaine Schlumberger, from Alsace.)

He's also high on American Pinot Noir, the legendary Burgundy grape, which winemakers in California, Oregon and Washington have finally learned to work with. And he's steering oenophiles to up-and-coming wines like Argentine Malbec, South African Sauvignon Blanc and Australian Syrah.

Right now, Sportsman's has maybe 20 percent of its usual inventory. But the Fines hope to have a rebuilt store running at full speed by February. Customers can look forward to an expanded cheese section, more imported beers and high-end spirits, lunchtime sandwiches and a private tasting room.

Sportsman's is open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Sunday, from noon to 7. Call 955-7730.

--Howard Seftel

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Howard Seftel