Shhh, Austin’s newest wine bar, The Red Room Lounge, quietly opens downtown

“No, no, no! Do not write about this place! We don’t want people to know about it. This is the place where you bring a date and really impress her because you are ‘in the know.’ Don’t tell anyone about this f@%&ing place!” Customer, Zack Fuentes emphatically discouraged me from spreading the word about the newly opened The Red Room Lounge. He wants it to stay unknown and exclusive.

He’s right that the wine lounge is so far only frequented by wine aficionados who are in the know. There’s no sign out front, there was no media blitz or even a press release announcing its opening and it isn’t even listed on Citysearch yet.

Here’s your insider tip: the Red Room Lounge is located at 306 E 3rd St. in downtown, Austin, just down the street from the Convention Center and two doors east of the Vince Young Steakhouse.  You don’t have to have a password to get in. Yet.

One reason the wine crowd is drawn to The Red Room Lounge is because its owner, Alex Andrawes, has created a chill, speakeasy-like atmosphere for people to enjoy a few glasses of great wine. The red velvet draped entrance gives it an elegant, hushed feel. There are nicely arranged conversation areas and dark nooks for lovers to steal a kiss or two. Another reason is this is a place where both wine experts and novices can learn something new. Not only is Andrawes  a wine expert, but he hired Texas’ Best Sommelier 2011, Bill Elsey, who brings incredible wine knowledge and a deft touch for sharing that insight without making people feel stupid.

The lounge grew out of Andrawes’ other wine businesses, Personal Wine, started in 2000, and, started in 2008. He explained the origins of the lounge, “I was tasting wine with Bill Elsey and a group of sommeliers and wine drinkers in the lounge. Everyone thought it was a great space and suggested we should open it up to provide by-the-bottle or glass service. It’s cozy, a great place to be private and feel special. It’s almost like your personal cellar away from home… That’s why we call it a lounge rather than a bar. Our focus is wine, great conversation and great company.”

Judging by the feedback from guests, they hit the mark. Amelia Castilla said, “It’s secretive. It’s private. It’s like you have to have a secret handshake to get in.” Baubak Askari likes the individual attention saying, “The service is very personal. It’s so cozy it feels like I’m drinking wine at home, but I’m out.”

The Red Room Lounge stocks a wide selection of wines by the bottle including some private label and boutique wines that Andrawes sourced on trips to the wine country. Guests can choose to buy a bottle with a selection of more than 500 labels and more than 3,000 bottles, and take home anything they don’t drink in the lounge. They also offer eight to 10 wines by the glass with a menu that changes regularly. Currently they have interesting pours like Spätburgunder, Oxidized Rioja Blanc, and 1989 Chateau Lynch-Bages.

There are a bucket of wine bars downtown to choose from, so it’s damn important to have an interesting selection of wines that appeal to a broad audience.Andrawes said, “That’s the greatest thing about getting Texas’ Best Sommelier Bill Elsey in as the leader of the pack. I let Bill manage the wine selection in the front room. I’m responsible for maintaining the vintage cellar so I select rarities with wines we believe in. Wines must deliver quality first, price second.”

Elsey described his approach to wine buying, “I taste often and make it a priority to build relationships with the wine rep’s who work with me. I take tasting with my distributors very seriously. Those whom I buy the most wine from understand my palate and what I am looking for, which are wines that over-deliver for their price point and taste of the place they are from. In the Lounge, if you are spending $90 on a Châteauneuf-du-Pape you know it is an awesome bottle for what you paid. The same can be said for the $29 bottle of dry Riesling. I also like to have a diverse selection of wines from traditional, as well as esoteric grapes and regions.”

They have some pretty amazing wine in the cellar. Andrawes gave me a tour and pulled out bottle after bottle of rare and collectable wine like Screaming Eagle, 1982 Chateau Haut Brion, 1955 Taylor’s Vintage Port and the mack-daddy 1989 magnum of Petrus. He grabbed a bottle of 2005 Gargiulo Vineyards Money Road Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon for me to try. I needed a moment.

While the wine selection is large, that’s all you can expect. They do not serve beer, cocktails or anything else. They don’t prepare food on premise, but have service agreements with restaurants within a two block radius that will bring you cheese plates, hors d’oeuvres and light eats. The Red Room will host private parties and arrange for catering.

The lounge was starting to fill up with guests by the time we came out of the cellar. Elsey poured a selection of wines by the glass at the bar unobtrusively tucked in a back corner, while Andrawes circulated around the lounge tempting guests with prime selections from the cellar. Edward Morgan liked that touch saying, “They have a great portfolio of wine. Things you won’t get anywhere else.”

Nash Garrison was visiting for the first time and was happy to discover a new place near his home. “I love it. Being in the neighborhood, I want to go somewhere to chill out and have a drink. Going to a lounge underground is cool.” It is literally cool in there — around 65 degrees — which will be especially nice when its 100 degrees outside.

Return visitor Adi Pavlovic likes the unhurried pace. “The last time we were here we bought two bottles, sat on the couch and didn’t get up for hours. You can’t do that any other place in town.”

I got caught up in the easy pace too. It was one of those nights where I knew I was tempting a hangover to carve a jagged gash in my morning skull, but I didn’t care and ordered one more glass of Champagne. The crowd was relaxed, conversations were flowing as easily as the wine and the couch sucked me in.

Nagging thoughts about an early morning at work eventually pulled me off the couch. As I was finally leaving Elsey got a call from a group planning to drop in and kick off their late night revelry at the Red Room.  He had a gleam in his eye anticipating a flock of wine aficionados encamping in his den until the wee hours. There is nothing better than long conversations with friends over wine. What a dream job.

Visiting The Red Room Lounge

  • Website
  • Hours: Tuesday-Friday 2PM to 12AM and Saturday 3PM to 1AM
  • Prices: Wines by the glass range from $6 to $25
  • Payment options: Cash, American Express, Discover, MasterCard, Visa

A version of this story first ran on The Digital Texan.

What are you drinking?

Fine Wine without Pretense Makes Sense at Max’s Wine Dive

There are days when I feel like wearing jeans and flip-flops. On those days that I’m feeling ultra-casual, I don’t have lowered expectations for how I’m served or for the types of food and drink I buy. I just don’t feel like getting all gussied up. On days like that, Max’s Wine Dive on San Jacinto and Third in downtown Austin is a perfect choice.

Max’s is the kind of place where the wait staff wears t-shirts that read, “Fried Chicken and Champagne? Why the Hell not?” Max’s is the kind of place that serves down-home food like Gator Beignets and Shrimp & Grits.  Max’s is the kind of place that doesn’t serve flights of wine, because who really just wants a small taste of wine when you can have a whole glass?

I ambled in to Max’s after work with my friends Cotton Candy and Jolly Rancher to enjoy a glass of wine or two during happy hour, which happens Monday through Friday from 4pm to 7pm. During happy hour wines by the glass are $2 off. It was a 90 degree evening in March, so I was hankering for a glass of Rosé wine. They had two on the menu, so I asked our server, Joe Fahlmann, for a recommendation. What happened next set the tone for the rest of the evening.

Joe asked me if I like my Rosé dry and advised me that if I do, I shouldn’t order either of the wines on the list. He then suggested I order a sparkling wine that wasn’t on the wines by the glass menu. I love bubbles, so I was game to go for a glass of Schramsberg Brut Rosé. Cotton Candy is a bubble fiend from way back, so she was down with it too.

Jolly Rancher had a hankerin’ for a light-bodied red. Joe nailed what she wanted with a glass of Lemelson Vineyards 2008 Thea’s Selection Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley for $14 a glass. This wine was also not on the wine by the glass list. Recommending an Oregon Pinot Noir scored points with me, and then he said they also carry Argyle Winery Nuthouse Pinot Noir which won even more points.

Jolly Rancher also wanted a little nibble with her wine, but the cheese selection wasn’t exactly what she wanted. “I like it hard. I want it hard. Hard. Can you do that?” Yep, Joe changed up the selection of cheeses to get rid of the goat’s milk and replaced it with Manchego.

Three special orders accommodated and food and drink were brought to our table quickly. Happy hour indeed. This is what I thought of my wine.

Schramsberg Brut Rosé

Look This blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir is fermented in part in contact with the Pinot skins giving it a warm salmon belly hue. It has fine, active streams of bubbles that ascend to join their friends in a tiny mousse. 
Smell It has a scent like a summery desert with delicate strawberry and biscuit.  
Taste This was just what I was looking for, a delightfully chilled, subtle sparkler dancing with strawberry, nectarine, citrus and a hint of toasty pecan flavors. It has a quick finish of  buttered toast.  
Price $13.75/glass  (this typically sells for $39 a bottle at retail)


Max’s has a respectable selection of wine with 3 sparkling wines 2 Rose and about a dozen reds and a dozen whites available by the glass. They carry anywhere from 140 to 170 wines by the bottle at prices ranging from $12 to $500. All wines are available to take home at retail prices. If you’re not a wine drinker, they also carry about a dozen kinds of beer.

I’ve heard a lot of bitching about the expensive food, but I didn’t go to eat. I have no complaints about the prices of wine. They are pretty reasonable for a wine bar. I was impressed prompt, attentive service with an eye on getting us what we want. Note: the service was good even before I disclosed that I am a blogger. I appreciate knowledgeable servers that give good recommendations for wines. I like Max’s willingness to open any bottle to pour a glass as long as the table is willing to order at least two glasses from the bottle.  Good wine, good service, casual attitude.  

If you are looking for a place to get a good glass of wine while wearing jeans and flip-flops try Max’s Wine Dive.  

What are you drinking?

In flight at House Wine

Do you remember ten years ago when wine bars started popping up here and there? Not tasting rooms, or wine shops that served by the glass, but honest to goodness establishments fully dedicated to the enjoyment of wine by the taste, the glass or by the bottle. Outside of New York and San Francisco wine bars were few and far between. Much has changed. In Austin there are at least a dozen different wine bars.

My beautiful wife and I decided to try House Wine before going to dinner. This place is in a little house just south of Lady Bird Lake a block west of S. Lamar on Josephine St. They are definitely going for the South Austin vibe – casual, cozy and a little sloppy. The space is intimate (small) and eclectic (mismatched shit). We felt pretty comfortable right from the start.

There wasn’t table service, so we bellied up to the bar and looked through the menu. House Wine has about 25 whites and 30 reds by the glass and by the bottle. The prices are pretty damn reasonable ranging from $7 to $11 and bottles in the $20s and $30s. We were there at happy hour – hey hey 2 bucks off each glass.

On this particular night, we were indecisive, so we decided to order two flights. Three half glasses for $15. A bargain. I ordered a Spanish Tempranillo, a Côtes du Rhône and Spanish Verdejo (white). My beautiful wife asked the bar tender to select a flight for her. She had a sparkling rosé, an Argentine Malbec and a California Pinot Noir. We also ordered a selection of cheese and smoked salmon. The cheese and salmon were nice, served in a gorgeous wooden bowl and gave us something to clear our palettes between wines. Worth the order.

Here’s what I had.

I started off with Paso a Paso Verdejo 2008.  Lovely pale yellow in the stemless glass. Nice scents of pear. The Verdejo grape makes a nice medium bodied, citrusy, honied wine that is right at home on the shabby back porch of House Wine and at your summer party.   

Next I had a Volver Tempranillo 2005.  Bright ruby with a fruity nose. This guy started off with round cherry, cassis and vanilla and finished with cocoa and a bite of tannins. The smoked salmon tasted great with this.

My third glass was REDblanc Côtes du Rhône. This organic Grenache, Syrah blend had a warm plum color and a nose to match. It was a mouthful of raspberries, violets and licorice with a touch of cedar on the finish.

Decent wines for the price.  If you are looking for a very relaxed, inexpensive wine bar with a decent selection, try House Wine. If you want knowledgeable wine guideance and service in an elegant setting, you’ll be disappointed here. Good news is there are several other wine bars in town.