It’s the end of the month and therefore another installment of Travels with Frenchie, the monthly food series in which a trio of culturally mismatched San Antonians explores the city in search of dining adventure. As always, the culinary vice squad consisted of Frenchie (aka Fabien Jacob, celebrated local sommelier), Carlos the Bike Mechanic (aka Carlos Montoya, a man who eats only obscure fruits and grilled meats), and me (occasional vegan and known street food enthusiast). For our guest this month, we were joined by Adam White, drummer and keyboardist for local indie rock band Big Soy
With wine in mind, we headed over to the recently opened Max’s Wine Dive in the Alamo Quarry. Max’s seeks to combine elements that normally don’t go together: upscale comfort food, the feel of a dive bar, a rock and roll atmosphere, and wine. That’s a lot going on.
To Max’s credit, they’ve created a place for our confusing times. I understand the upscale comfort food angle – the economy is tanking and the upper middle class can no longer afford foie gras. So we retreat into the safety of the American past with food from the Old South. Personally, that will always be weird to me, but this is the psychology of our public consciousness, and so as a business move, comfort food makes perfect sense.
There is nothing divey about this wine bar. Quite the opposite. The interior is new and modestly elegant – perfect for comfortably drinking with friends. Max definitely pushes a rock ‘n’ roll vibe, at least in the choice of music coming through the speakers. Guns N’ Roses was cranking when we came in at happy hour. I know this appealed to Carlos because he can play Appetite for Destruction note for note on guitar. Combining wine with rock reminds me of the late ’90s when sushi bars were made accessible to a mass audience by similarly pushing the rock vibe as a way to Americanize the experience. Max’s gets that. And calling it a dive further lets people know this isn’t a place for wine snobs. But “Sweet Child ‘O Mine” shifted into jazz an hour later, so I think the rock vibe isn’t fixed in stone.
The food is what had me thinking the most. On one hand it’s basically burgers, hot dogs, and fried chicken. But not any burger — it’s a Kobe burger. Not just a hot dog — it’s an haute dog. While we waited for our fried chicken, we dabbled with a savory gator beignet appetizer. Adam found the gator to be surprisingly soft with deliciously crispy fried outer edge. The spicy aioli dip was an added touch, but next time I’d probably try the macaroni and cheese.
The menu can be separated into small plate appetizers at around $9-$12 and full plates at around $13-$17. Bottom line: the food isn’t as good as the prices suggest. Does that mean the food should be better? Not really. The fried chicken was great — moist and dripping with juice. I just think the prices should be lower. This is comfort food. I can’t see any fried chicken being worth $15. The comfort should be more than just escaping one’s problems through the delirium of fried chicken. The prices should be comforting as well. It’s almost as if you’d have to be drunk to want to pay those prices.
Which brings us to the wine. Thinking of Max’s as a straight restaurant is the wrong way to go. The wine is the real draw. Adam was very impressed with the interesting selection and modest wine prices. Also, the wait staff was very helpful. While Adam searched the menu for a tempranillo, our waitress mentioned a large selection of wine by the glass from previously opened bottles. Ordering from this selection of bottles affords an even cheaper option. Frenchie was ecstatic about the wine selection. “It’s very well thought out and amazingly well priced. It’s like retail prices. Also they have a genius system where people can put money on a card and self serve a variety of wines from a jukebox-looking machine called the Enomatic.”
Our waitress had a T-shirt that read: “Fried chicken and champagne ... why the hell not?!” In the end, it’s very simple. Listen to some Guns N’ Roses. Get drunk. Eat food. Have fun. Nothing complicated about that. For those who like to go out and drink wine, Max’s will probably become the place to go.•
Max’s Wine Dive
340 E. Basse Rd
Most people in town know you for playing drums in local indie rock bands. Tell us the transition from that to making wine. Or were these two parallel interests? Well, parallel in the sense that I've always had a soft spot for gustatory delights and a hard spot for music. Hearing and taste are my favorite senses. Actually, both pursuits blossomed for me at the same time. I was nearing the end of my career in management, and music had been on the back burner for a few years when I met John Edds and started Big Soy. At around the same time, I was at Wolfe Nursery (don’t look for it, it’s not there anymore) and decided spontaneously to buy 40 Black Spanish grape vines. My mom had some then-unused property between Natalia and LaCoste which seemed ideal for grapes (in that it was a free place to grow them), so I went out and dug 40 holes in what could loosely be described as four straight lines and stuck the vines in the ground. That was the beginning of my obsession with growing wine. Of course, I did everything wrong at first, but three years later I was getting some fruit to play with — at about the same time people started coming to Big Soy shows.
Did playing in DIY bands inform your winemaking? I’d say it's more that DIY is part of my personality. I'm actually sort of a sloppy control freak, and it simply never enters my mind to give over control or responsibility to anyone else. I really like to be involved in every step of the process. I planted those first vines seven years ago, before I had ever made a drop of wine. I’d always heard that wine was made in the vineyard, so I figured I'd better start there. It never really occurred to me that I could just buy grapes, or wine kits, or anything like that. I waited three years for my first harvest before I started making any serious booze, and I had a lot of gaps in my understanding. But a couple of years ago, I started making wine with my friend Dr. Jack Wright. He had an interest in making Bordeaux-style wines, so he bought grapes from some of the better regions of California, and we started making Cab and Merlot. Using these high-quality grapes helped me understand exactly which parameters I was looking for in my own vineyard, and I spent a year doing research into different viticultural techniques from around the world before I finally figured out how to coax that kind of quality out of my own terroir.
Can you describe some of the challenges to making wine on a budget? What have you had to do differently than other winemakers? Well, the big thing about making wine on a budget is that you end up with purple feet. Or hands. We haven’t invested in a proper crusher yet, so it’s all got to be done manually, or footually. My cooling system for our fermentation and barrel room is still a window A/C unit. When we have to cold stabilize wine, we use a contraption that Jack invented, which involved drilling holes in his spare fridge and using coils of copper tubing and a sump pump in a bowl of Everclear to get the wine down to 28 degrees. Yeah, there are some challenges.
What is the next step for you making wine? (Feel free to mention any plans you have with the good doctor, and what you two have been working on and done so far in the last few years) Well, so far we've made less than the legal limit for home winemakers. That’ll all change when I harvest the new acre of Grenache and Tannat next year, so I’d say it's time to get the proper permits for the wine biz. I’ve got a big metal barn that I plan to convert into a winery, so hopefully I’ll be able to raise the money for the equipment in time for the harvest season. In the meantime, Jack and I are looking at land in the Davis Mountains, which is the best growing area in Texas. We want the mild temperatures that come from being at 6,000-feet elevation. If we can find the right site, we plan to put in 20-40 acres of relatively high-density vineyards, which would begin bearing three years later.
How will your wine compare to other Texas wines? There's just too much variation in Texas wine to really answer that question. A huge amount of it is made from out-of-state grapes, so it’s only Texas in the sense that it was fermented and assembled here. There is some really good fruit grown here, though, and the wines keep getting better. I, too, intend to make good wine that keeps getting better. Unlike a lot of Texas wineries, I plan to make my wine almost exclusively from grapes that I’ve managed the growing of — that I’ve walked among every week, whether in South or West Texas. Hopefully both.
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