- By Arianna Auber American-Statesman Staff
Walking along East Third Street downtown, you might pass the nondescript building housing the Red Room Lounge a couple of times before locating the correct entrance. The wine bar doesn’t have a sign or even a terribly inviting door — but if you are one of the lucky ones to find it, as many local wine lovers and professional sommeliers will tell you, you’re in for a treat.
With dim lighting, brick walls painted deep crimson and leather seats spread out among the nooks of the cozy basement space, the Red Room Lounge offers something a bit unusual as a speakeasy-like place devoted entirely to wine. The bar doesn’t have a menu of food or other alcoholic drinks — just wines by the glass or the bottle.
For sommelier Darren Scott, that intriguing premise was enough to lure him away from the now-defunct LaV last year, despite the French restaurant’s caliber behind the bar, to take over at Red Room as general manager.
And since he took over, the Red Room Lounge has only strengthened its wine program — offering a constantly rotating by-the-glass list of approachable varietals like malbec and sauvignon blanc, as well as between 200 to 300 bottles. Behind the bar when Red Room opens at 5 p.m. most evenings, Scott is eager to point adventurous drinkers in the right direction.
He also loves the other sides of owner Alex Andrawes’ extensive wine business. In addition to the Red Room Lounge, which doubles as a bottle shop allowing visitors to take wines to-go, Andrawes owns a multimillion-dollar brokerage firm, Estate Wine Brokers, that specializes in rare and vintage wines, purchasing them from collectors or other brokers who can guarantee their provenance before selling them to other collectors, retailers and restaurants.
“It’s arguably one of the most exciting parts for me, the buying and selling of privately owned wines,” Scott says. “I’ve been able to taste things that are just unicorn wines, that you don’t get to taste anywhere else.”
But that’s just one perk of many for the Los Angeles native. You don’t have to talk to him long to grasp his passion for wine, developed since his graduate school days at the University of Chicago. That’s where he realized, “Wow, this is serious. This isn’t like beer or liquor; this is something special,” he says.
Scott didn’t intend to pursue wine as a career until he moved to New York and noticed that the antiquated laws there — specifying that wine has to be sold at specialty wine shops, not at grocery stores — had cultivated a culture of knowledgeable sellers and “these boutique stores that give you unparalleled access to wine,” he says. One day, he saw that one of them, Sip Fine Wine in Brooklyn, was hiring.
“I thought, ‘Wait a minute, I could do this,’” he says.
From there, his career took off. He was hired at Morrell & Company, a high-end wine and liquor store in Rockefeller Center, as a consultant and then as the brand’s sommelier. He moved into another sommelier position at the Michelin-starred Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca, the same place where LaV’s former co-owner Vilma Mazaite honed her sommelier chops. LaV, which he helped open, drew him south.
With family in Austin, where he earned his bachelor’s degree, Scott had been looking for a reason to move back but had been initially hesitant about the wine scene. “It’s an unfair comparison to a place like New York, although there’s a ton of potential,” he says.
The Red Room Lounge supplies a lot of Austin’s wine bona fides. Not far from the Austin Convention Center, the bar attracts a host of regulars and tourists alike who get wind of it, so Scott has worked hard to make sure the wine list has a variety of grapes and regions that will appeal to everyone.
No matter what, he will always have two kinds of chardonnay and pinot noir on the menu because those are among the most ordered wines — and both are very terroir-driven, with wildly different flavors depending on the region and the winemaking style.
“You have that contrast, and that invites a conversation. People come in and say, ‘I’ll have a chardonnay’ or ‘I’ll have a pinor noir,’ and now we’re talking,” he says. “‘Well, what do you like about chardonnay? I have two. Do you like that lighter, more elegant, unoaked style, or do you like that more robust, vanilla and buttery American style?’ It can be a teaching moment.”
Also on the menu is a small grouping of wines called Sommelier Selections, higher-end but fairly priced pours that many casual drinkers don’t normally get to try. The Red Room Lounge, under Scott’s democratic direction, wants to make them more accessible by using a device called a Coravin, which allows wine to be poured without pulling the cork, thereby better preserving the wine.
That’s all in the hope you’ll find wine as wondrous as he and Andrawes do.
“Ultimately, it’s art. That’s why wine is special,” Scott says. “You ferment any other fruit and it’s going to taste like itself. Crush apples to make cider and it’s going to taste like apples. But grapes are the one thing that taste like all these other things when they’re made into wine. That’s why the most expensive bottle of wine will always eclipse the most expensive bottle of beer or spirits. It’s this thing tied to a place in an ineffable way you can’t describe in scientific terms.”