It’s a glamorous life for wine experts. They travel to beautiful places, mingling with beautiful people. One day they’re in a vineyard in Tuscany, the next at a posh Manhattan restaurant. Then they’re off to the West Coast, consulting on a movie mogul’s wine collection.
You might think wine pros in Dallas would live in cool downtown lofts or pricey uptown high rises. But when the tastings and tours are over, a surprising number of them come home to comfortable, friendly, unpretentious Lake Highlands.
We found more than a half-dozen living here (see sidebar for wine tips from many of them), and we sat down with three to ask why their career is in wine and their home in Lake Highlands.
Alfonso Cevola has been around wine his entire life…literally. He was born in a hospital built in a former vineyard, then grew up in California, where his grandfather owned several vineyards.
To him, Mondavis and Sebastianis weren’t wine labels; they were kids at school. And vineyards, he says, were cool places to play.
As a child, he often spent his summers in Sicily, visiting family there with his grandparents. He traveled alone to Italy to work the harvest when he was 20, then returned several years later with his own son.
He says: “My family there is so funny, they made it great. There was a bottle shortage in the region, so at night we had to drink the old wine so we’d have bottles to use. At the end of a long day of picking, we went into the basement and drank to our hearts’ content.”
That eight-month stay helped Cevola realize what many might have already known about him: He was destined for a career in the wine business.
Strangely enough, that realization led him away from California to Dallas.
“I was living in Los Angeles at the time, and Dallas seemed like a better business climate and place to raise a kid,” he says.
He lived in East Dallas for 18 years before moving to Lake Highlands about seven years ago.
“I always thought I would live near White Rock Lake, and when we found our house, that was it. There are lots of friendly, nice people in the neighborhood, and I’m 10 minutes from everything.”
Cevola is the Italian wine director for Glazer’s Wholesale Distributors, one of the largest liquor distributors in the country. After 30 years, says he still has a passion for the product and the industry.
“I’m a slave to the wine god,” he says. “I’ve made it, marketed it and sold it at all different levels, and I love it. I haven’t had a vacation in a year and a half, but I don’t feel like I need one. My life kinda feels like a vacation.”
Like Cevola, James La Barba works for Glazer’s, as its state sales and marketing manager.
And like Cevola, he grew up in the wine business. But instead of spending his childhood in Napa Valley or a European wine region, he grew up in East Dallas, where he lived until moving to Lake Highlands in the early ’80s.
His grandfather once made wine in the basement of his home on Belmont Avenue, but the LaBarbas became famous in the wine community for importing and distributing wine rather than making it. His father, Tony LaBarba, is a legend in the business, credited with bringing wine to Texas.
“He was the founding father,” LaBarba says of his dad. “The business was originally my grandfather’s, a wholesale fruit and vegetable business. But after my dad came back from World War II, he was very interested in the wine business, so he started that side of it.”
Like all other wine businesses at the time, theirs was truly a mom-and-pop (and kids) operation.
“We had a bottling plant in Dallas for El Carlos wine, and my dad would put me to work on Saturdays, putting win in bottles,” he says. “I was probably 10 or 11. Then, when I was 15, he started sending me to Europe to work with different wineries.
“It was fabulous, getting to go to Europe. I worked in the vineyards pruning vines, in the barrel cellars, doing maintenance, everything you do in the summer.”
When LaBarba entered college, he considered majoring in psychology, but soon decided to stay in the family business.
“My dad encouraged me, but it didn’t take a lot of encouragement,” he says.
Over the years, LaBarba says he has seen plenty of change in the industry his dad helped form. “There’s been a great deal of growth and consolidation, with fewer and fewer small companies,” he says. “You do still have smaller family winery operations, but with wholesalers, it’s down to less than a few. It’s just business today.”
Still, he says, it’s not a bad business to be in.
“It’s fun. Every year there’s a new vintage, so every year there’s always something different. And there’s no other industry where you can do the things that you do in this one. It’s a fabulous product to work with, you call on the finest restaurants, and you get some really nice travel.”
If you ever feel intimidated by snooty wine salespeople, just keep two words in mind: Diane Teitelbaum.
She’s known worldwide for her expertise. She writes wine columns for the Dallas Morning News and the San Francisco Chronicle. She develops wine lists for top restaurants and frequently travels to California and abroad for tastings and judgings. She’s hired by some of the world’s wealthiest people to appraise their wine collections.
And if there’s anything she can’t stand, it’s a snobby attitude about wine.
“I write for the average consumer, and I always try to encourage people not to be intimidated by the wine snobs, who should all be locked up,” she says.
Why such disdain for uppity oenophiles?
“It’s just an agricultural product,” she says. “In the European model, wine is just part of the table. Nobody makes a big deal about it.”
Still, she admits, it is a special agricultural product.
“Wine is a part of history, part of religious culture, fiction, part of life. And it is alive, like a piece of fruit. That’s why it goes off (goes bad). It can be fabulous beyond description, or it can be undrinkable.”
Teitelbaum didn’t come to be a wine expert by growing up around it. Instead, she got her start in the early ’70s as a waitress at Dallas’ first wine bistro, The Grape.
“I fell into wine just like everybody in the business did in those days,” she says. “It was just really easy and fun for me.”
Easy because Teitelbaum is a “super taster,” someone with more taste buds than the average person. “I didn’t realize it at the time,” she says. “I just knew it was easy. I’d taste something, and they’d ask what I thought, and I’d tell them.”
Sounds easy enough. But there’s an awful lot of things that Teitelbaum detects in a taste or two.
“When you’re tasting wine, you’re concentrating on many factors: the color, the smell, the appearance, flavor, texture, balance and finish. Flavors are probably least important. Balance is the number one thing you’re looking for,” she says.
Teitelbaum has lived in Lake Highlands for almost 25 years. Why does she think so many people in the wine business wind up here?
“If you’re having a romance with wine, you generally tend to be more artistic and less concerned with money and conspicuous comsumption than many. You like things that are older, artsy or comfortable, and this area is kind of like that.
“It’s so pretty, with lots of big trees and land around it, with older houses, very comfortable neighborhood, and the people are friendly,” she says. “It just has more character than some tract thing with zero trees in a flat plain.”