How a humble mini-mart became a destination for wine lovers
Imagine yourself in need of a bottle of your go-to wine, nothing terribly ambitious, say an oak-forward, California Chardonnay, and then imagine yourself on the north side of Austin, somewhere around West Anderson Lane. You make a quick stop at the Sunrise Mini Mart, attached to the Citgo service station, and—what’s this—they’ve got plenty of wine, but yours isn’t there.
You turn to walk out, and an exuberant young man nearly leaps from behind the counter, hoping he'll be able to find you something from his sizable selection. You don’t know this yet, but it's your lucky day; you've stumbled on one of the best wine selections in the city. The man recommends a bottle of Maconnais, a French Chardonnay, from southern Burgundy. You bring this wine home, and you’re hooked—on Chardonnay from southern Burgundy, on the charm of Austin’s lone gas station sommelier. You tell all your friends, and they tell their friends, and the humble Citgo, on an otherwise forgettable block across from a pawn shop, becomes straight-up famous.
There is very little about the Sunrise Mini Mart, even when you walk in the door, for the first time, to alert you to what’s going on in here; this appears to be your typical gas station, with the cigarettes and the Skoal chewing tobacco prominently displayed. Here, , known around the neighborhood as Sunrise Sam, has carved a peculiar niche in the historic haunt of Budweiser, or Boone’s Farm. The store has no web page, but boasts a five-star average rating on Yelp. At Sunrise, Rozani’s turned a down-and-dirty corner store into a surprising destination for natural wine.
Ray Smalls, the sales manager for distributor David Mayfield Selections in Austin, recounts being blindsided by an early 2017 call. “This was a time when I was still explaining to people was a pet nat was,” he says, referencing the rustic sparkling wine style that’s now in vogue, “and Sam called out of the blue asking for them.”
Calling on this potential new client that appeared to be well ahead of the curve, Smalls, a natural wine specialist, was dumbfounded upon arriving to Sunrise. It was, he says, an existential moment.
“I’m parked outside a Citgo gas station with a bag full of natural wine, I’m 30 years old, and I’m thinking, how did I get here?”
When he entered, he found what could only be described as, “the most authoritative beer selection I’ve ever seen,” which included impossible-to-source farmhouse style beers from the Austin based Jester King Brewery. Sunrise was one of the first stores to carry them, ever.
“At first I reduced all Budweiser and Bud Light and had a couple doors for craft beer,” says Rozani, who began this transformation a few years after he started at Sunrise, back in 2009. “I had no competition at the time, and before long I had 24 refrigerator doors filled with craft brews.”
But, around three years ago, Rozani wanted to learn about wine. Yet, there was a problem of sorts. “After drinking all of these sour beers, my palate was super funky. Regular wine was not for me.” He flipped through Karen McNeil’s “Wine Bible” for the basics, but became ensconced with Alice Feiring’s “Naked Wine: Letting Grapes Do What Comes Naturally.” Rozani found the answer to his tweaked palate.
It’s one thing to want off-beat wines, but it’s another thing to sell them, especially when you factor in the unassuming location.
“I started educating people on natty wine, showing my customers that this is a new trend,” says Rozani. He’d already converted his regular customers to revel in the diversity of craft beer, so they were willing to give his wines a shot.
Well, not everyone, not right away. Some customers would need convincing. Some would just tell him, up front—I'm not into natural wine. If they're willing to learn, Rozani puts them on a three step program, pushing them to sample some of the first and most memorable bottles of natural wines that he carried at the shop. He'll suggest a ‘starter’ wine that is biodynamic or has low added sulfites, like Pierre and Catherine Breton’s ‘Trinch,’ Cabernet Franc, from the Loire Valley.
“It changes their palate," says Rozani, "but they don’t really know.”
Next, having noted that his customers are actually more adventurous than they thought, he'll ratchet up the “natty” level, and after a few more bottles, send them home with something like Brendon Tracey’s more effusive ‘Wah-Wah,’ a Grolleau and Cot blend. After that, they are hooked. (Tracey himself has stopped in, and finds the whole set-up charming. “He’s created a little heaven,” said the Loire Valley winemaker. “And it is certainly the only wine shop in a gas station, like this, that I’ve ever seen.”)
Another of Rozani’s sales representatives, Paul Mintz from Parker Wolf Distributors, cites the parody of it all.
“I see this and ask, why does this work?” Then again, once you meet Rozani, he says, it’s actually quite simple. “He’s created an environment at a convenience store that is driven by hospitality not just service. Sam greets you by name, and asks how your wine was last week. Everyone feels welcome.”
Rozani’s wine selection has ballooned to 700 labels, and Sunrise is welcoming clients from New York City to San Francisco. It’s become a bit of a destination, while remaining a local haunt. Rozani’s branching out, too—his Whitewing Market just made its debut, in suburban Leander. At Whitewing, there’s pizza, beer on tap, there are wines by-the-glass, and—of course—gas.
Sunrise Mini Mart, 1809 W Anderson Ln., Austin, (512) 453-5176