The first store in the Tyler area to sell bottled wine since 1939 is closing its doors on Christmas Eve.
KE Cellars opened the day before Thanksgiving in 2006 and was the only place to buy alcohol for off-premise consumption on Tyler for six years.
Smith County was dry from 1939, after the end of a six-year period when beer and wine sales were allowed after the repeal of Prohibition, until voters approved off-premise sales of beer and wine in 2012. Restaurants that pay a fee to operate as "private clubs" have been allowed to sell alcohol since the 1960s.
In 2003, Texas voters approved a constitutional amendment allowing wineries to sell their products, even in dry counties. That amendment led the way for Kiepersol Wineries, near Bullard, to open the KE Cellars storefront in the French Quarter shopping center.
“It was surprisingly easy to get a winery registered in Tyler,” said Pierre de Wet, founder of Kiepersol Enterprises. “The laws are very pro-Texas wineries and Texas production, and it was so well received (that) not one person was opposed it.”
De Wet said the Kiepersol Estates Winery planted its first commercial grapes in 1998 and opened its wine tasting room to coincide with the release of its millennium wine in 2000.
“As our production grew we had to take the wine to the people because the winery and the estate is a destination, and you cannot get enough people to come out here to experience it,” he said. “When I started thinking of a second tasting room, I looked at the laws, and you can’t do a second tasting room at one winery, but you could do a different winery license.”
De Wet said the paperwork was the same to get the Bullard winery going as it was for the store. The only difference was on the local level where he had to notify city officials and put a notice in the newspaper.
The store sold a wide variety of Texas wines, including the local Keipersol brands. A wine tasting bar allowed patrons to try before they committed to a bottle.
“Many times you walk into beer or liquors stores and look at the labels, and get some expectation of what it is going to taste like from the label,” de Wet said. “So many times you get disappointed.”
The store turned into a music venue in the evenings with local artists performing tunes while people mingled over a glass of wine and a meat and cheese tray.
“It became a safe haven for ladies to meet after 5, drink a bottle of wine and go home,” de Wet said. “It wasn’t the bar. It wasn’t a drunk nest.”
Security was provided during the late hours to ensure the safety of the patrons and those on the roadway.
Paul Gleiser, spokesman for Kiepersol Enterprises and owner and general manager of KTBB radio, said the KE Cellars was classy.
“It was charming place, done the way Kiepersol does everything,” Gleiser said. “Everything that Kiepersol does is impeccable. They do it right or they don’t do it. … The thing that made it work it was done so tastefully.”
Gleiser said the store not only educated Tylerites on the variety of wines available in the state but also the quality of wine produced in Smith County.
“It’s extraordinary that here in Tyler, Texas, not only that we have a winery, but we have a winery that is this good,” he said. “KE Cellars announced that to the community.”
The store helped pave the way for broader beer and wine sales to be passed in 2012.
But ironically, the store that served as a trailblazer was hurt when sales became widespread, a change the company was expecting.
“We always knew at some point in time Tyler will go wet, and that we wanted to be wet,” he said. “Freedom always brings opportunities, and when we went wet last year in November, we knew that second stop for most people (didn’t) make any sense if they are going to the grocery store or the gas station — if they are at a place that will sell wine, it doesn’t make sense for them to drive down busy South Broadway to go to KE Cellars.
“I was very surprised in the amount of people that still frequented the Cellars. It’s really bittersweet to let those frequent customers down that stayed purchasing from us this whole year where they had (many) other choices.”
The loyal fan base the wine line has earned will still be able to get their favorite varieties. De Wet said Brookshire’s will sell the line in 28 of its stores and at FRESH by Brookshire’s. De Wet said the store closed in part not to be competition for the grocer.
“You kind of have to know when to hold and when to fold. When we were the only one in town, people didn’t have a lot of choices …” he said. “Today, Tyler has the choice of any wine in the world, and choice makes more customers but brings more responsibility to the customer to know where the end dollar goes, and if your choices lead you to similar quality product local versus imported, I think it’s our obligation to support local.”
The winery’s retail store in Lindale, 13387 U.S. Highway 69 North, will remain open from noon to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
“It’s a nice cozy pull-off the interstate place where you can get all of our wine,” de Wet said.
The vineyard’s wine tasting room, at 4120 Farm-to-Market Road 344, also is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
“We always try to be good to the community, and we really thank the community for being good to us,” de Wet said. “I want to encourage people to do other local businesses like they’ve done us — support those people that live here, that spend their money here, that work here, that bank here, that raise their kids here and support our charities.”