Love is in the air, and the bottle, at Memorial’s Vine Wine Room

If you’re in love, and you’d better be because Thursday is Valentine’s Day, you might want to check out Vine Wine Room on Memorial near CityCentre. It’s going to be romance central. And just for fun, there will even be a for-real ordained minister/sommelier on hand — in full Elvis Presley-impersonator garb — to officially renew your vows. And you’ll receive a glass of wine each plus some chocolate “saucy” cake with the certificate.

“Reverend Joe,” as it happens, owns the place. But Vine exists, Joe Rippey will tell you, because of Rachel, his wife of 27 years. She’s an optometrist who, even back before she became an eye doctor, had the vision — sorry for the pun — to see something in Joe that he wasn’t seeing in himself.

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An important anniversary looms this fall. Rippey met Rachel on Oct. 10, 1989.

Vine Wine Room

12525 Memorial; 713 463-8463;

Vibe: Comfortable neighborhood hangout. “A ‘Cheers’ bar with wine,” owner Joe Rippey says. “Everybody knows your name.”

Décor: Eclectic. High ceilings with Old World-style furnishings that provide a cozy feel. Multiple alcoves for private conversations and “romantic” lighting in the evening, Rippey says.

Clientele: The explosive growth around CityCentre has helped a new generation of wine drinkers discover the place, but the “old-timers” haven’t ceded their space to the “whippersnappers.”

Wine list: Global in scope with a something-for-everyone approach and value pricing. All wines are offered by the glass ($8-$20). Bottle-price range is $24-$65.

Food: Salads, appetizers, sandwiches and pizza.

Hours: 2-11 p.m. Mondays-Tuesdays; noon-midnight Wednesdays-Saturdays; noon-7 p.m. Sundays. Wine tastings 3-5 p.m. Saturdays. Live music many evenings starting at 7 p.m.

“From the second I saw her,” he said, “I knew she was going to be my girl.”

Rachel swears she wouldn’t have remembered the exact date without being told but added, “That’s Joe. He’s such a good man. He remembers everything about us. I just love him so much.”

Their serendipitous meeting on a softball field in Clearwater, Fla., happened exactly two weeks after Rippey insists he “gave up” on love, having recently had a long relationship with a high school girlfriend “I’d gone down there chasing” from Detroit come to an end. “I told myself, ‘I’m not going to bars anymore, searching for something or somebody. This is my life, and it’s good. I’ll sell some cars, play volleyball on the beach and drink some beer. It’s fine.’”

Except, of course, it wasn’t fine. Fortunately, he was coaching a women’s softball team and, fortunately, Rachel showed up on a whim to try out. He was attracted to her “cute white shorts.” Her head got turned by his “sexy Calvin Kleins” (jeans). All of sudden, she found herself playing first base. Next thing they both knew, they were back at his “little beach hut” listening to Rod Stewart albums.

From the start, Rachel also thought this new fun friendship had the potential to become much more, but they’ll both agree that she was more laser-focused on becoming an optometrist than thinking about dreamy-eyed romantic stuff. She had moved to Florida from a small town on the outskirts of El Paso and badly wanted to get back to Texas, especially to Houston, where the University of Houston “had the best optometry program in the world.” It didn’t take Rippey long to say, “Let’s go. I’ll put you through school.”

And he did, working 80-hour weeks selling cars while she went to class and camped out on the sofa “doing nothing but studying.” That was way before fermented grape juice became part of their equation. As soon as she graduated, Rachel said, “Now, Joe, now what do you want to do with your life?” And that’s how their comfy, unpretentious, eclectically furnished wine bar came to be in 2005.

But first there had to be a wine epiphany.

“We were on vacation somewhere,” he said. “I really don’t remember. We were beer drinkers, and we went to this fancy little place. I didn’t know anything about wine, except for, when I was a teenager, there was (Mogen David) “20-20,” (Boone’s Farm) Strawberry Hill. I didn’t know what to order or how to order, but I’d heard of Beaujolais.”

On Joe Rippey’s wine recommendation

Perhaps the bottle that came out was nothing special, but, he explained, “It was the moment … the place … and the person.” Thinking about it “always makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. It gave me chills. This (wine) was something special.”

By her recollection, a trip to Napa Valley followed, and soon he was the one doing the studying, seeking sommelier certification.

“I’d thought about going into the clothing business, which I’d been in before,” Rippey said. “But I’m from Detroit, where we had seasons. It’s a little more complicated here. You don’t need four outfits in Houston. You only need one. So I threw all my beans in the (wine bar) basket. I thought, ‘This is stupid. But I’m going to do it because it combines my love for people, business and wine.’ I love making people happy. I really enjoy it when someone comes in for the first time and says, ‘I feel like I’m sitting in my friend’s house. I feel like I’m home.’ That’s what we tried to create.”

Rachel was all in from the get-go, saying, “I thought it was a great idea, perfect for Joe.”

The original space was in a strip-shopping center on the north side of Memorial, but Rippey moved across the street four months ago to the new, more upscale Memorial Green complex. But Vine’s décor hasn’t changed. He called attention to a plush, well-worn couch. Like much of the furniture, which includes a century-old upright piano that pays homage to his Motor City roots, the sofa followed him from the old place.

“Bought it in Galveston at a place called Mermaids,” he said. “Everybody who came in wanted to sit on it. If there was no one already there, that’s where they always went. So, as an owner, you’ve got to listen. You’ve got to see. I decided to create that spot 10 times over. Everybody can be in their own space here.”

Rippey smiled and pointed at the chair I was occupying, one of several surrounding a beautifully painted antique table.

“That’s Lee’s chair,” he said. “He always sits there. If he came in right now, he’d ask you to move. The door over there, that’s from Liverpool (England). We’ve got a customer who’s from Liverpool. He loves that door. We both do. The most gratifying thing for me is how Vine took on a life of its own. I thought I was opening a business and I’d make some money, but I didn’t open a business. I opened a family.”

You’ll see Rippey in Vine pretty much every evening, at least for a little while, and Rachel also pops in regularly to chitchat with the clientele while sipping her favorite pinot grigio. The Rippeys have what she calls, laughing, “a totally symbiotic relationship because of what I do. Joe likes to tell people that, when he starts seeing double, I can fix it.”

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