by Kristi Willis • Photography by Kate LeSueur
When wine professionals April and Craig Collins plan a meal, they start with what they want to drink, and then pick the food. “We like to entertain with our beverage more than our food,” says Craig. “And at the end of the day, we can drink better at our house than at most restaurants in Austin.”
That’s pretty easy to accomplish, because the Collinses’ cozy Clarksville home seems to have quality wine stashed everywhere. There’s a large wine rack in the office, smaller racks in the kitchen along with a full-size wine fridge, and the shelves in the house, as well as at their offsite storage space, groan with myriad bottles the couple has collected while traveling or from special moments in their careers. “April and I spent some time in Friuli, Italy, and we like to share those flavors with our guests,” says Craig as he presents an appetizer board piled high with Prosciutto di San Daniele and Easy Tiger bread.
Craig then pours a Scarpetta Friulano from Friuli and April exclaims from the other end of the kitchen, “This pairing is so cool!” She admits bias (the company she owns, Vintage Wine Marketing, represents the brand), but she’s right about how the unique wine and meat complement each other. Craig slips into sommelier mode as he explains how the San Daniele prosciutto differs from its Parma cousin, and how the acid in the wine cuts through the fattiness of the meat.
As the beverage director for the ELM Restaurant Group (24 Diner, Arro, Easy Tiger) and a master sommelier, Craig spends a fair amount of his time mentoring and coaching—generously sharing the knowledge he has worked hard to gain. It’s a role he obviously relishes—beaming with pride as he talks about his colleague Scott Ota passing the advanced sommelier exam, or the beverage team at Easy Tiger going through the Cicerone certification program for beer professionals.
Part of the charm of visiting with April and Craig is the undeniable sense that these two have embarked on some sort of fated grand adventure that just happens to center around wine. Fellow sommelier Mark Sayre introduced them at the Austin City Limits Festival. “We met at five p.m. at the ART sign in 2006 and started dancing to Van Morrison,” Craig and April say almost in unison, each finishing part of the sentence. And they’ve been dancing ever since—recently celebrating their sixth wedding anniversary.
As their careers have grown, they’ve had to consciously guard their time together, though. No longer having the luxury of working side-by-side in the home office, they creatively plan their dinners together and enjoy cooking comforting foods like spaghetti Bolognese—recipes that not only take time, but slow down the pace of life. “With something like a Bolognese, there is lots of chopping, and then a two-hour cooking process,” says Craig. “I feel like too many times in life we are rushed with everything we do.”
Another house favorite is what Craig calls, “two-and-a-half-beer-can smoked chicken.” When questioned if that’s the amount of beer used in the recipe, he says, “No, that’s the number of beers you drink while it’s cooking. And, there is nothing wrong with that—it takes a while.” They often serve the chicken with a special cucumber salad that, unbeknownst to them, was in the recipe boxes of both of their families. At a recent Collins gathering, a cucumber salad was served that was identical to a dish April grew up eating. April quizzed Craig’s aunt about the ingredients, and then called her own grandmother to compare the recipes. It was the same dish. “The salad was a reminder that food takes you places. Both of our families are originally German even though Craig’s family has been in Texas for generations and mine was in Oklahoma,” says April. “Despite the distance, we share this part of our history and we didn’t even know it.”
With their mutual knowledge and passion for wine paired with the couple’s intoxicatingly easy grace and generosity, Craig and April clearly have a great deal more to share with Austin’s culinary community. Lucky us.