Go Big: The Houston Sommelier Scene

Houston has always had great wine professionals. When I first started getting into wine here people like Guy Stout MS, Paul Roberts MS and Tony McClung (Now with Copain) were already entrenched and doing exciting things. I have seen this city go from a few great wine pros to many amazing people doing exciting things. Some have come and gone but many are still here. My measure of the success of the wine industry in any city is that said city maintains a great base of restaurants with solid food and impressive (read large) wine programs, and a strong cohort of local young Chefs who think that beverage is an extension of food and therefore want exciting beverage programs. Then you must have people who live on the edge of food and wine, those who keep us on our toes and make us think differently about both. I think in the last five years in Houston we have reached this state.

-Drew Hendricks, MS

Featured below are seven Houston-based Sommeliers and members of the Guild: David Keck (GM/Wine Director, Camerata at Paulie's, formerly Beverage Director, Uchi Restaurant), Justin Vann (Owner, PSA Wines, formerly Sommelier/GM, Oxheart), Jonathan Honefenger (Lead Sommelier, Richard's Liquors and Fine Wines), Steven McDonald (Sommelier, Pappas Bros. Steakhouse), Jack Mason (Sommelier, Pappas Bros. Steakhouse), Travis Hinkle (Wine Director, The Pass and Provisions), and James Deleon (Wine Steward, Kroger).

Are you working with any Texas products in your beverage program at this time?

Jack: Yes! We have a lot of Texas beverages. Whether you are looking to wet your whistle with some local Houston breweries such as Karbach or Saint Arnold, enjoy a nice boozy Manhattan made from Garrison Bros. Texas Bourbon, or simply have a glass of Duchman Dolcetto or McPherson Reserve Rousanne, we have many options to quench one’s “Texas-sized” thirst.

Travis: Texas is producing some really quality stuff in many different categories, but right now I’m working mostly with beer. Karbach Brewery in Houston is producing awesome stuff in a more American micro-brew tradition. For Belgian styles, Adelbert’s Brewery in Austin makes an incredible range of bottle-conditioned ales that are some of the most food worthy examples you can find anywhere. 

How do you go about making wine selections for your guests?

Jonathan: I used to work with a restaurant program, and now I work in retail, but the approach is the same: it is all about listening to the customer. In retail I have to be a bit more conservative when making recommendations. You have to work to build trust with your customers early on or you lose them quickly. Retail is more of a long game: as time goes on my customers know how our palates work together and I can push the envelope a bit further. One of the greatest aspects of retail sales in comparison to restaurant sales is that I get a lot more one-on-one time. On a restaurant floor, you have just a few minutes to help a table make a selection. In retail, the customer is coming in for one thing--wine--and he or she is usually alone. I can spend a lot of time, and often help the customer make multiple selections. In many ways, this can create a small "wine program" or cellar for an individual customer in a single visit.

Favorite cut of steak and favorite wine to pair with it?

Justin: If I’m drinking red with a steak I usually pick a red that tastes like steak. Alain Graillot Crozes-Hermitage is one of my go-to wines for something affordable. That wine tastes like blood and meat and cracked pepper and burning--I love it. Plus, my time spent in a vegetable-centric restaurant means I usually don’t eat steak, and have to settle for steak-flavored wine. When I do actually eat steak, I like filet mignon or hanger steak if I want something more toothsome.

David: Trying to avoid steak--high cholesterol and all (damn genes!)--but if I'm having red meat, I go with Syrah. Northern Rhône if at all possible, and Côte-Rôtie if someone else is buying.

Steven: Dry-aged, bone-in NY Strip with Northern Rhône Syrah, preferably with a little age.

Jack: My favorite cut of Prime 40 day dry-aged beef is a bone-in ribeye. So amazingly rich and flavorful, and I like to drink a wine that shares a similar profile. I really enjoy some riper styles of Old World wines with steak because there is something to be said about the combination of savory and fruit, in the way that some prefer coke over beer with pizza. Moreover, I really enjoy Syrah with its naturally dense structure and elevated acid. Some hits: 2005 Tierry Allemand Cornas “Chaillot,” 2009 El Nido “Corteo,” and (even though it is not from the Old World but acts like it is) the 2009 Gramercy Walla Walla Syrah. 

(Editor: In the land of slab and cab, Syrah wins big. Why is this the "unsaleable" variety, again?) 

What do you do to get customers out of their “comfort zones” and willing to drink something they’ve never enjoyed before?

David: Luckily many of our guests (at Uchi) are stepping out of their comfort zone simply by walking through the door (gonads of sea urchin, anyone?), but we still sell a massive amount of Cabernet and Malbec. Both of which are just delicious with raw hamachi. I usually start by suggesting that a guest might enjoy trying a new sake--a beverage with which most people are pretty unfamiliar, and open to guidance. In wine, guests are inclined to think they know best, and who am I to argue? If the sake recommendation works out, though, then I can usually move into a wine suggestion, as opposed to a wine order.

Travis: I think you have to establish trust as soon as possible. Start by simply trying to be a really good host. If it’s clear to the guest that you are on their side, they can usually be happily taken just about anywhere.

Justin: Customer service. At Oxheart, we don’t have a lot of “easy” things people ask for, but we take great care to guide guests to the closest thing to it. For example, we don’t have that ripe California Chardonnay that many Houstonians are used to, but we’re very attentive in finding a replacement, like Pieropan La Rocca Soave (which is pretty big and oaky). It hits a lot of the same flavor notes, with more minerality and balance. 4 out of 5 times, they enjoy that we showed them something new. In general we go to great lengths to be unpretentious and accommodating, especially because our list is so aggressive and purposefully weird.

Another important thing we do is offer a safety option. For months now, we haven’t had a red wine in our programmed pairings, but we ask guests how comfortable they are with that. If they look uncomfortable with the notion, we’re quick to substitue some red. We try not to surprise people with pairings like Madeira and beer--we let them know that this is our plan, and we want them to be comfortable with it. We make sure we have logical safe pairings if someone doesn’t want hefeweizen with their carrots. A lot of tasting menu pairings are sold as take it or leave it--i.e. no modifications. At Oxheart, I think guests are put at ease when we say, “Are you ok with no red wines tonight?" or, "Are you comfortable with a beer for your dessert pairing?” Maybe they’re initially apprehensive, but I feel a sense of confidence comes in handy here. Most people do the pairings with zero modifications. We would have never guessed people would trust us so much, but I like to think we earn that trust by being approachable and accommodating. 

What is your barometer for the guest experience?

Travis: It’s just obvious when people are excited about drinking food and wine. When the middle-aged woman who came in asking for Pinot Grigio orders her third glass of Silvaner Trocken out of bocksbeutel, you know she’s digging it. When the group of businessmen with Bordeaux palates keep asking questions about that Coonawara Cabernet Sauvignon you had to push really hard, you know they are pleasantly surprised and intrigued.

David: In service the guest is not aware that it is even happening. In beverage choices, a guest finds something new and inquires where they can purchase it at retail. 

For $100 or less, what is your favorite wine to offer guests that really represents what you are trying to achieve in your wine program?

Jack: There is no shame in admitting that Texas is New World Cabernet country. Cab pays my bills, but when the opportunity arises to get people to think about a sliver of minerality in their wine it makes my heart warm. To achieve this goal, I like to introduce “gateway” wines to get people to start understanding the concept of terroir. Places I like to take people (beyond Super-Tuscans) are modern Spain and the Douro region of Portugal because the wines tend to have ripe fruit, but also show some semblance of the ground they were grown in. A wine that does a very good job here is Quinta do Crasto’s “Old Vine” blend. Right in the middle of their portfolio as far as quality and price point, the wine is a great tool to show how minerality can ground a wine with a lot of fruit.

Steven: This is easy. The Juan Gil "Clio" is about $90 on the list and it offers big, oaky, exotic flavors that are hard to resist.

Justin: So it’s not exactly a new wine to any of us, but I think the Lopez de Heredia "Gravonia" may be the best example of what our list tries to do. It’s a bizarre, intense wine that is a lot of fun by itself, but when we paired it with steamed barrelfish, preserved shellfish soffrito, smoked pine nut puree, and wilted greens, people *got it*. The pairing was greater than the sum of the wine and the food. They had that magical epiphany moment--someone showed them a new trick. We aim for that feeling, where we pushed you out of your comfort zone and off a cliff, and we were there to catch you at the bottom.

That happens with beer a lot too. Hell, we had a 70-year-old woman tell us the Schneider-Wiesse hefe was the first beer she had ever drunk in her life. I used to fight to get that epiphany moment from one person every month at previous gigs. At Oxheart, we can do it almost every day. I have never seen anything like it.

Jonathan: I'm a huge Burgundy guy, and white Burgundy is one of the fastest moving categories in my store. I love to find newer producers and underrated houses that are over-performing. Hubert Lamy definitely falls into the latter category. His Saint-Aubin whites are out of this world, and they offer a great alternative (in quality and value) to Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet.

In a state and city known for sports, which is your favorite sports season for food and wine?

Steven: Fall football season! The temperature begins to come down and people feel a bit more like spending money before the holidays. 

David: Who won? No idea. I was working....

Justin: I don't know much about sports contests.

What is your guilty pleasure when it comes to drinking?

Travis: We drink a lot of Miller High Life at the restaurant. It’s kind of the official beer of the kitchen and management team. I also have a really unhealthy relationship with tiki cocktails. The sweeter, boozier, and more elaborately garnished the better. I usually don’t feel guilty about those until the morning after though.

Justin: Moscato. It’s so good I want to shatter my fist on a brick wall. I seriously want to riot when I have moscato and potato chips. (Paolo Saracco is my favorite.)

Jack: I have recently been on a Hard Cider/Perry kick. I really enjoy the freshness, acidity and "quaffability" of fermented tree fruit beverages. As an added bonus, many ciders from the Old World have a decent amount of Brett and offer a slightly cheaper way of tasting this wine characteristic than opening Pegau, Henri Bonneau, or Dunn.

David: Lone Star and/or drinks with umbrellas. The drink really doesn't matter, provided it has an umbrella.

How does a Houston Summer affect wine service and sales?

Jonathan: In the retail world, its terrible. A lot of customers are on vacation, so I spend a lot of time reassessing and planning for the upcoming holiday season. 

Justin: It shouldn’t come as a surprise that red sales decline and the sale of *cold things* increases. We usually leap on our respective white or rosé favorites and push them as hard as we can while it’s sweltering. Last year we leaned hard on Txakoli; this year we haven’t fully decided. When temperatures spike I like to flood the list with sparkling wines, but that’s not exactly revolutionary. The most important thing to note is that our summer is approximately nine months long, so order heavy on that rosé presale, bro.

Travis: I don’t really see that our brutal summers do affect wine sales. Houston is one of the best places in the world to enjoy Riesling, Champagne, and rosé, yet we still have many people reaching for full-bodied reds. I think that is slowly changing, but those wines still tend to dominate the conversation for better or for worse.

Jack: Although the humidity gets to 10,000% and temperatures hang in the 100s around August, people still want to come in and drink their 19% ABV wines. We sometimes see a few more bottles of white wine and rosé, but a lot of our clientele sticks to what they know and want…Cabernet.

What's hip in Houston these days for new/unique drinking and dining?

Steven: They've been around for a while, but Anvil is great for cocktails, as is Down House. Hay Merchant for beer and 13 Celsius for wine. Oxheart, Pass and Provisions, Underbelly and Uchi are all creating killer menus.

David: I'm really excited by everything happening in Houston right now. The top four independent and progressive restaurants in the city all opened in the last 18 months. Two new coffee shops just opened that are doing things right, and a few new bars make legitimate drinks. Everyday I have to fight harder to keep great wines on my list, as so many people are seeking them out now.

Travis: Even in just the two years that I have lived in Houston, the city’s eating and drinking scene has exploded. Anvil, our city’s nationally respected cocktail bar, has been responsible for training and nurturing an incredible number of great bartenders who are transforming that side of the scene. Justin Vann has done a lot to promote a great diversity of wine styles in the restaurant, and is one of the major faces of the sommelier community in town. With new places like Oxheart, Underbelly, Triniti, and Uchi Houston, our city has received a lot of national attention. We would also like to think that we’re adding to that conversation at our restaurant(s) The Pass & Provisions. At any rate, we’re trying to.

What are the most (and least) important parts of wine service in your opinion?

Justin: The only thing I personally ask for in wine service is informed and personable customer service. I like seeing a sense of utilitarianism when it comes to service. I would rather use a flashlight than a candle for decanting. For all alcoholic beverages, we have only two glasses: a small glass and a big glass. I am so tired of seeing bizarrely specific stemware, down to the varietal. Don’t get me wrong, I think it's neat that Reidel has a glass for the Norton Grape, but that isn’t helping get people excited about wine. If anything, that kind of specificity is a turn off for someone who wants to learn more about wine. In general, we try to remove as much pomp and circumstance as possible from buying wine. That’s how the whole restaurant works--the wine program is just one facet of our push for great food and drink in a relaxed setting.

Steven: Most important: keep physical movements reflective of care, grace, and ease. We have to open a million bottles in the air with a million things going on around you at a million miles per hour, but you have to physically communicate to the guest that you are treating their wine with the care and attention it deserves. Least important to me is cork presentation, particularly where it concerns young new world wines.

Jonathan: Maybe this is a cliché, but when we talk about service, nothing in unimportant. Its like asking which leg of the table is the least important, or which tire of your car is unnecessary. You need all the parts to work cohesively or its not good service.

Travis: I think the mechanics of wine service have to be adapted to the context of your particular restaurant. I’m in the unique situation of working the floor in both a casual and a fine dining service environment every single night. In The Pass, we adhere very closely to CMS standards with only a few minor deviations. In Provisions, the standards of service are much more relaxed. Whatever the exact standards are, they have to serve the end of greater hospitality. A great example is wine by the glass service. If you’re not training your wait staff to pour tableside from the bottle after offering a taste, you are delivering poor WTG service. Period. On the other hand, some people have strong opinions about delivering stemware on a tray. I’m not one of those guys. It’s just not important to me.

Jack: The most important part of wine service in my mind is always to ensure the guest enjoys their wine, at whatever price point, how they want it. No matter if someone wants to drink their 1988 Salon in a cup with ice or their entry level California Cabernet in fine crystal, the goal is to ensure at a minimum their experience is fulfilled by their request. Beyond the minimum, it is always nice to help people understand how to better enjoy their wine; for example, by offering to decant denser styles of white burgundy or suggesting the use of white glasses instead of traditional flutes for Champagne.

David: Remember that it is service. It ain't (totally adopting this Texas thing) about you, brother, it's about the guest.

What is your favorite non-wine part of your beverage program?

Travis: Right now, it’s actually our coffee service in The Pass. Most restaurant coffee is absolutely terrible, even at the very high level. We’re utilizing a cart in the dining room to brew pour over Chemex coffee tableside. The coffee itself comes from a nationally respected local Houston roaster called Greenway, and the method of brewing is fantastic. Not only is the coffee delicious, it also puts on a great show. My guests have gone crazy over it. We hope to soon introduce a tea service along the same lines, which is another area where I think most restaurants fall terribly short.

Jonathan: Underberg. German digestive bitters. I have the glasses, the backpack, the belt, the carrying case. They work great for hangovers, and are perfect after a big meal and after large wine tastings. 

Jack: Although we have a whisk(e)y program that is very detailed and expansive, I think we do a very good job with is our beer program. Our bar manager has tried to make beer an equal noteworthy selection by always having two of our four taps dedicated to Texas brews and offering a few off-the-wall selections (that is, for a Texas steakhouse) of bottled beer such as Ayinger Celebrator Doppelbock and large format Duchesse de Bourgogne. We also do several beer dinners a year where a different brewery or category is highlighted--for our last dinner we showcased every Houston brewery.

What local spots are exciting for a bite to eat and a glass of wine?

Travis: On the one night a week I’m able to go out to dinner with my wife and daughter, we usually both want something simple and low-key. My favorite restaurant in Houston is probably Paulie’s, a simple Italian American restaurant on Westheimer. The service is very casual, but all of the staff consistently exudes great hospitality. The food is simple, but really solid. And their wine program is great: 12 or so surprisingly well-curated selections, all Italian, all by the glass.

James: Niko Niko's (Greek), Backstreet Cafe, The Reef

Justin: I spend more money at Paulie’s than any restaurant in the city. For wine I usually haunt 13 degrees Celsius.

Where do you go when you want authentic Mexican food?

Jonathan: I get my tacos from a truck in the Montrose area called Tacos Tierra Caliente. They have great barbacoa and lengua tacos. For breakfast, two small cafés are great: La Guadalupana and Taqueria Laredo. I love the migas at La Guadalupana.

Justin: For interior Mexican I go to Hugo’s or Otilia’s. For Tex-Mex I do Ninfas on Navigation.

Steven: Pico's on Bellaire, Hugo's on Westheimer, and Tapatia on Richmond and Chimney Rock.

David: Mexico.

What's the coolest (or strangest) thing you've ever heard, seen, or experienced at TexSom?

Jack: TexSom in all of its might and glory is one of the most unique sommelier-driven wine events in the country. I have learned so much from simply being able to help out and watch all that is going on. The coolest thing that I continually take away from TexSom is the ability to network and communicate with so many Masters and fellow sommeliers. Every year I get to meet more and more wine personalities that I have looked up to over the years. TexSom is well worth the trip out. That being said, that’s about all I can offer. “What happens at TexSom, Stays at TexSom."

James: TexSom is the largest gathering of Master Sommeliers under one roof ever! In what other event can you eat such good food, get educated, get grilled (in competition), and drink awesome wine!

Jonathan: Serge Hochar. The Dr. Suess of the wine world. 

Justin: I will never forget the Musar lecture. It was breathtaking; also, I almost cried happy tears when I was assigned the task of checking an entire case of the 1975 blanc for faults backstage. Isn’t that why we volunteer? In fact, that's just one of my favorite things ever, checking wines backstage. "Someone make sure this case of 1985 Huet Moelluex is free of faults." NO PROBLEM.

Justin Vann; Jack Mason

Steven McDonald, Travis Hinkle

David Keck

Not pictured: Jonathan Honefenger and James Deleon.