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The Champion Wine Garden Is a Welcome Respite From the Rodeo Chaos

Practically a secret, the rodeo's upscale al fresco lounge has a Western twist.

'Happy Rodeo! It's like our own little holiday! I love it!"

It's early in the evening, but the wine and the greetings are both flowing at Carruth Plaza in the heart of Reliant Park. The folks here are dressed to the nines for rodeo season, and between the blingy cowboy hats and expensive oversize turquoise jewelry, it's beginning to feel a bit like the set of Dallas — with a RodeoHouston twist, of course.

Nearby, a well-dressed man is posing on top of the bronze statues in the rodeo's Champion Wine Garden, an outdoor "lounge" right in the shadow of Reliant Stadium, but no one seems to mind his selfies. A couple of glasses of wine will loosen even the stiffest bolo tie, and there is plenty of wine available here to work that magic.

Featuring past winners of the Uncorked! competition...
Angelica Leicht
Featuring past winners of the Uncorked! competition...
...the rodeo's Champion Wine Garden is also home to picturesque photo ops.
Angelica Leicht
...the rodeo's Champion Wine Garden is also home to picturesque photo ops.

After all, this is where the winners of the Uncorked! are showcased, and Texas wines are available by the glass or by the bottle. Most folks are opting for the bottle, at least judging from the steady line of successors who follow our statue-climbing model.

Wine isn't the only thing showcased in the garden, though. The garden is also home base for the rodeo elite; gold badges and other credentials hang from nearly every neck, and everyone seems to recognize someone at the next table. It's quite a scene, with a distinct urban-cowboy vibe. When Houston does country, it does so with some city flair — and lace, of all things.

We've counted nearly 15 women sporting expensive lace tops and garish cowboy boots in a matter of minutes, and are starting to wonder if this is a requirement for entrance into the wine garden. The amount of rhinestones in this place is staggering; they adorn everything from the pockets of expensive western jeans to cowboy hats, and we can't help questioning whether any certified rodeo cowboy would ever find this attire practical. The outfits are gorgeous, of course, but there's also something humorous about the idea of this being western wear. Surely those pockets would be considered hazardous on a trail ride.

In reality, those blingy duds won't ever touch a saddle, though. The closest they'll come to any sort of rodeo action is atop those bronze statues, which we hope are much sturdier than they appear. A group of six friendly blonds is now scattered among the various bronze horses, waving to their friends from their mounts. We're impressed with their balance, given that those statues look a bit slippery. Or it could just be the wine.

But the men here, most of whom are older, seem just as well-established within the rodeo crowd. They're greeting everyone who comes through the trellises like old friends; given the staggering number of folks who do know each other in the garden, they probably are. The men are not immune to those rhinestones, either. Many of them also have a few shiny baubles somewhere on their rodeo get-ups, just scattered much more sparingly.

In terms of a rodeo "bar," the wine garden is an interesting little place. Stepping inside the trellised partition, you feel as if you're miles away from the paved acres of Reliant Park. The trees lining the plaza give the garden a protected feel, and with its fountains and ponds the area seems more like an upscale wine lounge in River Oaks.

But it's merely a few feet from the rodeo's main drag, where nightly the two massive food tents dump thousands of patrons toting fried concoctions on their way to the stadium or the carnival. Yet something about it feels set at a different pace, one much less hurried. It's a welcome respite from the chaos elsewhere on the grounds.

Not that the wine garden doesn't have a more refined version of chaos. It's a mixture of light-headed laughter and the holiday vibe of rodeo season, and keeps coming back to those bronze statues.

By now we've heard "Happy Rodeo" more times than we can count, and are beginning to buy into the idea that RodeoHouston is a bit like this city's version of Mardi Gras, with parades of livestock and rhinestones rather than beads and masks. It is every bit as much a celebration, though.

The six blond women have moved past their bronze perches, and are dancing to an early-evening band covering Frank Sinatra with ease. Such an impressive feat is taken for granted in a place like the wine garden. Well-heeled patrons like these expect the amenities at their hangouts to blend naturally.

The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo's Champion Wine Garden is open through Sunday, March 23, at Reliant Park. See rodeohouston.com for details.

Send your after-dark tips to nightfly@houstonpress.com.

 
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