"While traveling alone through Sicily," writes Osteria Mazzantini wine director Samantha Porter in the presentation of her intelligent list, "I fell in love with the idea of taking risks. Feet soaking in the crystal, cyan sea along the coast of Taormina, I sipped on a bottle of wine chosen by the owner of a vinoteca who struggled to understand my less than accurate Italian. It was in a simple bottle with not much other than the word 'Sicilia' emblazoned across the label...With the salinity of sea spray on my face and the expansive, unbroken coastline in front of me, I vowed to dedicate my life to influencing those around me to step out of their comfort zone and explore all the variety and beauty good wine has to offer."
How can you not love a wine list that opens with "feet soaking in the crystal, cyan sea along the coast of Taormina"?
As she promises in the proem of her smart and often lyrical list, the young Porter takes risks and draws the guest out of her/his comfort zone.
In the very first pages, she provides a legend that will guide the reader to "female winemaker[s]" ("W") and to "Natural/Organic/Sustainable/Biodynamic" winemakers who "work with the land & [with] little to no manipulation."
It's a bold opening statement for a restaurant otherwise pedestrian in its sycophantic, cowering obsequiousness to the Mario Batali canon of pseudo-Italian gastronomy.
But forget the predictable, cookie-cutter entries on John Sheely's robotic menu. It's an afterthought to Porter's brilliant list.
On a recent evening, a table of four enjoyed a fresh, elegant, focused bottle of 2012 Collio (Friuli) Sauvignon [Blanc] Ronco del Cerò, a single-vineyard designated wine by one of Italy's most prestigious organic growers, Venica. At $65, the wine was more than fairly priced.
Next came a superb bottle of 2009 Santa Chiara by natural wine icon Paolo Bea (Umbria), a skin-contact white wine that Porter includes in her shortlist of "macerated" white wines, in other words, white wines that have been made like red wines, with a maceration of grape skins during fermentation. (One of the guests, an Italian wine authority, noted approvingly that Porter uses the more precise "macerated" instead of the more popular but more nebulous qualifier "orange.") At $100, the price was fair, although not a bargain.
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As their meal wrapped up, one of the guests in the party regretted that he hadn't ordered the 2004 Puro by natural winemaker Movia from Slovenia. At just $75, the undisgorged and very sexy Champagne-method Pinot Noir would have been a steal.
And on the high end, he noted, the 2008 Franciacorta Annamaria Clementi by Ca' del Bosco, one of the greatest expressions of the appellation (Champagne-method sparkling wines from Lombardy), would have been an equally economical selection at $160.
Porter's list is Houston's most ambitious Italian (although it's not entirely Italocentric), and it's a welcome entry in a city where France and California have long dominated.
As our city's wine renaissance continues to expand, it's great to watch her brushstroke move boldly across the canvas of her carta dei vini.