Perusing the menu at the new wine bar Cova on Washington Avenue, I was shocked to discover a wine called Pahlmeyer Jayson Red Blend that goes for $21 a glass. I had never seen a "highly allocated" wine served by the glass in Texas. Welcome to Washington Avenue, Houston's culinary cutting edge!
Cova is a three-way concept: It's a wine store, a wine bar and a restaurant. The original location on Kirby started offering allocated wines by the glass when it opened last summer. And the Rice Village bar is doing so well that owner Monsterville Horton IV has already opened this second location on Washington.
The decor is cool and appealing, with stained concrete floors, natural wood tables, chairs and barstools, and modernistic wine racks. Horton calls the place Cova Hand-Selected Wines because every bottle he carries comes with his personal recommendation. The big appeal of the wine bar is that he is serving rare wines you may never see anywhere else by the glass or by the "taste."
Cova Hand-Selected Wines
5555 Washington Avenue, 713-868-3366.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Mondays through Wednesdays; 10 a.m. to 1 a.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays.
Cheese plate: $14
Duck and foie gras tapas: $9
Shrimp and scallops tapas: $10
Oxtails tapas: $11
That appeal carries over into the retail half of the space: If you like what you taste at the wine bar, you can buy a bottle of the hard-to-find vintage right off the retail shelf. Then you can either take it home or, after paying a $10 corkage fee, sit down and drink it at one of Cova's tables or out on the patio.
Cova's third attraction is the food - it's sensational. The dishes are all designed to go with wine: artisanal cheeses, red meats, smoked salmon. Most items are offered in both tiny tapas portions or in larger servings they call raciones.
I tried a tapas portion of succulent shrimp and juicy scallops with shiitake mushrooms in an aromatic saffron cream sauce that I mopped up with toasted baguette slices. The seafood was meant to complement a glass of Esporão Reserva 2004 white blend, a wine made with several Portuguese grape varietals that I had never heard of. The spicy white wine had a trace of residual sugar and reminded me a bit of a Gewrztraminer. It sold for $7 a glass and kicked butt with the shrimp and cream sauce.
I also got the tapas-size duck rillettes and foie gras with truffle oil, which was served with toasted ciabatta bread and cherry confit. The portion was small but incredibly rich. The fatty duck meat and liver toasts were the perfect complement to the Chinese-gong-volume red berry and raspberry jam flavor notes in the Pahlmeyer Jayson.
For a mere $8, I got a taste (a third of a glass) of the Pahlmeyer Jayson, which I drank side by side with a taste of another red blend called Cain Cuvée, which sold for half that price.
The Pahlmeyer Jayson Red Blend and the Cain Cuvée are Meritage wines, made from a blend of the traditional Bordeaux varieties. In the case of the Pahlmeyer Jayson, that means 50 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 38 percent Merlot, 6 percent Cabernet Franc, 4 percent Petit Verdot and 2 percent Malbec. The two California Bordeaux-style blends were remarkably similar.
The Jayson Red Blend was astonishingly intense in color and aroma. But both the Pahlmeyer Jayson and the Cain Cuvée were dominated by the heady tobacco and cedar aroma associated with Cabernet Franc. The Cain Cuvée tasted flatter and sweeter. The inky purple Pahlmeyer Jayson's jammy fruit flavors were beautifully set off by just enough tartness and tannin. I immediately lusted after a bottle, and it didn't matter that the Cain Cuvée was less than half the price.
That's why Cova encourages these kinds of comparisons. In fact, they offer six wine flights in which three taste-size portions of remarkable wines are delivered side-by-side. Horton has composed these matchups to show off particular styles of wine. Flight No. 3 is titled "Sexy, Silky and Sensual," and it features Pinot Noirs that illustrate the adjectives. Flight No. 1, "Bubbles," offers three sparklers, while Flight No. 4, "Big Red Lover," shows off some rare and allocated red wines for the headbangers of the cork-dork set. But beware: After tasting some of these big boys, you may end up handing Horton your paycheck.
"Allocated wines are allocated for a reason," Bear Dalton at Spec's recently told me. "The demand outstrips the supply."
Allocation used to be a fair way for a distributor to split up a small supply of hotly sought-after wines among its valued customers. But today allocation has become a marketing strategy for Napa Valley's boutique wineries. Silver Oak pioneered the allocation game in Napa. It works like this: After establishing a reputation for themselves with awards and accolades, the wineries produce tiny amounts of wine and then ration out the short supply month by month to whichever distributors, restaurants and collectors do the best job of sitting up and begging for it.
Allocated wines are seldom found in retail stores since so much is sold at the winery. It's a good deal for consumers - the price at the wineries is lower than at the retail store because there's no middleman. It's also good for the wineries - they make huge profits because they don't have to split the take with distributors and wine stores. The big loser is the wine retailer, who gets cut out.
The key to the allocation game is keeping demand high. So to create buzz, the wineries earmark some of their product to be allocated to the nation's top restaurants. Any restaurant that can get allocated wines buys them automatically. Even if they're not put on the wine list, there is a tremendous aftermarket among collectors. Allocated wines and their elevated cousins - highly allocated wines - have long been the rage among wine snobs.
Are they worth it? I asked Dalton.
"There are people out there who want to one-up everyone," he replied. The truth is that there are plenty of widely available wines on the market that are equal in quality and lower in price. But the whole appeal of allocated wines, for both collectors and restaurants, is that not everybody can get them. It's a boon for restaurants that rely on an image of exclusivity. "Restaurants get preferred treatment on allocated wines," Dalton said.
Pahlmeyer wines, which are highly allocated, are hard to come by. Their top-end Proprietary Red sells for $110 a bottle. Spec's had a few bottles at one time, but they're long gone, a salesman told me over the phone. Jayson Red Blend is Pahlmeyer's second label - it's also highly allocated, and it's a lot less expensive. Spec's didn't have any in stock, but Cova has plenty for a mere $69 a bottle. That's a bargain in the world of allocated wines.
How does Monsterville Horton do it? He has hit on an ingenious marketing scheme of his own: a combination high-profile restaurant, wine bar and wine store. The stellar food he's serving is generating lots of publicity and great reviews. And so the wineries and their distributors are eagerly giving him preferential trendy-restaurant treatment. That means they're giving him lots of allocated wines.
The food at Cova completely deserves the breathless superlatives it's getting in the press. Yes, it is au courant; yes, it is perfectly cooked; and yes, it goes incredibly well with the wine. But it seems like a lot of dainty delicacies for those who like to graze while they tipple. After eating $19 worth of Cova's stunningly delicious food, and drinking $19 worth of spectacular wine, I left to find myself a real dinner.
I billed my second visit to Cova as a glass of wine and appetizers to a friend who loves good wine. We ordered a cheese assortment and Horton's famous oxtails, along with two excellent glasses of red wine.
She got the 2003 Phil's Fetish Bellarine Pinot Noir from Australia, which Horton describes appropriately as "silky" in the Pinot Noir flight. It was luscious, with dried-cherry notes and delightfully balanced fruit and acidity. I got the 2003 Mutt Lynch Portrait of a Mutt Zinfandel, which I found underwhelmingly austere after all the other fruit-forward wines I had tasted at Cova.
The cheese plate was made up of our four choices from Cova's list of 13 world-class cheeses. The stinky Morbier was our favorite, followed by the creamy Explorateur, the crumbly Idiazábal Spanish sheep's-milk cheese and the stout Manchego.
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But the best thing I ate at Cova was the plate of oxtails. Horton credits his sister with perfecting the recipe. Big meaty oxtails are marinated in herbs and braised in red wine with lots of mushrooms until the meat falls apart. The sauce reduces to a shiny glaze. One oxtail and some sauce is served over a pile of awesome chive-and-buttermilk mashed potatoes for $11.
I could have eaten half a dozen of Horton's oxtails. Or maybe I should have gotten another glass of red and tried a racion order of beef tenderloin with root vegetables. There is lots of serious dinner food on the menu, like lobster tails, and a plate of New Zealand lamb that comes with an onion tart.
But as much as I love to drink wine and nibble at Cova, there is something about its wine bar/wine store atmosphere that doesn't inspire me to roll up my sleeves, tuck my napkin under my chin and really chow down on the dinner items. I think it would feel something like eating a triple jalapeño cheeseburger in a tea room.
So, instead, we finished our wine and went across the street to El Tiempo for some fajitas.