Top 10 Wine Lists in Houston

Sommelier Marc Borel, now of Backstreet Cafe, serving wine at 13 Celsius.
Sommelier Marc Borel, now of Backstreet Cafe, serving wine at 13 Celsius.
Photo by Katharine Shilcutt

It's exciting to run across a well-priced favorite on a restaurant's wine list, or to discover something new as you dig through its pages. But there's more to making a world-class wine list than just stocking a cellar with Cakebreads and Chardonnays.

To spotlight the best wine lists in Houston, we turned to the experts: a panel of respected Houston sommeliers that includes Marc Borel (general manager at Backstreet Cafe), Jonathan Honefenger (lead sommelier at Richard's Liquors and Fine Wines), Evan Turner (formerly of Branch Water Tavern) and Justin Vann (sommelier at Oxheart). What these professionals emphasized most is that there are at least three things that make a truly great wine list -- starting with curation.

"There are a lot of great lists that are put together well and have interesting things and great price points, but who's curating them?" asks Turner. "You can watch a sporting event and it can be an amazing game, but if the people doing the color commentary are great then it makes it even better."

A wine list could have more hidden treasures than the Vatican, but without guidance from someone who knows the list, only the geekiest connoisseurs would be able to spot them. Vann specifically looks for a well-trained wine steward when scouting great wine lists, asking questions like: "Does the list have good somms taking care of it? Can they find me something I like on the list, in almost any price range?"

A second thing to keep in mind, says Turner, is how well the wine list holds up to its audience. A purposefully esoteric wine list has no place in a straightforward, casual restaurant, where diners would be baffled by a list containing only orange wines while a Chardonnay-and-Cabernet-heavy list of staid, middle American favorites can easily bring down a fine dining experience.

Lastly, look for how well the wine pairs with the food the restaurant is serving. An all-American wine list in an Italian restaurant can clash as loudly as an all-Korn soundtrack in a fancy French restaurant. It's okay to have a few familiar standbys, says Vann, but he cautions: "Does the majority of the wine pair well with the majority of the food?

The following 10 restaurants were cited over and over again by our sommeliers as examples of places with truly great wine lists in Houston. And although I'm no somm myself, I agreed wholeheartedly with each pick.

Honorable mention: Underbelly.
Honorable mention: Underbelly.
Photo by Troy Fields

Honorable mention:

Underbelly, for offering "big, bold American wines that go well with [chef Chris] Shepherd's food," says Turner. Brennan's, for maintaining a list that is "well-rounded, at a good price," says Honefenger. And downtown steakhouse Vic & Anthony's, says Turner, for having the type of wine list you can really splash out on.

10. Divino Italian Restaurant & Wine Bar

Borel calls Divino's wine list "very thoughtful," noting that he -- and the list -- have both been "obsessed with Italian wine lately." With very reasonable mark-ups in place, most bottles of wine are no more than $60 and there are nearly 30 offered by the glass. The cozy, dinner-only restaurant in Montrose is "one of Houston's best-kept secrets," says Borel. On the first Monday of every month, Divino offers a special wine dinner such as a recent evening that featured Tuscan wines of Rocca della Macie paired with pork tenderloin braised in milk, onions and herbs and a grilled rib-eye "alla Fiorentina."

9. Cafe Rabelais

"Their wine list is exclusively French," says Vann. "And it is massive." Among the many lists in town that focus exclusively on wines from one, single country, Cafe Rabelais' list is the best. "These types of wine lists deserve to be rewarded and celebrated because they're great places to try something new, and for classics," says Vann. "Tell them what you drink, and have them find the French equivalent for you. Plus, these kinds of lists are great for hidden gems, like a 2006 A et P de Villaine Bouzeron for $65."

8. Hugo's

The first entry on the list to be shepherded by longtime sommelier Sean Beck, the wine list as Hugo's is notable for its seamless pairing with chef Hugo Ortega's interior Mexican cuisine. "In my opinion, sushi and Mexican cuisine are two of the most lazily paired types of food," says Vann. "They both demand thoughtful wine lists, and these are the best examples of setting a guest up for success in a world where its not easy to find the right wine with the food. Sean spells it out explicitly, not just showing which wines work with some dishes, but even goes further to warn about wines that won't work: the heavy reds section says 'careful, these may fan the flames [of spicy cuisine].'"

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