Because there is so very much to discuss when it comes to Underbelly, the subject of this week's cafe review, I found myself having to trim back significantly in certain areas of the review in order to get a broader point across (which, TL;DR, is that Underbelly is where it's all happening and you should get in there soon).
One of those areas was Underbelly's terrific wine list.
A great charcuterie program and the Juicy Lucy aren't the only things that chef/owner Chris Shepherd brought to Underbelly from his days as the executive chef at Catalan. The restaurant where Shepherd made his mark on Houston was known not only for his food, but for its ridiculous wine list under sommelier Antonio Gianola. And you can thank Charles Clark and Grant Cooper for that, at least in part.
The duo, who owned Catalan (and also own/run its successor restaurant, Coppa), have a history of creating amazing wine lists in Houston, starting with their first restaurant -- Ibiza -- more than ten years ago. What's so amazing about the pair's wine lists isn't just the selection -- which is always thoughtful and well-curated -- but the outrageously low prices.
On Ibiza's Web site to this day, the restaurant preaches the gospel of "an extensive wine list priced just above retail," a motto that's earned it extensive accolades. Most recently, Houston Chronicle food critic Alison Cook noted Ibiza at No. 87 on her list of Houston's 100 best restaurants as having the "best-priced wine list in the city -- and a serious one, at that."
Thanks to Shepherd's determination to bring that attitude to his new restaurant, I don't think it will be long before Underbelly begins to get that kind of attention for its list, too.
Underbelly's wine list is full of fun, trippy, adventurous wines that are difficult to find in, say, your neighborhood Spec's. And if you can find them in the store, they're not marked up by much. Take a 2010 Lemelson Riesling from Willamette Valley: It's roughly $19 in the store, and $35 at Underbelly. Or a 2007 Trimbach Pinot Blanc from Alsace: It's around $16 at the store, and $29 at Underbelly. In many cases, the mark-ups are far lower.
These mark-ups hover around the 80 to 85 percent range, which may seem high at first. Until you remember that the average mark-up of wine in a restaurant ranges from 300 to 500 percent, especially at high-end or upscale restaurants. Suddenly, that 85 percent mark-up seems downright generous.
Aside from the sheer relief of being able to enjoy a nice bottle of wine without taking out a second mortgage at dinner, the list itself at Underbelly is a joy to read. Decorated by local artists (including the daughter of one of our bloggers, Phaedra Cook) and full of colorful anecdotes and information about certain bottles, it's fun to peruse even if you're not a wine drinker.
I could also love the list, of course, because Underbelly happens to agree with us when it comes to Texas wines:
One thing that hurts Texas' wine image are the wines it produces, or shall I say "makes". If you ever stop by the Texas wine section at Spec's you'll see what I mean. Pick up the bottles and read them...closely, very few are using Texas grapes, and if they are they might also be using up to 25% of grapes or juice from California, Chile or wherever they can get it.
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The list has only three Texas wines featured, one of which -- a La Cruz de Comal Pétard Blanc from Dickson -- Jeremy Parzen just noted this week as one of the best wines in the state. Go try it at Underbelly, where you can pair it with some of the best food in the state.