Restaurant News

Zelko Bistro Puts Female Winemakers and Craft Beer Front and Center

Zelko Bistro, although it's only been open for less than two years, has already garnered a reputation for its wine list: Aggressively priced, the list offers an excellent selection of wines between $28 and $46 a bottle. Chef and owner Jamie Zelko wanted it that way when she first opened, in keeping with the neighborhood bistro direction of her restaurant.

But Zelko and partner Jeb Stuart, who put together that wine list, parted ways a month ago, and Zelko has taken a drastically different direction with the bistro's wine list in that short time. While Stuart's list is still in place, Zelko has worked with her partner Dahlia Diaz to create a companion list that's entirely composed of wines from women-owned wineries.

"I'm not a feminist by any means," Zelko said by phone yesterday, "but there has to be something said about this industry and what it takes to make it in this industry. And as a woman, if you don't give that 110 percent you'll fall back in the crowd."

To Zelko, that extra effort makes wines from women-owned and -run wineries that much better. She talks about the subtle nuances and inherent femininity in wines like those of Heidi Barrett from Napa Valley, such as her signature La Sirena, or those of Sara Floyd, one of only 13 female master sommeliers in America.

"The wines are incredible," Zelko says. "I had a meeting today with Kathy Joseph from Fiddlehead Cellars and her wine is just so beautiful, very feminine but well thought out."

But more than just wanting to showcase other women in a very male-dominated business -- just like her own -- Zelko sees this new wine list as "paying it forward."

"I support them for their forward-thinking practices and just because they're amazing," she says of women who have been pioneers in their field, just as she has in her own -- after all, there aren't many female executive chefs in Houston, let alone many who also own their restaurant. "It's about the people who are really, really inspiring to me in their craft and what they do."

It's a smart move at a time when women have now taken over as "core drinkers" of wine in America. In 2010, wine and food writer John Mariani was surprised to learn that 53 percent of wine drinkers and buyers are now women. But Zelko insists that statistics like these have no bearing on her decision to showcase female winemakers.

"I'm not using it as a marketing scheme; I'm using it to support them, not to bastardize the concept."

And in addition to offering a wine list of women-owned wineries -- a first of its kind, as far as my research (and Zelko's) can tell -- she's emphasizing organic and sustainably-grown wines on her regular list as well.

"I've been doing independent, sustainably-harvested produce and agriculture, so I've also conicided that with my wine list," Zelko explained. But she's wary of wine reps who try to pass off any old bottle as "organic," recognizing that it's a nebulous and arbitrary word that can and is inappropriately applied in most instances.

To head them off, she's undertaken all the exploration and fact-finding on these organic wines herself. "I really need to research this stuff. The sales reps just want to sell the bottles," she laughed.

Zelko also recognizes that as independent wineries -- whether women-owned, organic or both -- are making their mark, so is craft beer. And she's expanded that portion of her menu as well, adding selections from Texas brewers like Real Ale, Southern Star and Saint Arnold as well as other excellent craft brewers like Breckenridge Brewery. She's even pairing the wine and beer together in some dishes in a way, recommending an Engine Room sparkling Shiraz with her Saint Arnold's root beer-braised short ribs.

In typical Zelko and bistro fashion, however, not everything on her new list is high end.

"I added Lone Star to the list," she chuckled. "Everyone in the back of the house and all the industry drinks it."

"And," she added with a laugh, "we sold out that same day."

Follow Eating Our Words on Facebook and on Twitter @EatingOurWords