Wine Time

A Houston Sommelier on Top of the World in New York City

As Houston's allure as a leading international wine destination continues to grow, a number of New York restaurant pros have found their way here.

Pappas Bros. Steakhouse sommelier Steven McDonald is one of them. The San Antonio-born wine stud made a name for himself working at the Michelin-starred Ai Fiori in Manhattan before returning to Texas a few years ago.

Vanessa Treviño Boyd is another. Today, she is the beverage director at the swank Lakeside Country Club in Memorial. But before she came back to her native Texas, she had worked as the wine director at Adour at the St. Regis Hotel in New York, where the celebrated French chef Alain Ducasse once wowed Manhattanites with his spectacular cooking (now closed).

Despite Houston's appeal as a great place to live and work in the wine trade, some of our best and brightest continue to head east to seek their fortune in the dog-eat-dog world of the New York restaurant scene.

Former Pappas Bros. sommelier Jack Mason (above) had already landed a job as a floor sommelier at the prestigious Altamarea restaurant group in New York when a fortuitous study/blind tasting session led to a job interview.

Jack is one exam short from becoming a Master Sommelier (he'll be seated for the grueling blind tasting exam this May). And like many of his counterparts, he studies with current members of the Court of Master Sommeliers. In 2013 revered New York restaurant veteran and Master Sommelier John Ragan invited Jack to participate in a blind tasting study session. Afterwards, Ragan mentioned that there might be "a job opportunity" with a new project by New York's legendary restaurateur Danny Meyer, owner and founder of Union Square Hospitality, one of the most successful restaurant groups in the world today.

"I started with the company in July of 2014," said Mason, "and I never looked back."

Today, he is the wine director of one of Manhattan's hottest new destinations, Marta, opened in September 2014, Danny Meyer's latest entry in the highly competitive world of fine dining.

Some would say that Jack is sitting -- quite literally -- on top of the world.

He got his start in the restaurant business when he was sixteen, taking his first job at Christopher's World Grille in Bryan.

After finishing high school in College Station, where his father has a medical practice, he headed to CIA, the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.

"Midway through the program," he recalls, "we did an intensive wine class and I really enjoyed the dynamic of food and wine."

By the time he was 21, the now 27-year-old had already received his sommelier certification.

He then headed to Ithaca, New York to pursue a B.S. in hotel management at the famous Cornell School of Hotel Administration.

As soon as he completed his degree in 2011, he returned to Texas where he swiftly obtained a job working the floor at Pappas Bros. In 2013, he shipped out to New York.

Today, his wine program has been written up by the Wall St. Journal, the New York Times, and Wine Spectator and he was recently named one of Forbes "30 under 30."

His aggressively priced short list of wines from Champagne has made quite a splash among the New York wine glitterati. And he's currently putting together an enviable "off list" of aged Italian wines.

"Last night I poured a 1982 Granbussia [by Aldo Conterno] and a 1964 [Barbaresco by] Angelo Gaja," he said in a phone interview this week. "You can see where this list is going."

Will he come back to Texas someday?

"My wife and I are planning, at some point, to come back to start a family," he said. Living on Manhattan's Upper East Side, he conceded, "we miss wide open spaces."

But for the time being, he has no plans to leave the Big Apple.

"It's the curse and the blessing of New York," he said. "You are always pushing for more. My job is awesome but it's always a question of how you can do more."

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Jeremy Parzen writes about wine for the Houston Press. A wine trade marketing consultant by day, he is also an adjunct professor at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont, Italy. He spends his free time writing and recording music with his daughters and wife in Houston.
Contact: Jeremy Parzen