It was back in 2008, as the Houston food and wine renaissance was just beginning to take shape, that the owner of the city's only progressive wine bar at the time needed to take a long weekend off to get married. In what must have been a frantic search to find someone with enough wine savvy to spell him while he was gone, he tapped not one of his employees, but reached out instead to one of his best customers to hold down the fort in his absence.
The owner was Mike Sammons and the wine bar was 13 Celsius. The guest was Marc Borel, today one of Houston's most beloved wine professionals and the author of some of the city's most memorable wine lists over the past eight years, including the much-acclaimed wine programs at Coppa and Sparrow Bar and Cookshop.
At the time, Borel was still settling into a new life in Houston, where he had taken a job as a graphics designer at a major oil and gas company. He had moved here from Beaumont, where he had worked as a commercial radio DJ for the better part of his post-college life. Wine connoisseurship was a hobby and passion but hardly a career option for him at the time. All that changed on a fateful evening when Sammons asked him to come to the other side of the bar.
"At the time, I thought, 'Oh, this will be fun,'" said Borel this week. "I'll do it part-time."
Little did he know that he would become one of the city's leading sommeliers.
Late last year, Borel took over the wine program at the Rainbow Lodge, a Houston institution renowned for its log cabin setting on White Oak Bayou.
Less than six months into his new gig, he has launched a brand-new wine list, with one of the city's most ambitious by-the-glass programs and a bottle selection that appeals to both the staid "Napa Valley Cab, Chard and Merlot" modern-style crowd and the new generation of acidity-loving, old-world wine nerds.
Currently, he offers his guests a selection of roughly 20 high-end wines by-the-glass thanks to a newfangled contraption called the Coravin, which uses a pressurized surgical-grade needle to draw wine from the bottle through the cork. The device uses argon gas to protect the wine from coming into contact with oxygen, thus preventing unwanted oxidization or spoilage while extracting the liquid. As a result, the wines retain their freshness and vibrancy much longer than conventionally poured wines.
With prices ranging from the low 20s to the low 100s, these include a wide spectrum of new- and old-world wines like the Peter Michael Cabernet Sauvignon Au Paradis from Napa ($103) and the Poggione Brunello di Montalcino from Tuscany ($49).
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The conventionally poured by-the-glass list also gives the wine lover ample opportunity to explore modern and traditional styles including some great selections at $9 in white and $13 in red.
The list also features organically and biodynamically farmed wines, a reflection of Marc's au courant approach to his program.
Let's face it: With its log cabin setting and its dine-on-the-bayou style, Rainbow Lodge isn't exactly where you would expect to find a cutting-edge wine list. But Marc's new list is riding the new wave and new generation of wine appreciation in Houston.
It's great to see a Houston standby like this embrace the new wine culture. We will all drink the better for it.