Antonio Gianola's New Italian Wine Program at Houston Wine Merchant

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It's only been a few short weeks since a handsome Floridian swooped down from the sky and snatched up one of Houston's most beloved wine professionals, Marcy Jimenez.

Hers is a tough act to follow: Since moving to Houston in 2005, she was a buyer and floor manager at Houston's only independently owned wine shop, the Houston Wine Merchant, where she became well known among industry insiders for her adventurous palate and spirit.

If you were looking for a funky orange (skin-contact white) wine from France or California? She had the goods. A radically Natural wine from Sardinia? She could deliver. A sexy "grower" Champagne? She had your number.

Her larger-than-life personality and all-around joie de vivre also made her stand out in a world already brimming with colorful characters. (Hell, this broad even convinced me to drink Merlot! I paired it, appropriately, with my hat!)

After her happy albeit abrupt elopement earlier this year, the Houston wine community has anxiously awaited a new princess or prince to fill the void left by her absence.

The answer to that $48-thousand question came three weeks ago last Monday, when Antonio Gianola (above), one of Houston's most respected sommeliers and all-around wine authorities, stepped in to take her place at the store, where he is now in charge of Italian, Spanish and outer-borough French buying (among other regions).

Antonio made a name for himself during a five-year stint as the floor sommelier at Da Marco. And when he finally launched his own list at the sorely missed Catalan in 2006, his carte was met with not-so-hushed glee. When I first dined there (after moving to Texas in 2008), I wrote that it was hands down one of the best wine lists in the U.S., a model for others across the country in terms of its breadth and its encyclopedic scope (and its aggressive pricing).

I'll never forget chatting with Antonio one night in the packed restaurant.

"Look across the dining room," he said with his gentle voice. "There's a bottle of wine on every table."

When I stopped by the merchant yesterday to catch up with Antonio, he told me about his plans to expand the Italian section to be more comprehensive. As one of the leading authorities on Italian wine in Houston (and the state of Texas, for that matter), it's only natural that he'll use his new platform to share his passion for the wines of Italy.

"When people tell me their fans of California," he told me, "I start them off in Tuscany. If it's Burgundy that they like, I take them to Piedmont. Those are places to start. Then we can go experiment with some of the more unusual stuff."

He added, "I want to make sure that if someone comes in looking for a Chianti Classico, they'll find a great Chianti Classico on the shelves. And I also want to make sure that the selection stays seasonal. Marcy was a huge Barolo fan and we have some great Barolo in stock. But as we head in to summer, I plan to lighten it up a bit for the warm months when we need lighter wines."

As one of the biggest appassionati of Italian wines in Texas, I am thrilled to see Antonio expanding and "balancing" out a selection that I already considered one of the best Italian portfolios in the state.

I'm also really looking forward to reading Antonio -- whose views on Italian wine I deeply respect -- in the Houston Wine Merchant newsletter. It marks the first time that he has a media outlet to share his profound knowledge of Italian wine and wine in general.

Does it show that I'm one of Antonio's biggest fans?

Click here to read a profile I did of Antonio last fall.

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