Bartender Chat: Marcus Gausepohl of CHA Champagne & Wine Bar

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I had passed CHA Champagne & Wine Bar on Waugh across from Whole Foods so many times but hadn't stopped in until this week. I was in a celebratory mood because I'd gotten 90 percent of my Christmas shopping done on Cyber Monday and felt I deserved a pat on the back glass of Champagne. A friend of mine lives by the mantra "nothing is too small to celebrate with a glass of Champagne," and I've sort of adopted it.

It was 5 p.m. on Monday afternoon, and parking was a breeze. There were two good-size patios, one upstairs and one down, but it was just too damn cold to sit outside. We moseyed in, grabbed a spot at the bar and met Janelle and Marcus, who had tons of recommendations when I had no clue what to sip. Sure, it's a Champagne bar, the only in the South, actually, but the vibe is pretty relaxed, the interior cozy and comfortable. The bar promotes the local scene -- works by Houston artists hang from the walls and are rotated regularly. And you can see local musicians play every night of the week.

Like a lot of people, I like Champagne, but I don't know Champagne. At CHA, it doesn't matter if you're a connoisseur or clueless, these folks will help you find something you'll love and maybe teach you a thing or two.

I learned about the insane nine-step process required to produce biodynamic wine. Seriously, you guys, it's like witchcraft. It goes something like this: Bury cow skull filled with manure in ground for the Winter. Dig it up in the Spring. Fill stag bladder with yarrow flowers and hang in Summer sun. Bury it. Dig it up. Fill cow guts with chamomile. Hang in sun, bury, dig it up later. Turn into fertilizer liquid, spray grapes at 8 a.m. every morning...etc. Yeah, it's intense. I tasted Janelle's personal favorite, the biodynamic wine Cashburn by Burn Cottage Vineyard in New Zealand, and it's really good. All the cow shit and stag bladder voodoo must be working.

We sampled, and we learned a little bit more about Champagne, wine, the bar and its wine director, Marcus.

Where are you from? I'm a born and raised Houstonian; I went to high school in Pearland.

How long have you been bartending? I've been in the service industry a little over a decade, and I've been bartending for half of that. I was in the coffee business before this but got tired of the hours. An ex-girlfriend, who was Hungarian, brought me to Hungary, where her uncle was a winemaker. Ever since that experience, it was just a domino effect...all of a sudden I'm reading books, going to tastings and I kind of became an obsessed wine dork.

How did you end up at CHA? I had worked with wine on and off over the years, and I really wanted to come to a smaller wine bar where I could have a nice experience building customer relationships and get exposed to a larger list. A wine-rep friend of mine told the manager at the time that I was interested in working, and that's about it. It's like a small family here. Wine is so vast and detailed that it's nice to hang out and talk about it, share, learn and drink it with your staff instead of doing some formal, once-a-week thing. Everyone has their opinions and favorites, and it balances the list out.

How would you describe the crowd? Very eclectic. We get wine connoisseurs and people that just enjoy Champagne; people in their mid-twenties after work and couples in their fifties and sixties that come in two or three times a week. We get people that don't know a lot about Champagne but know they like it. We're like "Great! Let's pour you a flight, let you try different things, tell you a little about them and where they come from."

What are some of your favorite Champagnes that you carry right now? What I'm excited about right now is a Crémant, which is a French sparkling white outside of Champagne made in the Champagne method. This one is from Jura, which is on the Eastern edge of France. It's really interesting, it's boutique, a small production, and you don't see a lot of this region in the South. My No. 1 Champagne is Ruinart, which was the first Champagne house to put bubbles into production. This blanc de blancs is heavenly. Sure, there are more expensive or rare bottles, but for someone who just walks in and wants a good bottle of sparkling, this is my go-to. I could drink it every day. It's a little softer than some of the other bruts, but it's a real people-pleaser.

What are some of your favorite spots to get a drink or dinner? I like 13 Celsius and the whole Ibiza, Coppa, Brasserie family. I'm friends with people involved in those restaurants and they are some of my favorite places to go. My absolute favorite is probably Poscol. It's really awesome. If I'm going on a date or just want to relax, that's where I'd go.

What is one thing that would make Houston a better city? I wish people would stop playing it so safe when it comes to investing in creative endeavors, that people would look to the new, the future, instead of the past. Houston loves to eat and drink, and I think, in the next five years, what Houston is going to do will put us on the map. Houston needs to be a little more daring; stop being so comfortable all the time.

***Wildcard Question*** What kind of music makes you want to get up and sing? James Brown. We play it all the time here, and it just puts me in a great mood.

Stop in and say hi to Marcus, grab a glass of bubbly and even a snack. We had the artichoke flatbread ($11), which was very tasty, but other pizza options include barbecue duck and prosciutto, fig and olive.

Happy hour, during which they offer $5 glasses of a featured bubble, is Tuesdays through Fridays from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. and all night on Mondays. There's always something going on, so for more info or to check out the calendar of events, visit CHAHouston.com

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