Grape Escape

There are only 56 master sommeliers in the United States. At 30 years of age, Paul Roberts is one of the youngest. Unfortunately for Houston, Roberts is leaving his post as wine director for Cafe Annie (1728 Post Oak Boulevard, 713-840-1111) and taking a job at the French Laundry in Napa, California. I have the opportunity to talk to him on his last day at his old job.

"Ruth Reichl once called the French Laundry the best restaurant in the United States. Does it still have that reputation?" I wonder.

"Actually, the French Laundry and chef Thomas Keller just won the Waterford Trophy, which is a British award for the top restaurant in the entire world," says Roberts. The competition included all the top French three-stars. It was the first time an American restaurant and American chef ever won, he explains. Roberts's duties will include running the wine program at the French Laundry, and several other restaurants that Keller owns, including a new one in Manhattan.

"So how does it feel?" I ask.

"I vacillate between sheer joy and sheer terror," Roberts laughs. "I'm a Houston boy, I've never lived outside of Texas. To move to Napa and take over what people tell me is the top wine job in the country, well, it's a shock." Roberts didn't even apply for the position. One day he got an e-mail from the outgoing sommelier and the next thing he knew he was being offered a job. "They tapped me because of the work we've done at Cafe Annie customizing the food to the wine," Roberts says.

"Is the Houston wine scene different from those in the rest of the country?" I ask.

"They say Houston is eight to ten years behind New York and California in fashion, and in wine it's the same thing," says Roberts. There are certain restaurants in Houston that are educating people, but not enough, he says. The steak house movement is more typical of what's happening here, and the percentage of Cabernet, Chardonnay and Merlot sold in Houston compared to other markets is huge.

New restaurants like Hugo's are experimenting with Mosel Rieslings, which harmonize beautifully with spicy foods, but wine drinkers in Houston are resistant to change. Houston's social elite is particularly difficult to educate, he says.

"We see them all the time at Cafe Annie. And they always make a point of telling us that they usually eat at Tony's," laughs Roberts. "Then the guy will ask about the usual suspects…"

"Let me guess: Silver Joke Cabernet, right?" I interject.

"I call it Slippery Oak," he says. "And the poor wife will have to drink another crappy Cabernet with my shrimp." Roberts says he started getting the waiters to bring two wine lists to the table and give one to the wife. "The men don't like it, but their wives do."

"Do you think tastes will change as the old 'gourmet' restaurants begin to disappear?" I wonder.

"Unfortunately, the younger generation seems to be inheriting Mom and Dad's conservative tastes," he says. Oaky Chardonnays are a cliché that the rest of the country has outgrown, but it won't go away here. "Randall Grahm [of Bonny Doon Vineyard] put it best. He said, 'People who think oak is an integral part of a wine are the same people who think ketchup is a vegetable.' "

"What do you think about wine storage in Houston?" I ask.

"I'd say 5 to 10 percent of the wine served in Houston is heat-damaged," Roberts says. "It's not just Houston, but wine storage here is piss-poor." A two-story display of wine in a restaurant is a terrible idea, he says. "If it's 75-plus degrees in the dining room, and heat rises, then what temperature is the wine being stored at?" Some wines can take it, but a Pinot Noir can start deteriorating after a few weeks.

Most wines are turned over relatively quickly, Roberts concedes, but when you serve a Napa Zinfandel with 14.8 percent alcohol at 75 degrees, you get a soapy, metallic, overly alcoholic taste. The savvy consumer can ask the restaurant to chill it down. But the younger wine drinker is going to have an unpleasant experience that turns them off to wine, he contends.

Retail wine stores are guilty of poor storage as well. If you're going to spend $100 on a rare bottle of wine, you'd better make sure it comes from a retailer with a 55-degree wine storage room, he suggests.

"So do you have any parting advice to Houston wine lovers?" I ask.

"Don't stop experimenting, especially now," Roberts says. "There is a world surplus of wine, and you're going to see prices coming down. But don't get locked into drinking the same wines all the time. Try something different! And force your retailers and restaurants to get out of their ruts, too."

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Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh