Wine Time

"Houston Becoming a Major Culinary Destination," Says Leading U.S. Wine Writer Jon Bonné in IPOB Tasting Preview

In the interview that follows, leading American wine writer and author of The New California Wine (Ten Speed 2013) Jon Bonné shares his impressions of the Houston wine and food scene and offers a preview of the In Pursuit of Balance (IPOB) tasting, which will be held in Houston on March 30.

Bonné will be leading guided tastings and seminars on the day of the event and he will also be speaking about his book and the "New California Wine" movement at a dinner at Paulie's on Sunday, March 29. (Visit the In Pursuit of Balance site for tasting details and contact Camerata for reservations for the Sunday dinner.)

This year's tasting marks the first time the event will be held in the United States outside San Francisco and New York. The organizers' decision to bring participating winemakers to Houston reflects the city's growing prominence in the American wine scene.

Have you ever been to Houston?

I have been to Houston, but it's been a long time. Last time I was there, and how could I forget, was the week after the Republican convention in 1992. I bought a pair of boots on that trip, which 23 years later I still wear all the time. Best boots ever.

So I'm excited to come back and explore, because from all accounts, the city today is radically different one from the one I visited -- especially its food and wine community, which seems to be blowing up, namely in a way that's reminiscent of the laid-back culinary culture we so cherish in San Francisco.

The IPOB lineup this year is stellar. And just before that, on Sunday night, we'll be doing a sort of tour through the New California with the folks from Camerata. David Keck and Felipe Riccio have put together a pretty epic evening. Can't wait for that.

What are your impressions of the Houston wine and food scene from afar?

My sense is that it's becoming a major culinary destination, the sort of place where people visit just to eat and drink. Some of that is building on what was a great, more classic Texas tradition.

But it's also emerging into one that, best I can tell, reflects the diversifying nature of the city -- Mexican and Korean and barbecue all in one blink. Just from my quick scouting at what's new and interesting, where else would two spots like Dosi and Killen's [Barbecue] have opened within a few months of each other?

Same with wine. Camerata, as I mentioned, is killing it. And how many places could you find a wine list like Underbelly's, or a chef like Chris Shepherd who's so wine-focused? Even an old-school classic like Pappas [Bros. Steakhouse] has made serious wine (including IPOB, on their current list) a huge part of what they do.

What are you most excited about in this year's IPOB lineup?

I'll be retasking my keynote from San Francisco, which was called "California's Next Move," into a more interactive form in Houston. We have some great winemakers in the mix, including Sashi Moorman and Pax Mahle, and I want to draw out their perspective. I mean, the rise of the New California has brought a remarkable vitality to the state's wine community.

But that was just a necessary step in rebuilding a great wine culture. That momentum needs to evolve, and IPOB has a lot of members who are key to making sure California stays focused and relevant.

In terms of the wineries who are attending, what can I say? It is, as always, a super lineup. I think in part that's because the wines are blind-tasted by a selection committee before wineries are admitted in. Too many tastings tend to take an all-comers approach; IPOB is, for lack of a better term, highly curated.

And so you'll get old school legends like Mount Eden Vineyards next to rising stars like Ceritas. In some cases, these are wines that are incredibly hard to have an opportunity to taste -- even for a wine critic.

Is Robert Parker, Jr. [founder of the Wine Advocate and IPOB detractor] going to launch a lightning bolt down on to us from the mountain top?

I think he's more in the realm of indignant tweets these days.

Seriously, what's your take on the controversy over IPOB among the wine writing establishment?

Most of the controversy, such as it is, has come from a handful of writers who have skin in the game -- they want to preserve the dominance of what I've called Big Flavor. No surprise, because they helped make that style dominant, and they have no interest in seeing the ass-kicker Pinot Noirs (or Cabernets, or whatever) that they helped to make famous for a while suddenly being overtaken by quieter, subtler wines.

IPOB was born out of an interest in displaying an alternative to what had been, really, an over-the-top era for California wine. Not everyone wants to see that go away, especially if they've been handing out 98 points to wines you eat with a spoon.

So, yeah, we get these eye-rolling posts about the IPOB tastings, or assertions that the wines are too lean and anemic. I've tasted every wine that appears at IPOB, and I think that's a bizarre conclusion. They may not all be my thing, but they're not anemic.

I will concede one point to some of IPOB's critics, though. The definition of "balance" is slippery at best, a word I steer clear of because it creates as many questions as it answers. I think even Jasmine and Raj have wondered at times whether, if they had to do it over again, they would have gone with that name.

But here's what's beyond doubt for me: This is a collection of some of the biggest talents in California. When I step into that room, I see four of my past Winemakers of the Year in one place, along with dozens of other talents who I wrote about well before they were part of IPOB. They're pouring wines that can stand -- and have -- against the world's best. And they have a diversity of styles. It would be hard to put, for instance, Matthiasson, Hanzell and Ojai into the same box.

So we can debate about style, but talent? That's not up for debate.

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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