For decades, the Houston wine scene has been dominated by the California powerhouse: "California Chardonnay," "Napa Cab" and "Merlot" (in quotes because it denotes Merlot from California) have long been been Houston's go-to wines. And in many circles, they still are the most frequently ordered wines within the city's ever growing mosaic of restaurants.
But in the late 1990s, as wine awareness began to evolve in the U.S. and more and more wines from Europe and other parts of the world became available here, the Houston wine scene started to grow and expand with the rest of the country. By the late 2000s, the city's wine culture had firmly established itself as a leading destination for fine wine, however unknown that development may have been outside of Texas. Today, no wine industry observer can deny that we are in the thick of a genuine wine awakening in south Texas.
Many wine drinkers first experience new bottles when they dine in restaurants or sample a few glasses at a wine bar, either through a sommelier's recommendation or because a label intrigues them. They taste, they drink and they then buy a case of what they like. They become demanding wine drinkers, and the local wine world becomes all the better for it. So one great way to discover new and interesting wines is to look for restaurants and wine bars with diverse and competent wine lists.
Here's our list of the "Best Houston Destinations for Wine," in no particular order, chosen because they won't disappoint when it comes to a glass or bottle to pair with your food. And a visit to any of them will definitely be a learning experience.
(One note: "Special occasion" and "power dining" restaurants have been purposely omitted. Places like Tony's, Brennan's, Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, RDG/Bar Annie and the more recently arrived Phillipe have and will always have some of our country's best wine programs. We will visit them at a later date.)
The criteria for this list (which will be updated periodically) are as follows:
Does the wine program offer selections for "everyday" wine pairing?
Does the list include "special occasion" bottles for a Saturday-night anniversary celebration?
Does the wine selection work well with the menu? Does it offer an ample selection of "ready to drink now" wines?
Does the wine list teach the guest something new about wine?
Does the wine list express a theme or an aesthetic?
Is the overall wine experience enhanced by the skill of the sommelier and the servers?
Je ne sais quoi
Does the list make the guest feel sexy?
13 Celsius owner Mike Sammons, and more recently beverage director Adele Corrigan, have always had a focus on natural wine (i.e., wine made without the use of chemicals and with minimal intervention) and were pioneers in introducing Houstonians to the funky stuff. It was one of the first Houston programs to feature the wares of Slovenian producer Movia, and it was the first place our editors spotted the wines of radical natural winemaker Cornelissen. On any given night, you'll find a group of wine professionals at the bar, splitting hairs over residual sugar and sulfur content. With its chic, modernist interior, it's the top "je ne sais quoi" destination on this list.
When I wrote about the wine list at Brasserie 19 earlier this year, I called its wine pricing "insane." While the wine service had some issues (namely, the fact that many of the wines on the list were not available and that the digital-only wine list was hard to navigate), the extremely aggressive pricing and the depth of the French selection here assured Brasserie 19 a slot on this list. No Houston wine program combines affordability and splurgeability more effectively than this European bistro-inspired restaurant.
Leading Houston sommelier James Watkins most recently appeared on the Eating...Our Words blog when he placed third in the annual Texas' Best Sommelier competition. As wine buyer and beverage director for Américas, Amazón Grill and Artista, he oversees one of the country's most ambitious South American wine programs. His selection is as intelligent as it is balanced, and the program -- the same for all three restaurants -- offers the South American wine lover great value in a value-driven category. Watkins's program is at the top of our list for its theme, affordability and service.
Although Houston wine lovers will forever mourn the demise of Antonio Gianola's superb Italian list at the now defunct Catalan, a new Italian star has been born with Samantha Porter's Italocentric list at Osteria Mazzantini, which opened earlier this year. Even as French wines -- classic and funky -- have begun to make inroads into Houston's still California-dominated wine scene, Italian wines struggled to find a champion until Porter and her bold list entered the scene. Her program scores high marks in theme, affordability and food-friendliness.
Matthew Pridgen's tight, focused list at Underbelly excels despite the enormous challenge it faces: The intense flavors and richness of Chris Shepherd's melting-pot menu can easily overwhelm lighter-bodied and minutely nuanced wines. Pridgen works around this obstacle by featuring wines from the Rhône (a brilliant pairing for Shepherd's eclectic cooking). The bold, earthy, savory umami notes work superbly with the heat, char and rub of his counterpart in the kitchen. A smattering of intelligently selected Californians -- wines with food-friendly acidity and judicious alcohol content -- help to provide options for guests who look westward. And his list -- with its colorful illustrations and philosophical (and often hysterical) musings -- is a true original. This is another one to chalk up in the je ne sais quoi category.
The Pass and Provisions
The Pass and Provisions' wine director, Travis Hinkle, may have inherited his all-over-the-map list from his predecessor, but he's done a wonderful job of keeping it fresh and relevant and maintaining the level of service that made it stand out in the first place. From Lebanon (a region that few Houstonians look to for fine wine) to Greece, Hinkle's program is perhaps Houston's most equanimous in its breadth. It also has a wonderful selection of Sherry, not to mention some value-driven Loire sparkling wines. Even the most jaded wine drinker cannot help being impressed when leafing through the list's maps; in addition, the enthusiasm of the servers at The Pass and Provisions, and their level of knowledge, are refreshing. A number one choice in the education and service categories.
Camerata at Paulie's
Master Sommelier candidate David Keck and his team at Camerata at Paulie's have undeniably shaken things up with their constantly changing by-the-glass program and their thoughtful selection, which has a heavy focus on "wine geek" wines but never loses sight of approachability and food-friendliness. So much has changed in the Houston wine scene during the past five years, and Keck, perhaps more than any other of the city's wine directors, has embraced the availability of esoteric wines and Houstonians' newfound thirst for wine knowledge. And there is no other destination in town where the servers arrive tableside with such a wealth of knowledge about the wines they pour. In terms of education, with a bit of je ne sais quoi thrown in the mix, Camerata is at the top of the list.
Long before Houston's wine awakening began to take shape, the all-French list at Café Rabelais stood apart as an anomaly in the city. Its sheer depth, combined with the range and fairness in pricing, makes it one of Houston's most impressive by anyone's measure. To leaf through the vertical flights of Bordeaux and Burgundy is to revel in the glory that is le vin français. Selections from the Loire Valley help to balance the sticker shock that follows lots from the great domaines of France, however moderately priced. And this list, in terms of its splurgeability and affordability for the quality, simply cannot be beat in Houston (Deutz Champagne for $85, Bruno Paillard Champagne for $105 and an ample allocation of large-format wines are just a few examples of this).
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Like Chinese and Italian cooking, Mexican is one of the "mother cuisines" of the world. But it's also one of the most challenging gastronomies when it comes to wine pairing: Intense spice, ubiquitous acidity from red tomatoes and green tomatillos, raw onion and garlic, and an abundance of rich and often overpowering flavors are enough to intimidate nearly any self-respecting wine drinker. Luckily, Houston is home to Sean Beck, one of the most admired wine professionals in the city. And his thrilling wine list at Hugo's is nothing less than heroic in its approach to matching wines with the menu. On a recent evening, a Houston Press contributor found himself faced with the conundrum of what to pair with the shrimp cocktail, a dish in which chile spice, acidic tomato and the fatty mouthfeel of the crustaceans compete to dominate the palate. The solution: a fresh, acidity-driven Pinot Gris from the Willamette Valley, with just enough roundness and unctuousness to wrap its arms around the heat of the dish and contain it. The food-friendliness of the Hugo's list (including a healthy offering of Champagne, an ideal wine for Mexican food) excels despite the obstacles posed by the menu.
Backstreet Café wine director Sean Beck is the only Houston wine professional to appear twice on our list, and that fact should come as a surprise to no one. Long before the new wave of wine connoisseurship began to emerge here, Beck's catalog was a go-to for wine professionals and laypeople alike. As if by sorcery, he somehow manages to incorporate nearly every criterion used to compile our list: Affordability, service and food-friendliness are the tenets that guide his approach, and with his brilliantly annotated yet easy-to-navigate list, he also scores the highest marks for education. And his keen interest in German-speaking wines makes him a great source for lovers of the Teutonic, delivering a high score in theme as well.