Hammers clanged and drills buzzed as workers scrambled yesterday afternoon to put the finishing touches on the build-out at the soon-to-open À Bouzy on Westheimer. And owner Shawn Virene, one of the city's favorite restaurant veterans and wine professionals, appeared barely able to catch his breath when he sat down to discuss what is surely to be one of the most talked-about wine lists in the nation when the venue opens later this week. But even in the throes of preparing for his new venture's VIP debut soirée, it wasn't the frenzied whirlwind of activity that seemed to fuel his nervous excitement: He knows that his bold new wine list will make waves in Houston, now one of the country's most important wine destinations, and beyond.
Not only will À Bouzy's wine program feature what could be America's largest selection of fine and rare sparkling wines (reportedly more than 250 labels) but it will offer them to guests at a 1.25 (25 percent) markup, he said, 25 percent below the standard retail margin and nearly 200 percent below the average restaurant markup (most fine dining destinations in the U.S. mark their wines up 2-3 times, 200 to 300 percent, and some even apply a 350 or 400 percent markup, especially where location and exclusivity — read snobbery and snubbery — drive the pricing).
For his broader list, featuring still wines from Europe and the Americas, said Virene yesterday, he will use a retail markup (50 percent), a formula that has already proved spectacularly successful for the Clark Cooper Concepts group of restaurants where Virene worked for more than a decade before breaking out on his own with this new River Oaks entry into the ever growing crowd of high-stakes restaurants in Houston.
But the aggressive — some would say "unthinkable" — pricing isn't the only remarkable ingredient in Virene's recipe for success. While his list may very well offer the largest collection of Champagne in the country, including hard-to-come-by and prohibitively expensive labels (including a vintage-dated 750ml bottle of Krug Clos d'Ambonnay that will clock-in at a mere $2,799), it will also offer the petroleum crowd the opportunity to taste the Holy Grail of Champagne: Still (as opposed to sparkling) wines from the appellation. Currently, said Virene, he has five bottles of still wine on his list, something that is sure to wow even the most jaded among Champagne connoisseurs.
Few, even the most monied among wine lovers, get to taste the still wines of Champagne, which are nearly impossible to find outside the appellation.
"For every one bottle of still white [wine] produced in Champagne," write the editors of the Oxford Companion to Wine, "perhaps 20 of still red … are produced (in a good vintage), and 16,000 bottles of sparkling." In other words, still red wine in Champagne represents less than .002 percent of the appellation's entire production — and that's in a good vintage.
One of Champagne's most famous still red wines comes from the village of Bouzy, which lies on the Montagne de Reims, the "high grounds" between the towns of Rheims and Épernay, one of the most coveted spots for growing Pinot Noir. The name of the restaurant, À Bouzy, means literally "in the village of Bouzy," a designation sometimes used by growers there.
"Champagne has always been one of my favorite wines to serve with food," said Virene, who noted that most wine drinkers tend to reach for the appellation only in moments of celebration and not when they sit down for a meal.
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"It's a great food wine and when we think of it like that, people get it," he noted.
Guests at his new restaurant might be surprised when they are not greeted with bread service: In the place of the standard bread basket, Virene will serve Texas-grown D'Avignon radishes (when in season and available) and French Breakfast radishes (when the former can't be found). The spiciness of the root vegetable is an ideal pairing for the often bracing acidity of the leaner wines raised in Champagne and a counterpoint to the subtle sweetness in the brut wines. Served with salted butter, it's a classic accompaniment for the appellation, as Virene learned on his many trips to France.
The pace of work only continued to increase as Virene culled together a selection of some of the wines he planned to serve at the party (above). Even when it comes to his bone-dry selections — the brut nature expressions of the appellation that haven't been topped off with a liqueur d'expédition — Virene's generous pricing is sure to sweeten the deal.
À Bouzy, 2300 Westheimer, 713-722-6899
Opening August 2. Hours: Monday through Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.