Houston's (Better Than) Nice Winery

When Ryan Levy first handed me his business card and told me he and his partner Ian Eastveld ran a winery, I had a total "frah-jee-lay" Christmas Story moment in my head. Nee-chay Winery, I pondered silently. Sort of like how people mispronounce Nietzsche. Italian, probably. Fortunately, Ryan interrupted this fatuous line of thought by saying the name for me. "It's The Nice Winery," he said bashfully but with a hint of pride. We were at a fundraiser, and having recognized Ryan from my gym, I introduced myself and said something clumsy like, "So, what...else do you do?" I got my answer via Ryan's understated reply and the business card, which I tucked in my pocket. And since I had missed cocktail hour and its passed appetizers, I was at the time more concerned about locating some food. And honestly, wine is lovely but what I know about it could fit in a dollhouse thimble. I'm more of a martini girl.

Doing laundry a few days later, I found the card and discovered, after some Internet research, that their winery seemed not just "nice" but also intriguing, successful and, dare I say, different. A few weeks later, I visited their wine store/production facility/tasting room to learn more.

At the beginning of their careers, Levy and Eastveld were all about food, not drink. (And even before that, Ryan practiced law. But that's another story.) Both trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and then returned to the United States, where they worked in catering and eventually opened Republic restaurant in Dallas.

Successful but slowly realizing that 1) restaurant ownership lifestyle is not ideal and, more important, 2) almost no one makes wine from a chef's perspective, they decided, in fact, to change the industry, one bottle at time. Both trained to become sommeliers and vintners and dedicated themselves to bucking mainstream trends in winemaking, specifically the corporate production of highly alcoholic, fruit-bomb varietals that are out of balance and don't pair well with food.

To say their approach to making wine is fastidious is the understatement of the decade. I initially breezed over their claim that they do everything "by hand" until Ryan showed me multiple pictures of him and Ian actually sorting through grapes in California and Argentina. Then he showed me The Nice Winery's in-house wine lab where they conduct the majority of their research and development, and test candidates for the gift boxes sent to their wine club members. Membership benefits include monthly shipments of select wines, discounts, and invitations to tasting events and classes. And, I learned that day from a very enthusiastic member who stopped by for a visit, a handwritten card from Ryan and Ian on your birthday.

Today it's hard to find a major Houston restaurant that does not serve at least one of The Nice Winery's products: Reef, Mockingbird Bistro, Brennan's and Sparrow Bar + Cookshop number among their many clients.

And this presence is not just figurative in the form of restaurant menus and wine club packages, but also very much literal, for Ian and Ryan also run an increasingly popular series of wine education classes. I would love to educate myself on The Nice Winery's offerings and learn more about vino in general by, say, visiting multiple restaurants for a series of full-pour tastings, but attending a class is probably less expensive and more efficient.

So this story, like The Nice Winery, is to be continued. I will report back after further vinological schooling.

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Joanna O'Leary