Wine Time

Wine Time: Master Sommelier Steven McDonald

Until March of this year, Master Sommelier Steven McDonald managed what many consider to be one of the best wine lists in the U.S.
Until March of this year, Master Sommelier Steven McDonald managed what many consider to be one of the best wine lists in the U.S. Photo by Steven McDonald.
Until late March, Master Sommelier and Pappas Bros. Steakhouse wine director Steven McDonald managed what many consider to be one of the best wine lists in the United States. Last year, his program, which includes thousands of rare and high-priced wines, was one of just eight in the world to win the prestigious Wine Spectator “Grand Award.” Like all of his colleagues at the restaurant, he’s been furloughed indefinitely since March. The Houston Press recently spoke to the father of two about his outlook and plans for the future.

HP: How is your family?

SM: So far 100 percent. Everybody’s at home and everybody’s good.

HP: What’s the status of your program at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse?

SM: All steakhouse employees are furloughed. My whole team, about a week before I was, and [Master Sommelier] Jack [Mason], for example, our last day at the steakhouse was March 21.

HP: What have you been doing to keep yourself busy professionally?

SM: Over the last few weeks, [Master Sommelier Jack Mason, his colleague at the steakhouse] and I have reached out to some big-time collectors who have [wine storage] lockers at various places and asked if they needed any cellar work, inventory, audit, organization, etc. These collectors and regulars stepped up in a big way. And so with a few days of exceptions, we’ve been working in cellars since we left Pappas.

We’ve kind of made it into a thing. There’s a project that’s supposed to start tomorrow that could be a couple weeks’ worth of work. It’s a humungous cellar. And it may enable us to get some of our furloughed sommeliers some work.

It’s one of those things where one collector tells another and tells another.

HP: How many people do you hope to get involved?

SM: It’s just me and Jack right now. We hope to be able to hire a couple of people from the team. There are full-time somms who are on unemployment now.

It’s been a blessing because unemployment hasn’t kicked in yet. We have no income and my wife’s teaching gig is going to stop this month.

HP: What are your plans for the future?

SM: I'm optimistic and eager to get back to work. But I just can’t waste my bandwidth on that right now. I just got to focus on what’s right in front of me. I anticipate that there are going to be some opportunities on the other side of this. But I just don’t know.

HP: Your music and songwriting made a splash when you posted your song “Aligoté” in 2018. What are you doing musically these days?

SM: Frank Bullington [a Houston-based wine professional and accomplished drummer] and I are working on a couple more tracks.

“Nebbiolo” is out and it’s on YouTube. We had fun shooting a little video [earlier this year before the Stay Home-Work Safe order]. Because it was so much fun, we have a couple more on deck. So we’ll see.

Who knows? Before all this I was trying to get enough material so that I could submit to Collisioni [a music and wine festival held in Italian wine country] or SXSW as “comedy wine hip-hop.” We haven’t monetized anything yet. We might start a schwag store. Space City Somms is our YouTube channel.

I’m just focusing on trying to earn a little scratch and carving out a piece for our guys.
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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