Restaurant Reviews

Monsterville on Washington

Perusing the menu at the new wine bar Cova on Washington Avenue, I was shocked to discover a wine called Pahlmeyer Jayson Red Blend that goes for $21 a glass. I had never seen a "highly allocated" wine served by the glass in Texas. Welcome to Washington Avenue, Houston's culinary cutting edge!

Cova is a three-way concept: It's a wine store, a wine bar and a restaurant. The original location on Kirby started offering allocated wines by the glass when it opened last summer. And the Rice Village bar is doing so well that owner Monsterville Horton IV has already opened this second location on Washington.

The decor is cool and appealing, with stained concrete floors, natural wood tables, chairs and barstools, and modernistic wine racks. Horton calls the place Cova Hand-Selected Wines because every bottle he carries comes with his personal recommendation. The big appeal of the wine bar is that he is serving rare wines you may never see anywhere else by the glass or by the "taste."

That appeal carries over into the retail half of the space: If you like what you taste at the wine bar, you can buy a bottle of the hard-to-find vintage right off the retail shelf. Then you can either take it home or, after paying a $10 corkage fee, sit down and drink it at one of Cova's tables or out on the patio.

Cova's third attraction is the food -– it's sensational. The dishes are all designed to go with wine: artisanal cheeses, red meats, smoked salmon. Most items are offered in both tiny tapas portions or in larger servings they call raciones.

I tried a tapas portion of succulent shrimp and juicy scallops with shiitake mushrooms in an aromatic saffron cream sauce that I mopped up with toasted baguette slices. The seafood was meant to complement a glass of Esporão Reserva 2004 white blend, a wine made with several Portuguese grape varietals that I had never heard of. The spicy white wine had a trace of residual sugar and reminded me a bit of a Gewrztraminer. It sold for $7 a glass and kicked butt with the shrimp and cream sauce.

I also got the tapas-size duck rillettes and foie gras with truffle oil, which was served with toasted ciabatta bread and cherry confit. The portion was small but incredibly rich. The fatty duck meat and liver toasts were the perfect complement to the Chinese-gong-volume red berry and raspberry jam flavor notes in the Pahlmeyer Jayson.

For a mere $8, I got a taste (a third of a glass) of the Pahlmeyer Jayson, which I drank side by side with a taste of another red blend called Cain Cuvée, which sold for half that price.

The Pahlmeyer Jayson Red Blend and the Cain Cuvée are Meritage wines, made from a blend of the traditional Bordeaux varieties. In the case of the Pahlmeyer Jayson, that means 50 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 38 percent Merlot, 6 percent Cabernet Franc, 4 percent Petit Verdot and 2 percent Malbec. The two California Bordeaux-style blends were remarkably similar.

The Jayson Red Blend was astonishingly intense in color and aroma. But both the Pahlmeyer Jayson and the Cain Cuvée were dominated by the heady tobacco and cedar aroma associated with Cabernet Franc. The Cain Cuvée tasted flatter and sweeter. The inky purple Pahlmeyer Jayson's jammy fruit flavors were beautifully set off by just enough tartness and tannin. I immediately lusted after a bottle, and it didn't matter that the Cain Cuvée was less than half the price.

That's why Cova encourages these kinds of comparisons. In fact, they offer six wine flights in which three taste-size portions of remarkable wines are delivered side-by-side. Horton has composed these matchups to show off particular styles of wine. Flight No. 3 is titled "Sexy, Silky and Sensual," and it features Pinot Noirs that illustrate the adjectives. Flight No. 1, "Bubbles," offers three sparklers, while Flight No. 4, "Big Red Lover," shows off some rare and allocated red wines for the headbangers of the cork-dork set. But beware: After tasting some of these big boys, you may end up handing Horton your paycheck.

"Allocated wines are allocated for a reason," Bear Dalton at Spec's recently told me. "The demand outstrips the supply."

Allocation used to be a fair way for a distributor to split up a small supply of hotly sought-after wines among its valued customers. But today allocation has become a marketing strategy for Napa Valley's boutique wineries. Silver Oak pioneered the allocation game in Napa. It works like this: After establishing a reputation for themselves with awards and accolades, the wineries produce tiny amounts of wine and then ration out the short supply month by month to whichever distributors, restaurants and collectors do the best job of sitting up and begging for it.

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Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh