This week's cafe review takes a look at Osteria Mazzantini, a new-ish Italian restaurant from Mockingbird Bistro's John Sheely. I first went there on opening night, and though I enjoyed the food, I found myself most impressed by the creative and interesting wine list and the young sommelier who had written it for her first real job as wine guru of an upscale restaurant.
When I visited to review the restaurant, I found the food at Osteria Mazzantini had improved and that the wine list was as wonderful as ever. Sommelier Samantha Porter, still in her early 20s, has crafted a wine list that reads like a book. The descriptions of the wine-by-the-glass options and different varietals are so interesting that I always keep reading, even after I already know what I want.
"I just wanted to make something approachable," Porter says. "I wanted it to be thought out, not like I just put a bunch of wines on a piece of paper. If John was going to give me the opportunity to create my own wine list, I wanted to own it. I want people to fall in love with it like I did."
The wine list, available as a download from the Osteria Mazzantini website, is 32 pages long and worth every sheet of paper. It's a very personal list, and one in which Porter continues to invest a lot of time and effort.
"I have too much pride in what I do to sell out to a distributor who will pay for me to travel in exchange for putting their wines on my menu," she says. "I have 15 to 20 people that I buy wine from instead of one big distributor. It takes me longer to order and do things, but it's all my own, and I don't have to sell out to anyone."
This devotion to quality has allowed Porter to bring in wines that are now being distributed in Texas for the first time, including some that she helped make.
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Porter acknowledges that the list is partially influenced by one put together by Bobby Stuckey at Frasca Food and Wine, which is located in Boulder, Colorado. His wine list is imbued with the history of locations and varietals, and Porter liked that he took the time to explain the wine to his customers. She has set out to craft a list that's a little more understandable to the layperson, though. She notes that though Stuckey's list influenced the structure of hers, she's placed more emphasis on tasting notes than history.
"I think it's important for people to know what Italian wines taste like," she says. "Italian wines are intimidating, even for me."
Though Porter has received certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers, she's still fairly new to the wine industry. She started out as a cook in various kitchens around Houston, including a stint as sous chef for Downhouse when it first opened. In college she was studying restaurant management when she took a wine class and instantly fell in love.
"I was kind of lacking the intellectual side of cooking in my management classes," she says. "I still wanted all of the food and wining and dining that I loved from being a cook, as well as the relationship you build with people because of it, but I was missing the intellectual stimulation. With wine, I got everything I wanted."
Upon discovering this passion, Porter got a job at 13 Celsius, where sommelier Adele Corrigan took the young wine enthusiast under her wing. Later, Porter took an internship in France and lived at a vineyard in Alsace for half a year. This enabled her to travel all over Europe to visit wineries and even help in the production of a few wines. There's a wine on the list at Osteria Mazzantini made from grapes that Porter stomped with her own two feet.
When she returned home, she met John Sheely, interviewed with him and was immediately hired. Four days after graduating, she started a new job, and on that first day of work Sheely informed her that she'd be creating the wine list for his new restaurant, Osteria Mazzantini. Far from being intimidated, Porter embraced the opportunity.
"When I came back from Europe, I was so inspired," she says. "I saw things that Houston hasn't picked up on yet. As soon as John told me I'd be opening Mazzantini, I was so excited to share my experiences with others. John gave me free rein to create what I wanted."
Part of what Porter has brought to Houston is an attention to female winemakers and biodynamic processes. She makes note of both in her wine list, and she makes a conscious effort to include a great selection of wine made by women (as winemaking has long been a man's sport), as well as wine produced by vintners who work with the land to create the most natural products possible.
"I want people to realize that there's so much history and culture to wine," she says. "It's romantic. We've been making wine since 3000 B.C., and there's so much art to it. I feel like my list is written in sort of a romantic sense, because wine is romantic."
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Now that Osteria Mazzantini has been open for more than six months, Porter says it's time to do an overhaul of the wine list and add a number of new options. She says it's likely some of these new wines will end up in the "Blue Velvet" section of the list.
"It's my favorite section," Porter says, laughing. "It makes the least amount of sense to other people, but it makes sense in my brain. It's all unusual varietals. If I don't know where to put something, that's where I put it on the list."
The description on the wine list actually sounds pretty apt:
These gems are grouped together because of their saturated violet color, significant tannins, and velvety, succulent quality. While several of these selections may seem particularly peculiar--many of them indigenous or hybrid varietals--they deliver on quality and undeniable beauty. Ripe, succulent, rich, earthy, with a hint of spice, these meaty wines stand up against even the biggest Cabernets and Super Tuscans.
Some of her other descriptions range from humorous to so informative that you feel as if you can taste the wine, even though it has yet to touch your lips.
"Demanding, sensitive, easily affected by changes in weather patterns, master winemakers continue to grow this fickle varietal, knowing full well that a superlative vintage can raise their status to near sainthood. Black cherry, Hercules tannins, and an uncanny ability to inspire a drinker during consumption." (Sangiovese Grosso)
"No other wine grants an experience quite like an awe-inspiring bottle of Pinot Noir...It can stand out beyond anything that has ever touched your palate, a sensual experience in its finest expressions. The domestic examples (Oregon & California in this case) have a slightly more fruit forward quality with notes of baking spice and smoke...We have taken the liberty to examine many a bottle of Pinot Noir to narrow down a few gems that will slap you in the face and kiss you on the mouth." (Pinot Noir - Belle of the Ball)
"Macerated Wines - Orange Wines. You can't handle this wine. Trust me. Just turn the page."
She goes on to show just how romantic she thinks wine is by describing various bottles as "supple," "sensuous" and "I want to marry this wine."
When I pointed out to Porter that she has quite a way with words, she seemed surprised.
"I won a couple of writing awards when I was younger," she says hesitantly. "I guess I've always known that I was okay at writing, which is why wine journalism would be fun for me."
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She says she intends to start a wine blog soon, though possibly under a pen name, because "it's going to be fucking hilarious." The way she then described nebbiolo made me agree that, for the sake of propriety at work, she should probably not use her real name.
Her name and her hand are all over the list at Osteria Mazzantini, though, and it's in part thanks to this talented young sommelier that the restaurant has been such a success.
"There's so much on the wine list that if you wanted to come in and just drink you could," she says. "The food menu is ever-changing, so I have to have a list that's diverse enough to pair with anything. There's something to drink with all things we serve, but there are also things that don't necessarily go with anything."
And then, with a laugh, she adds, "You can think of us as a wine bar, too, you know!"