Rockstar Winemaker Pax Mahle Takes Houston by Storm

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A Houston wine writer considered himself fortunate to get an audience with rockstar winemaker Pax Mahle yesterday while the charismatic sommelier cum winery owner was in town to show his wine to buyers and speak at a sold-out wine dinner at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse.

That's not to say that Mahle is pretentious or stuck up by any means.

But his two handlers -- like rock band tour managers -- were quick to whisk the "talent" to his next gig after a wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am pre-dinner tasting with said writer and a handful of top Houston wine professionals.

Mahle, who speaks thoughtfully with measured cadence, is one of the hottest winemakers in the country right now. From the establishment to the fringe, wine writers have nothing but praise for his lean, food-friendly wines. And it's not hard to understand why: The wines -- across the board -- are undeniably delicious.

When asked about the "new California" winemaking style, he was reluctant to let himself be categorized as such, even though he and his wines are favorites of San Francisco Chronicle wine writer Jon Bonné, who published the landmark hardcover The New California Wine: A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste late last year (Ten Speed).

Mahle's 2011 Wind Gap Sonoma Coast Syrah, wrote Bonné in his list of top 100 wines of 2013, sets "a new standard for New World Syrah."

The 2011 entry was a stand-out in the flight of wines poured at yesterday evening's brief encounter. But it was just one of the lip-smacking entries.

"Today, it's amazing to think that there are so many wines I enjoy drinking from California," said Mahle when asked about the new wave of California wine. "Five years ago, I couldn't have said that."

His wines, which are nearly all made from purchased fruit or grapes grown on leased vineyards that he manages, are marked by a balance of richness in flavor and a lightness in body and alcohol -- the quintessence of the emerging California style.

"Natural wine" is another label that he avoids, he said, although the grapes for his wines are grown using organic and biodynamic farming practices and vinification is carried out using naturally occurring, "ambient" yeast.

While San Francisco and New York are his biggest markets for his Wind Gap label, Texas is quickly becoming a top city for the brand.

According to his handlers, the wines are readily available around town. Sonoma on Richmond recently added the North Coast Rosé to its list, they said, and Camerata on Westheimer is also a big supporter.

Although the wines aren't cheap, they do fall on the lower end of the mid-tier spectrum. Few venues will be able to offer them by-the-glass. But take the advice of a Houston wine writer and seek them out. Whether you like them or not, they're a shining example of what American wine can be.

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