It's exciting to run across a well-priced favorite on a restaurant's wine list, or to discover something new as you dig through its pages. But there's more to making a world-class wine list than just stocking a cellar with Cakebreads and Chardonnays.
To spotlight the best wine lists in Houston, we turned to the experts: a panel of respected Houston sommeliers that includes Marc Borel (general manager at Backstreet Cafe), Jonathan Honefenger (lead sommelier at Richard's Liquors and Fine Wines), Evan Turner (formerly of Branch Water Tavern) and Justin Vann (sommelier at Oxheart). What these professionals emphasized most is that there are at least three things that make a truly great wine list -- starting with curation.
"There are a lot of great lists that are put together well and have interesting things and great price points, but who's curating them?" asks Turner. "You can watch a sporting event and it can be an amazing game, but if the people doing the color commentary are great then it makes it even better."
A wine list could have more hidden treasures than the Vatican, but without guidance from someone who knows the list, only the geekiest connoisseurs would be able to spot them. Vann specifically looks for a well-trained wine steward when scouting great wine lists, asking questions like: "Does the list have good somms taking care of it? Can they find me something I like on the list, in almost any price range?"
A second thing to keep in mind, says Turner, is how well the wine list holds up to its audience. A purposefully esoteric wine list has no place in a straightforward, casual restaurant, where diners would be baffled by a list containing only orange wines while a Chardonnay-and-Cabernet-heavy list of staid, middle American favorites can easily bring down a fine dining experience.
Lastly, look for how well the wine pairs with the food the restaurant is serving. An all-American wine list in an Italian restaurant can clash as loudly as an all-Korn soundtrack in a fancy French restaurant. It's okay to have a few familiar standbys, says Vann, but he cautions: "Does the majority of the wine pair well with the majority of the food?
The following 10 restaurants were cited over and over again by our sommeliers as examples of places with truly great wine lists in Houston. And although I'm no somm myself, I agreed wholeheartedly with each pick.
Underbelly, for offering "big, bold American wines that go well with [chef Chris] Shepherd's food," says Turner. Brennan's, for maintaining a list that is "well-rounded, at a good price," says Honefenger. And downtown steakhouse Vic & Anthony's, says Turner, for having the type of wine list you can really splash out on.
Borel calls Divino's wine list "very thoughtful," noting that he -- and the list -- have both been "obsessed with Italian wine lately." With very reasonable mark-ups in place, most bottles of wine are no more than $60 and there are nearly 30 offered by the glass. The cozy, dinner-only restaurant in Montrose is "one of Houston's best-kept secrets," says Borel. On the first Monday of every month, Divino offers a special wine dinner such as a recent evening that featured Tuscan wines of Rocca della Macie paired with pork tenderloin braised in milk, onions and herbs and a grilled rib-eye "alla Fiorentina."
"Their wine list is exclusively French," says Vann. "And it is massive." Among the many lists in town that focus exclusively on wines from one, single country, Cafe Rabelais' list is the best. "These types of wine lists deserve to be rewarded and celebrated because they're great places to try something new, and for classics," says Vann. "Tell them what you drink, and have them find the French equivalent for you. Plus, these kinds of lists are great for hidden gems, like a 2006 A et P de Villaine Bouzeron for $65."
The first entry on the list to be shepherded by longtime sommelier Sean Beck, the wine list as Hugo's is notable for its seamless pairing with chef Hugo Ortega's interior Mexican cuisine. "In my opinion, sushi and Mexican cuisine are two of the most lazily paired types of food," says Vann. "They both demand thoughtful wine lists, and these are the best examples of setting a guest up for success in a world where its not easy to find the right wine with the food. Sean spells it out explicitly, not just showing which wines work with some dishes, but even goes further to warn about wines that won't work: the heavy reds section says 'careful, these may fan the flames [of spicy cuisine].'"
Along with Kata Robata, Uchi sets the bar in Houston for pairing sushi with wine -- a difficult task, as noted above. At Kata, you'll find a section of Steven Salazar's wine list devoted entirely to solid sushi pairings with what Vann calls "legendary choices like Domaine Sigalas Santorini, or Huet Sec Vouvray." And at Uchi Houston, Vann notes: "David Keck is an invaluable resource. He convinced the restaurant group to participate in 'Summer of Riesling,' which is genius for sushi joints."
"When you've got a billion dollars, you'd better have a great wine list," jokes Turner. The famously wealthy wine cellar at Pappas features more than 40,000 bottles -- or roughly $5 million worth of wine. "When you want to spend serious money on a bottle of red wine, this should be your first choice," says Vann. "It's really quite simple: a massive, cavernous cellar, tended to by some of the best sommeliers in town. Their markups are beyond reasonable. And even in the absence of Drew Hendricks, who helped push the list over the edge into Spectator Grand Award territory, they are savvy with geeky wines too, not just the classics."
"Oxheart's list is great, and especially when you start talking about a list that lets its own ego go," remarks Turner. Chef Justin Yu's dazzling food is never overshadowed by the wines that Vann picks, although the wines themselves are typically unusual choices. Right now, for example, Vann is doing a daring all-white pairing with Oxheart's four- and seven-course dinners. "It stays very much in line with what they're doing in the kitchen, which is what a wine list should always do," says Turner. "It's just the wonderful frame in which that food is shown."
Backstreet Cafe has two heavy-hitters backing up its wine list in Marc Borel and Sean Beck, and it shows. Beck's motto there is that "wine is not an extra or a luxury, but a necessary part of healthy living and a critical ingredient in helping food taste its best." To that end, the list has something for everyone -- perfectly geared toward the diverse clientele that crowds the old River Oaks house and its lush patio. "Backstreet's list is great in that if you and your wine geek buddies want to go and have something to eat, and drink something really new and cool and groovy, [Beck's] probably got it," says Turner. "If your aunt from Kansas City comes to town and all she wants to drink is Cakebread, they've got that too."
Philippe's sommelier Vanessa Trevino Boyd has been hard at work recently, making sure that the wine program she curates remains one of the best in town. She's been hosting a collaborative guest sommelier series that's a steal at only $40 a person, and she's also transformed the ground floor of Philippe into Phil's Wine Lounge, which offers 80 choices by the glass from her fine, French list.
In keeping with her work in the Big Apple, "Trevino Boyd keeps that classic, more reserved New York-style somm service that's not as chummy as Houstonians are used to, but I love it," says Turner. "It's dedicated to what it's doing in the kitchen and pairs very well with the food -- not just wines that are really weird or got 90 points somewhere, regardless of what they're cooking."
"A lot of wine programs go 'Woo, I've got a lot of money, I can do anything!'" says Turner. Not at Philippe, where the wine list is classically structured, thoughtfully curated and captained ably by one of the few female somms in the city.
Plenty of raves are reserved for the intelligent wine list that sommelier Fred Jones has constructed at the whimsical Pass & Provisions. "Fred has such a geeky list, but approachable," says Borel. "Maybe it's because I'm such a geek, but I always find something I love on that list."
Vann gushes that the list is "uncompromising, daring, adventurous, aggressive, esoteric," noting that he loves Jones' list "because in a town where too many wine lists play it safe, [they] are doing something few people are brave enough to do: push people out of their comfort zones. Yes, they have the most sherry by the glass in the city. Yes, they have weird grapes that you haven't heard of and can't pronounce. Yes, they ironically put Miller Hi Life in the champagne cart of the pass. But their wines aren't just cool, they're good. Sometimes those two can be at odds with one another."
Turner specifically cites Jones' approach, which is friendly and encouraging. "I once listened to Fred have a conversation with three women about wine and convinced them to buy a Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley," Turner recalled with a chuckle. "If I had $5 for every time I've seen that happen in Houston, I'd have $5."
1. 13 Celsius
It's a nearly unanimous decision that 13 Celsius is still the gold standard for wine lists in Houston nearly 10 years after its owners renovated a 1920s-era Mediterranean-style building which once housed Jenning's Cleaners and Dyeing Shoppe.
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Vann calls 13 Celsius "the best wine bar in town" for its "aggressively low markups on an extensive by the glass program that also allows tasting-sized pours." Turner agrees, adding: "Everyone else is playing for second place. Their list is amazing, it's big, it's interesting, it's curated with such love and care. You go in there and speak to anyone who works there and it's like they made that list."
"Mike [Sammons] and Adele [Corrigan] gravitate towards French and Italian selections -- both classic and the freaky stuff," says Vann. "Plus they also have a killer beer list, and it is the best place in town to go knock back a few bottles of Basque Sidra out of the authentic Porron decanter." Adds Turner with an approving laugh: "And they only carry one American Chardonnay on that list."