It was standing-room-only in the Crystal Ballroom's 1,500-square-foot "salon" last week as the rain kept coming down over southeast Texas. Extra chairs and stemware had to be brought into the event space in the old Rice Hotel in downtown where sommeliers from Houston and across Texas had gathered to taste the new vintage (2012) of Brunello di Montalcino, one of the world's most coveted and expensive wines.
"This is only the second time that these wines have been tasted outside of Italy," said Master Sommelier Guy Stout to the group of roughly 80 wine professionals and writers in attendance. Stout, who works as an educator for behemoth wine distributor Southern Glazer's Wine & Spirits, had been asked by the organizers to join the panel of presenting winemakers.
He noted that "the only other city is New York," where the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino (the Brunello di Montalcino growers and bottlers association) hosted the same seminar earlier in the week. In both cities, the event featured eight wines from the 2012 vintage, each from a top producer in the appellation. It was followed by a "grand tasting" of wines from nearly 50 Brunello di Montalcino estates.
"It's outstanding that they chose Houston as one of the focuses of the launch of the new vintage of Brunello," he told a reporter after the seminar. "Houston has always had a taste for Brunello."
But Houston wasn't always a regular stop for fine wine tastings like this one. It wasn't until the food and wine renaissance began to take shape in Texas in the late 2000s that events like this one started to come here.
The Brunello consortium first began bringing the yearly tasting to the United States in the early 2000s. New York has hosted the event ever since and other major American cities like San Francisco and Chicago have also been included in the tour. But it didn't come to Houston for the first time until 2013. The fact that it has now returned would seem to indicate that Houston has established itself as a major hub for the fine wine trade in the United States.
"A few years ago, I read an article about Mayor Annise Parker and how she was so popular because of the strong economy," said consortium president Giacomo Pondini, who co-presented the flight of wines with Stout.
The cities where the tasting will be presented — one of the year's most anticipated — are chosen by the winemakers themselves, said Pondini.
"We think that Houston has a great restaurant scene and it's a wealthy city," he told seminar attendees.
Manning the tasting table for his winery, Col d'Orcia, one of Brunello's most celebrated and oldest estates, Count Francesco Marone Cinzano said that the Houston event was "overdue."
"When I first came to Texas in the 1980s to sell my wines," said the count, "there was only one wine shop in Austin. Today, the reality of the market and the numbers" are what drew the consortium back to Texas, he revealed.
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In his presentation to the seminar, young winemaker Alessandro Bindocci from the Tenuta Il Poggione, another one of the appellation's oldest and most famous wineries, pointed out that Texas is one of his company's best markets in the United States.
Houston's growing prominence in the eyes of international winemakers was echoed in an email from Christina Boutari, a representative of her family's winery group in Greece, the country's biggest.
Six years ago she began coming to Houston once a year for the Original Greek Festival. But between late 2016 and 2017, she's already made two trips here in a three-month period.
Over "the last couple of years I’ve seen a real shift" in Houston, she wrote. "People are looking to sample and discover Greek wine. There are more Greek labels [and] restaurants and more Greek wines on wine lists at non-Greek restaurants."