The French Connection — ooh-la-la!EXPAND
The French Connection — ooh-la-la!
by Lorretta Ruggiero

Finding Vino: A Search for Decent Wine Bars North of Houston

Envision yourself sinking into a comfy leather sofa with a glass of a hearty cabernet or crisp sauvignon blanc, gossiping with your mates or canoodling with your significant other, oblivious to the steam rising off the pavement outside. Sound good? Well, with some wine bars opening up on the northwest side and a few firmly established bacchanalian businesses north of town, we went in search of some Dionysian fun, hoping to experience some of the sophisticated vibes of the urban scene out here in the suburbs.

We discovered six places that vary greatly in their style, ambience, prices and quality. Some bars were more successful in delivering the "wine bar" experience, while others could use a little tweaking with their menus and consistency.

Still, it's early days for some of these guys, and the welcoming attitudes of the owners and staff are enough to bring us back to check on their progress. And have another glass of wine.

Here are six to check out.

The Empty Glass has a rustic and open space to enjoy Texas wines.
The Empty Glass has a rustic and open space to enjoy Texas wines.
photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

6. The Empty Glass, 104 Market (Tomball)

This wine bar might be a bit of a drive for Houston residents, but The Empty Glass is a great destination for those wanting to show visitors a little of the Hill Country charm without making a three-hour drive up Highway 290. Set back in a courtyard across from the Tomball Depot, the bar is not easily spotted. However, once it's found, the wooden buildings are welcoming, with a number of outdoor tables and benches set around a large bronze statue of a bull.

The boom in residential development has given rise to numerous new businesses in Tomball, making it no longer just a town for antiques and trains. The city now hosts a number of festivals in the grassy area across from the depot, and The Empty Glass makes a great escape for those who need a break from the sun.

There is a rustic feel from the wooden beams and concrete floors, but there are a lot of feminine touches that give The Empty Glass a romantic ambience.

We were greeted quickly on the day I visited, accompanied by my parents. While we perused the Texas-heavy wine menu, our server was kind enough to bring us glasses of water, which was welcome along with the full-blast air-conditioning.

I asked about the flight of Texas wines and our server informed me that they were out of some of the wines that were listed due to the fact that they don't get most of their wines from a major distributor and have to source them themselves. I found that to be an issue with a number of the wine bars that I visited. Most of them are small, family-owned businesses, so a little inconsistency is to be expected.

She offered to put together a flight of three Texas Cabernets for me. At $15, the pours of three wines was a decent deal.

My mother had a glass of Italian bubbly and my father was happy that they had a selection of several beers. We had a comfortable table against the wall, which made for a relaxing afternoon gossiping about our various family members.

We weren't able to stay for the live music the bar was having that evening, but I will definitely round up some of my gal pals one Sunday for the $3 mimosas and $5 wines.

The ladies room was very cute with its vintage doors and antique doorknobs. When one is wiling away an afternoon drinking fermented grape juice, a pleasant toilet in which to refresh oneself is of utmost importance.

Friendly staff make up for the decor at 21st. AmendmentEXPAND
Friendly staff make up for the decor at 21st. Amendment
Photos by Loretta Ruggiero

5. 21st Amendment, 12810 Telge

I walked into this establishment with memories of the wine bar that originally occupied the building. The Three20Three Wine Bar has now been replaced by 21st Amendment. The name originates in the 21st Constitutional Amendment, which repealed the 18th Amendment of Prohibition.

The Facebook page for the new wine bar states that it's brought to you by the people behind The Corkscrew, Washington Avenue Drinkery and a couple more establishments that have since closed down. I am not sure that's a great way to advertise a new business, but we'll see what happens.

The first thing that hit me was the ice-box-cold air-conditioning. Chill-eeee. I took a seat at the bar and was promptly greeted by a young woman. She gave me a menu of drinks and food. I inquired if there were any happy hour specials, and she told me that cocktails and wine were $2 off.

The male bartender came over and I ordered the Maison Marcel Rosé. He poured me a sample to taste. It smelled highly of flowers and was not too sweet, so I gave the go-ahead. He replied, "Really?" which seemed odd, but I liked it, though it was a bit too chilled even for a rosé.

There weren't many people inside, but the covered patio had a large party who seemed quite content to brave the heat and humidity. Judging from the server's statements, that was probably due to the fact that there were smokers in the group.

The bartender was friendly and I am pretty sure that was a New York accent I detected. From his ongoing conversation with an Irishman behind the bar, it was evident that he was a huge Mets fan and was very opinionated about the Knicks.

He also cleverly convinced a couple of young ladies to upgrade from the Pinky Ring cocktail to a more expensive Tina Louise. I am old enough to know who Tina Louise was; I doubt they were.
The staff has an easy going vibe among themselves and the bar seems to attract regulars. They have live music on the weekends, sometimes even a local favorite like Duane Vincent.

They have different beers on tap, but it varies. These small businesses bring to mind the Free Houses of Olde England. There's no guarantee what will be on offer, but that's the beauty of boutique bars. You have to step out of your box and try some local brew or small winery that you may not be familiar with.

I wasn't fond of the quotes all over the wall. A few interspersed here and there would have been clever. As the only form of decor? No.

The outside patio has comfortable padded chairs and is great for lounging, but it could do with some flora. If you want people to linger outside on a warm (okay, hot) Houston evening, give them some potted plants to admire.

The Black Bottle Lounge is small and cozy.EXPAND
The Black Bottle Lounge is small and cozy.
Photos by Loretta Ruggiero

4. Black Bottle Wine Lounge, 7955 Barker Cypress

I assumed this would be an easy find because it's right off Barker Cypress, but after three u-turns and Siri arguing with another voice from beyond, my friend and I finally realized this wine bar was located in an over-filled strip center with some sort of kids' bouncy place and other suburban necessities.

From the outside, this place did not look promising. There wasn't a soul in sight when we walked in. When a fresh-faced nymph emerged, I was tempted to ask, " Is your mother home?" However, this young woman seemed to be in charge and we were given a small menu with more than half the wines scratched out.

This was not a good sign. When I asked about the Sunday Sangria specials that were advertised online, that seemed to a be a no-go too.

My friend, Bud Light Girl, frowned and asked me if I was going to force her to drink wine. I replied that she could certainly have a beer if this joint had any.

To her delight, they had a beer called Lucky Buddha. The green bottle has a bas-relief of Buddha on it. That alone would be a keeper, but she liked the taste, like a Chinese version of Bud Light.

I had the house wine, Predator. I am no wine snob, but it was preying on my taste buds. So often wines in Houston are served at room temperature, which means 90 degrees. Thankfully, I had a glass of ice water and could slip an ice cube in my glass.

My friend (who henceforth will now be known as Buddha Beer Girl) and I were amazed that the wooden stools were actually quite comfortable. We commenced to blabbing and were so at ease, we ordered another round.

This go around, my wine seemed to be cooler, or maybe I was just less concerned as my friend and I caught up on the various tumults of our lives.

As we were finishing up our drinks, a man came by and introduced himself as a co-owner. He asked if we would like to sample some port, but neither of us cares for it. He asked what we liked and then brought us samples; an Italian Prosecco for me and a Pinot Gris for my friend.

He asked for our input and told us what his hopes were for the business, including building a regular clientele. That little personal touch is what makes customers want to return.

They do have live music on occasion and serve some food, though there seems to be no real menu.

They still have some kinks to work out, but the genuineness of the people goes a long way in helping one overlook the growing pains.

The Flying Vine is a opsh experience lakeside.
The Flying Vine is a opsh experience lakeside.
Photo by Loretta Ruggiero

3. The Flying Vine Wine Bar and Bistro, 9945 Barker Cypress

This is the newest wine bar in the Cypress area and probably the slickest. The Flying Vine Wine Bar and Bistro is set on The Boardwalk at Towne Lake. There are a lot of new restaurants and businesses opening in this area, and the clientele is decidedly more upscale. Not River Oaks, but definitely posh.

Buddha Beer Gal declared it a bit chichi, but I liked the decor, artwork and lighting.

We sat at a baby blue banquette and our server was, again, a very young woman. Maybe I just notice these things more, but when you feel like you should card your server, it's discomfiting.

We asked about the Sunday specials and were told that open bottles were half off by the glass. However, there seemed to be some confusion about there being any bottles opened. We were finally brought a decent cab for me and a pinot grigio for my friend, served in attractively shaped glasses.

We were a bit peckish, so we decided to get some French onion soup and split an appetizer of risotto bites.

The food came out quick. There were only five little risotto balls on the plate, which seemed a bit chintzy for $8. They had a hint of jalapeño, but they could have used a bit of salt in the risotto.

Our French onion soups had a nice sweetness to the onions and broth, but there was a very strong taste of Worcestershire sauce. That taste stayed with me — in the words of that great easy-listening icon, Lionel Ritchie— all night long.

We finished our food and ordered a second round of wine. I suggested we move outdoors and enjoy the view of the small lake. My friend was a bit hesitant about the heat and the preponderance of man-buns on the patio.

It was warm, but it was nice to sit lakeside and watch the boats and stand-up paddle boarders going by as we pretended to be more chichi than we actually are.

d'Vine has fabulous light fixtures and a well-kept selection of wine.EXPAND
d'Vine has fabulous light fixtures and a well-kept selection of wine.
Photos by Loretta Ruggiero

2. d'Vine Wine Bar, 25202 Northwest Fwy

Like a number of wine bars in Houston, this one is well-hidden in a strip center. However, this is a particularly nice strip center, where the Wine Fair Cy-Fair is held every year.

d'Vine Wine Bar is sleek and shiny inside. It looks more like an elegant restaurant, with large wine glasses sitting expectantly on black tables. I arrived one late afternoon, just in time for their Social Hour (4 to 6:30 p.m.).

I was given a glass of ice water and a menu right away. The menu listed a number of creative wine flights, and I settled on The French Connection, a sample of three French wines — two Bordeaux and a Côtes du Rhône.

The man behind the bar apologized that the kitchen was not open yet, but I figured I could bide my time until the chef arrived.

A group of co-workers came in and they all seemed to be ordering the Social Hour Malbec or the Pinot grigio. At $5 a glass, it was a very good deal, considering the pour. The wines were also opened as they ordered. No three-day-opened bottles here.

My flight of wines was served at the perfect temperature, and d'Vine has different wine refrigerators for the various bottles. It also has a wall of wooden wine lockers, so this is a pretty serious operation.

I sipped my wine, admired the gorgeous light fixtures and wished the weather were better because d'Vine has an attractive patio that would be very inviting on a less hot and stormy day.

The party behind me was ready to order some food, but the chef had still not arrived and they were given the option of the cheese plates until then.

I myself was craving a bite to eat, but I didn't want a cheese plate. d'Vine has a number of available Social Hour appetizers, but without the chef, I guess there wasn't much they could do.

They were very apologetic and I was given a complimentary basket of sesame-rosemary flatbread. That definitely helped.

I could have stayed much longer, listening to the eighties music playing and the conversations around me, but the extra glass of wine and the missing chef meant that I needed to find food elsewhere.

d'Vine is a classy wine bar and just being there makes you feel sophisticated.

One day soon, I hope to enjoy their food.

The Cork Cafe offers a friendly bar and a comfortable private room.EXPAND
The Cork Cafe offers a friendly bar and a comfortable private room.
Photos by Loretta Ruggiero

1. Cork Cafe Wine And Coffee, 25712 Highway 290

Like d'Vine, the Cork Cafe has been a Cypress institution for years.

When I walked in, there were a handful of regulars sitting at the small bar, happily conversing and chilling.
I noticed the clubby backroom with its leather chairs and low lighting, but I was alone and didn't want to interrupt a couple who were enjoying the privacy.

I sat at the bar and ordered a Zinfandel and the Bread and Spread appetizer. The regulars were friendly and I could comfortably add a bon mot to the conversation without feeling like a newbie.

The bartender was obviously familiar with his customers. He knew the usual drink of the Scotsman who sat next to me and gave warm greetings as other known faces walked in.

My appetizer was bread, thinly sliced and toasted, served with a sun-dried tomato pesto, which seemed to be missing the pesto element. The bartender did mention that the cafe is working on a happy hour food menu, which many of these bars could benefit from.

From my bartending days, I remember when a three-dollar beer got you a happy hour buffet for free.

They also serve organic coffee and tea and the three-tiered cakes on display look to be homemade.

It was a comfortable atmosphere, but I was receiving desperate texts from my family unit, who cannot feed themselves without me, so I left the pleasure of the grape behind to attend to my domestic duties.

Work on that happy hour menu and you'll have me back soon, with a few friends in tow.

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