In the service industry, wine buyers are considered especially talented. In Houston, those responsible are members of an elite squad. For them, two things are pretty much certain; a career in this field began with one memorable sip, and second, they probably rush home in between lunch and dinner service to feed some sort of pet, or little human. These are their stories.
Fresh off the night shift waiting tables in New York City, Steven McDonald rode up the escalator to the fourth floor of the Time Warner Center, cash in pocket, intent on spending it on a one ounce pour of something nice. Past Thomas Keller’s Per Se, past Masayoshi Takayama’s Bar Masa to Clo Wine Bar, a new age concept with nearly a 100 different wines that could be ordered by the ounce and tracked on a membership card. That night, he was especially looking forward to the 1966 Quinta do Noval "Nacional" vintage port.
“I savored that precious ounce—it was alive, it was delicious, it was aged, and complex,” McDonald grinned as he described the wine that at the time was the oldest thing he’d ever tasted. “In a romantic sense, there wasn’t one bottle that I tried where the angels sang, and it was like, ‘I’m going to be a sommelier!” Instead the now Master Sommelier reflects on the fact that because he worked at Michael White’s Ai Fiori or currently at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, he’s been fortunate to sample masterpieces from around the world.
“I would have never be able to afford these types of experiences if I wasn’t on the serving side,” he admitted.
“I’ve tasted insane amounts of DRC [Domaine de la Romanée-Conti], and I don’t necessarily deserve any of it, I’m just lucky to be doing what I do.”
Due to licensing hold-ups, during the first month of Ai Fiori being opened, the restaurant operated as BYOB. McDonald remembers blind tasting a first growth, Bordeaux 1928 Chateau Latour and being able to narrow it down to the left bank, vintage sometime in the 1950’s. “Latour will always feel and taste younger than it is by decades—all that dried cassis, all that five spice and vanilla that turns into a perfect harmony.”
In 2011, McDonald moved to Houston and began working at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse. He remembers a night when Rajat Parr, his winemaker Sashi Moorman, and a few others picked off a few unicorns from the list. “There is hard to get, hardest to get, and then unicorn,” he explained as he listed off the 2004 and 2008 Montrachet Domaine de la Romanée Conti bottles among others. “It literally blew my mind open.”
“Montrachet might be the greatest wine I’ve ever been lucky enough to drink,” he said, admitting six of his top ten wines are probably white or champagne.
When it comes to the fortified wine, Madeira—forget about it. In October, on a trip to Portugal, he was able to taste an 1801 vintage. “It's insane to me that I can try wines created around the same time as America being born— the founding fathers were still around.”
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McDonald is musically inclined as well. Just last year, he and friend Frank Bullington, who is a rep for Favorite Brands, created a rap song about lesser known Burgundy grape Aligoté— and it went viral. They introduced the track at an Aligoté tasting in Houston with 30 producers in attendance. By the next day it had made the newspapers in Burgundy, even warranting a phone call from “Queen of the Côte” Becky Wasserman. They plan to release another soon, this time on the Nebbiolo grape and featuring fellow sommelier, Lindsay Thomas.
Oh, and the McDonald family has a 13-year old dog named Foxy.
When he isn’t traveling around the country to teach classes for the Court of Master Sommeliers, guests can visit McDonald at the Galleria location of Pappas Bros. Steakhouse on 5839 Westheimer.