Even in Texas, bigger isn’t always better. As our nominees for the CultureMap Tastemaker Award Wine Program of the Year demonstrate, a restaurant is better served by having a couple hundred really thoughtful selections instead of thousands of bottles that only serve to intimidate and overwhelm patrons.
Beyond having the bottles on hand, it’s important to have a well-trained staff that can guide people to a vintage that will suit their tastes and their wallets. Reasonable markups build trust, which means that when a wine lover is ready to splurge, it’s on a bottle that’s truly memorable.
For this article, we asked each list’s architect to share a few thoughts about the list’s overall construction as well as areas of particular strength. Thanks to all of them for their valuable contributions.
Who will win? Find out at the CultureMap Tastemaker Awards party presented by Woodford Reserve on March 27 at Silver Street Studios. We’ll reveal the winners, sip cocktails, and dine on bites provided by the nominees. Tickets are on sale now.
Hard to believe it’s been over 10 years since 13 Celsius turned a Midtown dry cleaners into the vanguard of a movement that’s led to Houstonians drinking better, move diverse wine. Now led by general manager Adele Corrigan, 13C offers 300 selections, including 75 by-the-glass. The focus remains mostly European, with a focus on French and Italian varietals. Feeling spendy? Ask about the selection of premium pours available via Coravin.
Avondale Food & Wine
Wine director Nate Rose describes his program as “thoughtful wines from around the world.” The 200 selections focus on small-production vintages from family-owned wineries. With 30 wines by-the-glass available for $12 each, it’s easy for patrons to take the plunge and try something new. Wine dinners and happy hours hosted by winemakers are designed to make learning about new wines as welcoming as possible.
Customers always have the option of buying a bottle to-go or sitting down to enjoy it with dishes created by chef and co-owner Olivier Ciesielski.
Brennan's of Houston
Since coming on board as Brennan’s “wine guy” in 2016, Marcus Gausepohl has overhauled the offerings at this Houston institution. The 1,700 wines and 40 by-the-glass selections pull from all over the world, but the list focuses on French varietals that pair well with Brennan’s Creole cuisine. A new wine cellar will expand storage by 7,000 bottles, allowing Gausepohl to dive even more deeply into vintages from Burgundy, Rhône, and Bordeaux.
Camerata at Paulie’s
The Montrose wine bar remains a place where both wine novices and dedicated oenophiles can gather together to try something new. A bottle list that changes monthly and pulls from all the world allows owner Paul Petronella and general manager Chris Poldoian to feature their favorite vintages. An upcoming location in Garden Oaks will help it earn even more fans.
Since Hugo Ortega’s Galleria-area restaurant primarily serves seafood, beverage director Sean Beck’s wine list features countries known for their coastal wines like Greece, Italy, and New Zealand as well as the wines of Mexico’s Valley de Guadalupe. By pairing the food with wines made by well-known producers and from classic regions (Barolo, Champagne, etc), Beck drives home a point that Houstonians have learned — fine Mexican cuisine pairs well with world-class wines. Best of all, the list covers a range of price points, which ensures happy hour sippers will leave (almost) as satisfied.
Sommelier and general manager Leonora Varvoutis keeps the popular Heights restaurant well-supplied with Old World wines designed to pair with chef Ryan Pera’s Gulf Coast take on Italian cuisine. She describes the list as a mix of “cool gems that I get excited about but also plenty of wines that someone new to wine will feel comfortable ordering and drinking.” Just like the food, the prices are reasonable enough to encourage exploration.
Light Years Natural Wine Bar
By now, most people know this Montrose wine bar serves natural wine, i.e. made from grapes that are grown without pesticides and that use natural yeast fermentation. Still, we asked proprietor John Glanzman to provide a little more insight into the shop’s 200 bottles.
“I think the best way to describe our program is as an effort to reimagine what a wine program should be,” he writes. “Real wines, made by real people, served with joy and without pretense.”
Co-owner Sean Jensen oversees a list focused on natural wines made by Old World producers as well as some New World winemakers that have embraced the movement. An extensive selection of fortified wines and ciders round out the list and give diners an alternative to bartender Kristine Nguyen’s creative cocktails.
“I personally love working with as many fortified wines as Sean has selected,” general manager Marie-Louise Friedland tells CultureMap, “because you can start your meal with Sherry and end it with Sherry!”
Sommelier and general manager Sara Stayer oversees a well-chosen list designed to pair with dishes created by her husband, executive chef Martin Stayer. Whether they carry official certifications or not, Stayer tells CultureMap she seeks out wines that are organically grown, sustainably made, and utilize labor that’s treated fairly.
“We seek out wine that is joyful and lively,” she writes. “If you can’t feel the love that the farmer and winemaker put into the wine, why would we give it a place on the list?”
State of Grace
General manager Matt Crawford brings his credentials as an advanced sommelier to the wine list at this River Oaks restaurant. He tells CultureMap his primary goal is to find wines that both pair with executive chef Bobby Matos’ innovative take on Gulf Coast cuisine and deliver good value to diners. While Crawford also serves as general manager at La Lucha in The Heights, patrons can rest easy knowing that beverage manager Charlotte Marshall also has the necessary knowledge to guide them to the right vintages for their meal.
“As far as strengths of the list we are very proud of the New World Pinot/Chardonnay/Cabernets we offer as well as Burgundy/Bordeaux/Rhone and our Spanish and Italian offerings,” Crawford writes. “The most important thing for us is balance and authenticity, not only in the wine program itself but maybe more importantly in our approach with our guests and sharing these through the individual story of each wine.”