Small restaurants to get big beer and wine power: How Justin Vann will change Houston's food scene
It’s not often that a group of women will welcome an overalls-clad man holding a machete-looking saber into a small, private gathering at night. But that’s just what we did when esteemed sommelier Justin Vann walked into a ladies night at Blacksmith and proceeded to do what any man possessing his skill set would have done: He impressed the girls by sabering a bottle of champagne.
Although it was a memorable introduction, I only saw traces of that colorful character when I interviewed Vann recently. Slumped in his chair after an impossibly long day, he took a break from the non-stop grind of launching his wine consulting business, Public Service Announcement (PSA) to answer a few questions.
“We’re looking for those restaurants that want to tighten up their wine game and have a more focused beer program but can’t necessarily afford it."
And there have been plenty of questions and much speculation about his sudden (and completely amicable) departure from the ultra-hot restaurant Oxheart. Vann left his post there to team up with childhood friend and business partner Clayton Pierce to start PSA. Pierce will help Vann put together educational videos that will answer the public’s questions on anything drink related — making the wine and craft beer cultures more accessible.
The concept stemmed from their grade school hobby of making videos and conducting science-driven projects. (Pierce once made an automatic homebrewing machine for a neighbor.)
“We weren’t really popular [in school], but we were involved in a lot of activities, worked on video projects and were on multiple robotics teams in high school,” Vann says, pausing to laugh. “Now I’m exposing how nerdy my high school situation was.”
The wine consulting videos will be featured on the duo's website, and their YouTube channel already has a video up. The pair will also work closely with a collection of small, family-owned establishments to help them craft wine lists that are appropriate for their cuisine and customers.
PSA's first client is a business with which some local food and drink connoisseurs are familiar, The D & Q Beer Station on Richmond. Unassuming and rough around the edges, this small business is popular for its impressive beer selection. Owners Vivian and Brandon Nguyen have already established credibility with beer nerds, and Vann will help them expand into the wine market, suggesting options they might not have considered. The D & Q is precisely the kind of business they are seeking out for the company’s client list.
“[They] are a great example of the kind of people we want to work with because they have a family run operation that’s very small, independent and has character,” Vann says.
The rest of the client list will be released in stages, as they complete custom-tailored menus for each bar, restaurant or shop. In the meantime “sweet code names” are assigned to mystery clients on PSA’s site, like Valhalla Quattro and Cascade Poseidon. Vann won’t yet reveal who they are yet but promises that they will be smaller places that focus on good food. Vann says that most larger establishments typically have an in-house wine consultant or agency in place, and he is approaching a different clientele.
“We’re looking for those restaurants that want to tighten up their wine game and have a more focused beer program but can’t necessarily afford it,” Vann says.
The unorthodox clientele he hopes to amass agrees with his branding. The bullhorn logo captures Vann’s shout-out-loud, “just drink what you like” approach to wine. He’s a guy who will sing an aria of wine facts before describing a bottle as “kill-people-for-it good.”
“I have a very specific style of talking about wine and for me it’s about hyperbole and being bombastic and not saying ‘you’re going to enjoy this wine’ but rather, ‘This wine’s going make your brain fall out of your skull it’s so good; you’re going to sell your house so you can buy more of this wine,' " Vann says. “I prefer to sell wine that way.”