wine program of the year
10 best Houston bars and restaurants to savor a great glass of wine
Wine lovers in Houston have a wide array of ways to satisfy their passion. That diversity is reflected in the 10 nominees for the 2021 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards Wine Program of the Year.
This year’s nominees demonstrate the ever-expanding network of wine bars and wine-obsessed restaurants that ensure access to vintages and varietals from all over the world. Similarly, price points run the gamut from $6 happy hour specials to rare bottles that cost more than a mortgage payment.
Sure, the city still drinks its share of Cabernet Sauvignon from California or the classic “oaky” Chardonnay, but the city’s wine professionals are guiding drinks to more diverse selections, including the global trend towards wines made with minimal manual or technological intervention.
Notably, two restaurant groups — Goodnight Hospitality and the team behind Nancy’s Hustle — each earned two nominations for both their elevated and more casual concepts. If nothing else, that demonstrates the respect our judges’ panel of restaurant industry insiders has for their approach to wine.
Find out who wins July 22 at the Tastemaker Awards party. We’ll dine on bites from this year’s nominated restaurants before emcee Bun B reveals the winners. Buy tickets now.
Part of the reason for this Midtown favorite’s continued success is that its selection continues to evolve to meet Houstonians’ changing tastes. General manager Adele Corrigan tells CultureMap she recently introduced a “Huge Bottles” programs that offers magnums, double magnums, and other large format bottles to meet the needs of the increasing number of large groups who have resumed gathering at the bar. Smaller groups will appreciate the 50 to 60 wines by-the-glass and 350 bottles that run the gamut from Italian varietals to Champagne, Burgundy, and “weird natural wines” (Corrigan’s words).
Wine director Molly Austad tells CultureMap that her wine list aims to cover a broad range of styles and price points to suit wide array of tastes. Count on double digit by-the-glass options to give diners options to pair with everything from the signature lobster pot pie to seasonal fare like fried squash blossoms. Austad emphasizes that she listens intently to customer requests; when people asked for Pouilly-Fuisse, she found one that both met her standards and a reasonable price. Occasional promotions with large format bottles allow guests to try rare wines at a more affordable price.
When a restaurant serves everything from raw seafood to wood-grilled steaks, it needs a diverse wine list with lots of choices. Beverage director Sean Beck notes that the restaurant stocks lots of aromatic whites such as Riesling and Sauvignon Blancs along with less familiar varietals such as Malaghousia (Greece), Xarello (Spain), or Carricante (Italy). Red wine lovers will find plenty of Pinot Noir alongside Nebbiolo, Bordeaux grapes, and Spanish Tempranillo.
“Our list makes sense for our food, but it’s also full of amazing producers and wines that wine bars and more traditional wine destination restaurants would love to have,” Beck writes in an email.
How to Survive on Land & Sea
Now under the day-to-day direction of general manager Cory Martin, the East End wine bar still serves mostly French and Italian vintages, but Martin’s passion for “domestic wines of balance and beauty” is also reflected in the offerings. More importantly, How to Survive has lowered its markups, which brings the average bottle price down to about $30 and ensures its to-go prices (25 percent off the list price) are competitive with other retail outlets. East End oenophiles will find about 15 by-the-glass selections, which are best enjoyed while listening to one of the 2,000 vinyl records that provide the bar’s soundtrack.
Goodnight Hospitality partner June Rodil, one of just a handful of master sommeliers in Texas, works with general manager and beverage director Mark Sayre to curate the over 1,000 different vintages on the wine list at this ambitious, tasting menu restaurant. Rather than impress diners with the depth of March’s range of first growths, Grand Crus, and other highly allocated bottles, Rodil writes that March focuses on serving its wines “elegantly and gracefully;” that process begins a few days before a reservation when the restaurant’s maître d' connects a diner with March’s team of sommeliers to ensure that any wines a customer chooses to order will be properly decanted and ready for their meal. With a cellar capacity of 17,000 bottles, expect the restaurant’s list to continue to grow and evolve over time.
Sommelier Justin Vann writes that he hasn’t made too many changes since joining the restaurant in November 2020. Diners will still find a somewhat astonishing 17 fortified wines by-the-glass, as well as extensive selection of mostly natural wines. However, Vann has introduced a few more classical and conventional wines to pair with chef Jason Vaughan’s eclectic menu.
“We have a bottle for literally everyone,” Vann states, and who are we to doubt him?
This East End spot is quickly becoming a favorite thanks to its 56 by-the-glass selections that are served from a self-service machine that allows customers to select one, three, or five-ounce pours. Customers have the option to use tasting notes to guide their selections, or Roots’ floor managers will also suggest which selections pair best with specific dishes on chef and general manager JD Fouche’s Gulf Coast-inspired menu. Those looking to take something home will find an extensive retail selection of over 200 bottles that are designed to suit any occasion.
“Too often wine lists in casual restaurants are smaller and fast-paced, but we really wanted to have a sizable list for all walks to be able to find the right bottle for whatever occasion they may be in the mood for,” Goodnight Hospitality partner June Rodil writes in an email. At Rosie Cannonball, that means a wine list of over 250 selections — mainly from France, Italy, and Spain — focused on ready-to-drink vintages that pair well with the restaurant’s selection of wood-fired entrees, pizzas, pastas, and small plates. The approximately 15 by-the-glass selections allow diners to sample the list before committing to a full bottle.
General manager Terry Williams oversees the restaurant’s wine offerings, but he credits sommelier Justin Vann with teaching him “everything I know about building a wine list.” Those lessons have been applied to a list of mostly European and American offerings (plus a few Australian and South African vintages) — 13 by-the-glass selections and approximately 60 bottles — that are designed to pair well with chef Mark Clayton’s menu. Diners will generally find wines without much intervention, but as Williams notes “if a wine tastes good, sometimes, who cares?”
Just like at sister restaurant Nancy’s Hustle, Tiny Champions’ wine buyer Bridget Paliwoda keeps the focus on natural wines, but that’s just a starting point for her selections. “The ultimate goal is to support winemakers and growers that adopt practices in the field and even in the winery that promote biodiversity,” she writes. Beyond specific winemaking practices, expect a constantly rotating selection of by-the-glass options and ciders to ensure that regulars always have something new to try.