Editor's note: Long before Chris Shepherd became a James Beard Award-winning chef, he developed enough of a passion for wine to work at Brennan's of Houston as a sommelier. He maintains that interest to this day. When Chris expressed interest in writing about wine-related topics for CultureMap, we said yes.
In this week's column, he visits the nominees for Wine Program of the Year in the 2023 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards(buy tickets here).Take it away, Chris.
You hear every year that it’s a great time to drink wine in Houston. You know what? It’s always a great time to drink wine in Houston! Why? Houstonians drink a lot of wine. Which means we get a lot of badass allocations from wineries and distributors from around the world.
The CultureMap panel of experts have selected this list of restaurants and wine bars as Houston’s best wine programs 2023, and they’ve asked me to write my thoughts on each. Luckily, I frequent many of these spots to drink wine!
Here’s the common theme — each of these lists have such amazing choices that I traditionally will let the sommelier pick because I want to try something new, something I haven’t had, and something they are truly loving. Not only are the wine lists so darn good right now, so are the people writing them and working the floor.
13 Celsius is a staple wine bar in this city and has been a fixture for a very long time (since 2006!). Their extensive — let me say again…extensive — wines by-the-glass selection is so large because the Coravin system keeps their wines fresh. Last time I visited, I had a fantastic bottle of Bruno Paillard “Assemblage” Extra Brut 2012, but they can also tempt me with their natural reds. Don’t sleep on the Hayu Wine Farm. You don’t see a lot of this, and it’s always delicious. They also have a great selection of reds from Piemonte. Nebbiolo is one of the greatest grapes around.
While you’re sitting there, don’t miss out on the mortadella panino. It’s legendary.
Bludorn is one of my favorite places to cozy up at the bar, order a cocktail from Fabio, and eat a few snacks. When it comes to wine, I always ask Molly Austad and her team to narrow it down to her favorite three bottles at the moment, and we’re never disappointed. It’s a really well-rounded list with a little bit of everything.
Last time I was there, I drank a really earthy Cru Beaujolais. It was perfect with the black truffle chicken — their pairing suggestions are on point. They have a fantastic selection of wines by-the-glass, and there is always an excess of Southern Rhone wines on the list that make my wife and me smile.
I visited Lees Den recently not knowing what to expect. I was so pleasantly surprised. I think owner Benjy Levit, sommelier Chrisanna Shewbart, and the team really have this place humming. The list is chock full of wines I want to drink with some of the best pricing I’ve seen in Houston in a very long time. The space is warm, and the staff is friendly.
I had a bottle of Comte Lafond Grand Cuvee—I haven’t seen this bottle since I was buying wine at Brennan’s. It made me almost giddy. And at $65, it was an absolute steal. You can find steals on almost any list if you know what to look for. Lees Den has an entire list of steals! It’s a playground. Even better, it shares a floor with a killer bottle shop.
I’m glad I live in Montrose because I have a wine bar/bottle shop like Light Years near me. During the pandemic, my wife and I ordered cases and rode our tricycles over to pick them up!
Light Years is a natural wine bar, and the best part about natural wines is that I don’t know nearly enough about them. But I am learning, and that’s the fun of going to Light Years. The team is always helpful and walks me through everything. I’m always introduced to something new. Another thing about natural wine? The large format selection is always really good and affordable. And you know I love a magnum.
The March wine list is full of the allocated and the hard-to-find. To say this list has reach is an understatement — full of the producers you want to be drinking. It’s powerful without a lot of filler. Just gander at the selection of bérêche & fils! Champagne not your thing? Hopefully Burgundy is. Or Italian. Or California. Or Spain.
The March team has done a great job of accumulating back vintages of really cool wines. You want some Jordan back to 1984? They have it.
Funnily enough, I rarely look at the list when I’m at March, because the pairings with the tasting menus are so stunning. I do order from the list in The Lounge or — little known fact — when I’m downstairs at Rosie. While Rosie Cannonball has its own fantastic list, the March wine list is also available. This is something you should take advantage of.
What an absolute fantastic job Justin Vann has done with this wine list. A huge congrats on being named a James Beard finalist! Fun and funky, from sherry to orange wines to cider, the focus here is natural for sure.
Nancy’s Hustle doesn’t just create a list — they create a list for their menu. The wine list is curated to match the style of food they’re serving. That’s really unique and very cool. You’re not going to see some of the bigger names you know, and that’s quite all right. This is Justin and team working hard to curate wines specifically for their menu and what they like to drink. The homepage of their website says it all: “We like butter, natural wine, cider, and cocktails that pair well with food.” And they nailed it.
I’m a huge fan of Nobie’s. The menu is fun, the bourbon list is expansive, but I really love to go to Nobie’s because of the list Zeb Ulon has put together. When I go in, I tell him what I’m feeling wine-wise, and let him roll. He always brings a bottle he is truly in love with — many times lesser known, giving these wineries a voice.
Again, this list is built to go with the food. The team at Nobie’s always brings the party (if you’ve been to Southern Smoke, you know their booth is the party booth every year!) and their wine list is no exception. It’s fun, it’s joyous — always ready for a party. And it’s really smart.
Pappas Bros. Steakhouse
If you want to talk about an amazing list with depth of vintages, selections, styles, and all-around “oh my gosh, they have that on the list!”, this is the spot. If you know enough about wine, you can have fun looking through the list for that steal. Or, be very frank with the somms and tell them your price point and what you like, and they’ll find you the best bottle at the very best value.
If you want to go all-in, saddle up! This is the place to do it. They’ve been purchasing and collecting wine for 25 years. They have it!
Just last week, they hosted a multi-vintage Chateau Lafite Rothschild dinner and pulled every bottle from their cellar. I really wish CultureMap would have picked up a ticket for me to attend this once-in-a-lifetime dinner—maybe next time! (hint, hint) Their commitment to wine education and training is so good here that I’ve run into former Pappas Bros. sommeliers in restaurants all over the country.
State of Grace
I think State of Grace has one of the most helpful wine lists in Houston. Every single bottle has tasting notes, so you know exactly what you’re getting into when you order. The Sparkling section is very well laid out with amazing choices (is it obvious I love sparkling wine?). Their Pinot Noir selections are outstanding — a good selection of price points with the best selections at each price point. Their Italian section is very extensive — lots of Barolos, which is one of my favorites. Any time I see Paolo Scavino, I’m in!
Street to Kitchen
Much like the restaurant itself, the wine list at Street to Kitchen is unassuming and overachieving. It’s a funky little space deep in the East End. Everything here is small and mighty. Co-owner Graham Painter has done a good job of pairing unique, interesting, and approachable wines with chef Benchawan Painter’s food.
It’s unabashed but still very playful. Unapologetic but fun. Street to Kitchen shows you that not every wine list needs to be giant to be great.