Top 10 Wine Lists in Houston

Categories: Top 10, Wine Time

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Photo by Katharine Shilcutt
Sommelier Marc Borel, now of Backstreet Cafe, serving wine at 13 Celsius.
It's exciting to run across a well-priced favorite on a restaurant's wine list, or to discover something new as you dig through its pages. But there's more to making a world-class wine list than just stocking a cellar with Cakebreads and Chardonnays.

To spotlight the best wine lists in Houston, we turned to the experts: a panel of respected Houston sommeliers that includes Marc Borel (general manager at Backstreet Cafe), Jonathan Honefenger (lead sommelier at Richard's Liquors and Fine Wines), Evan Turner (formerly of Branch Water Tavern) and Justin Vann (sommelier at Oxheart). What these professionals emphasized most is that there are at least three things that make a truly great wine list -- starting with curation.

"There are a lot of great lists that are put together well and have interesting things and great price points, but who's curating them?" asks Turner. "You can watch a sporting event and it can be an amazing game, but if the people doing the color commentary are great then it makes it even better."

A wine list could have more hidden treasures than the Vatican, but without guidance from someone who knows the list, only the geekiest connoisseurs would be able to spot them. Vann specifically looks for a well-trained wine steward when scouting great wine lists, asking questions like: "Does the list have good somms taking care of it? Can they find me something I like on the list, in almost any price range?"

A second thing to keep in mind, says Turner, is how well the wine list holds up to its audience. A purposefully esoteric wine list has no place in a straightforward, casual restaurant, where diners would be baffled by a list containing only orange wines while a Chardonnay-and-Cabernet-heavy list of staid, middle American favorites can easily bring down a fine dining experience.

Lastly, look for how well the wine pairs with the food the restaurant is serving. An all-American wine list in an Italian restaurant can clash as loudly as an all-Korn soundtrack in a fancy French restaurant. It's okay to have a few familiar standbys, says Vann, but he cautions: "Does the majority of the wine pair well with the majority of the food?

The following 10 restaurants were cited over and over again by our sommeliers as examples of places with truly great wine lists in Houston. And although I'm no somm myself, I agreed wholeheartedly with each pick.

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Photo by Troy Fields
Honorable mention: Underbelly.
Honorable mention:

Underbelly, for offering "big, bold American wines that go well with [chef Chris] Shepherd's food," says Turner. Brennan's, for maintaining a list that is "well-rounded, at a good price," says Honefenger. And downtown steakhouse Vic & Anthony's, says Turner, for having the type of wine list you can really splash out on.

10. Divino Italian Restaurant & Wine Bar

Borel calls Divino's wine list "very thoughtful," noting that he -- and the list -- have both been "obsessed with Italian wine lately." With very reasonable mark-ups in place, most bottles of wine are no more than $60 and there are nearly 30 offered by the glass. The cozy, dinner-only restaurant in Montrose is "one of Houston's best-kept secrets," says Borel. On the first Monday of every month, Divino offers a special wine dinner such as a recent evening that featured Tuscan wines of Rocca della Macie paired with pork tenderloin braised in milk, onions and herbs and a grilled rib-eye "alla Fiorentina."

9. Cafe Rabelais

"Their wine list is exclusively French," says Vann. "And it is massive." Among the many lists in town that focus exclusively on wines from one, single country, Cafe Rabelais' list is the best. "These types of wine lists deserve to be rewarded and celebrated because they're great places to try something new, and for classics," says Vann. "Tell them what you drink, and have them find the French equivalent for you. Plus, these kinds of lists are great for hidden gems, like a 2006 A et P de Villaine Bouzeron for $65."

8. Hugo's

The first entry on the list to be shepherded by longtime sommelier Sean Beck, the wine list as Hugo's is notable for its seamless pairing with chef Hugo Ortega's interior Mexican cuisine. "In my opinion, sushi and Mexican cuisine are two of the most lazily paired types of food," says Vann. "They both demand thoughtful wine lists, and these are the best examples of setting a guest up for success in a world where its not easy to find the right wine with the food. Sean spells it out explicitly, not just showing which wines work with some dishes, but even goes further to warn about wines that won't work: the heavy reds section says 'careful, these may fan the flames [of spicy cuisine].'"

Location Info

Underbelly

1100 Westheimer Road, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Brennan's of Houston

3300 Smith, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Vic & Anthony's Steakhouse

1510 Texas St., Houston, TX

Category: Music

Divino

1830 W. Alabama, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Cafe Rabelais

2442 Times Blvd., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Hugo's

1600 Westheimer Rd., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Uchi

904 Westheimer Rd., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Kata Robata Sushi & Grill

3600 Kirby, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Pappas Bros. Steakhouse

5839 Westheimer Rd., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Oxheart

1302 Nance St., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Backstreet Cafe

1103 S. Shepherd Dr., Houston, TX

Category: Music

Philippe - CLOSED

1800 Post Oak Blvd., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

The Pass

807 Taft St., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

13 Celsius Wine Bar

3000 Caroline, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant


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18 comments
csoakley
csoakley

Wine, shmine. Who's the girl in the pic? She's cute.

ChristopherM
ChristopherM

Wine and food aren't about 'objectivity', blackjackdavid and Hungriterri. Love isn't objective, and neither is food, nor vacations, nor art. Your call for some sense of 'objectivity' strips the romantic mystery and personality from life like a bow-tied George Will waiting to weigh in about the exact amount of marrow in a delicious appetizer of bones.

Make a case, but pls not a clubfooted one, not one that lacks the very thing that we celebrate in great nuanced wines. Read Kermit Lynch before Robert Parker, and don't take Parker's numbers so seriously.

adriennebyard
adriennebyard

13 Celsius not only has one of the best wine lists in the city, I'd defend it to say it has one of the best wine lists in the country. I'd rather sit at 13 Celsius than 95% of the wine bars in New York City.

And to those saying this isn't "objective" enough because Oxheart and Backstreet are on the list, you're clearly not versed enough to realize that those choices are obvious - with or without sommelier input.

mern721
mern721

I can't believe The Glass Wall wasn't even an honorable mention! Shepard Ross has introduced us to many fine wines through the years and was one of the first to make a wine pairing suggestion under each offering on the menu!

pirandello
pirandello

I think Olivier at L'Olivier has assembled a thoughtful list with the help of James Watkins. They have a wide range, from stuff on tap to the famous big name impress-an-oil-guy-lawyer type of wines (for about 35% less than Tony's!!).

Also harbor a warm place for Feast's tiny, but well-chosen list, with it's nod toward Spain. 

jimbo1126
jimbo1126

This was a fascinating read. I've never really studied wine or given thought to how well it pairs with food (Stag's Leap is my gold standard), but now I want to!

Hungryterri
Hungryterri

Sorry this smacks of wine bro's patting each other on the back. Needs a soupçon of objectivity and a healthy dose of end-user input.

blackjackdavid
blackjackdavid

Nice list, but your panel needs work. You've got two out of the four "experts" who work at some of the restaurants that were rated. Need more objectivity than that.

mfsmit
mfsmit

So many "best wine list" lists only take the left-hand column into account when judging a great list, so it's refreshing that this top-10 considers the right-hand column as well.

That said, I'd give places like Reef, Brasserie 19 and Underbelly high marks for pursuing a low-markup strategy that allows diners to enjoy excellent wines at near-retail pricing, instead of paying $50 for a bottle that can be had for $15 at the supermarket.

Wade Woodard
Wade Woodard

Your list is fine if dining on an expense account.  For the rest of us, I'm surprised that Ibiza, or Coppa, or Brasserie 19 failed to make the list.  They are all owned by same group, have great wine selections  and by far have much more reasonable markups on their wine prices.

blackjackdavid
blackjackdavid

@adriennebyard Chill – don't let NYC turn you so defensive. I agree that Oxheart and Backstreet would be on anyone's rankings of top wine lists in town. In the original article, however, there was no indication that those sommeliers were objective. It read as if this was the panel's rankings. Katharine clarified in her comment below that this is merely her own personal ranking, with comments from the panel added as color commentary. That's more than fair. Only wish it would have stated that at the top.

kshilcutt
kshilcutt moderator editor

@mern721 Good call. I also like the list he's put together at Brooklyn Athletic Club, too.

Daphne26
Daphne26

@Hungryterri  

What does objectivity have to do with wine? I'd say very little, beyond the basics. Otherwise, everyone would just stock their cellar with "the Best", corresponding to Parker or Wine Spectator scores. Which is what some dull somms actually do. 

End-user input? Like a soupcon of impressions contained on Yelp or B4UEat....like Brio Tuscan Grille! Or Carrabba's! Or Rudi Lechner's. No thanks to soupcons and end-users.


kshilcutt
kshilcutt moderator editor

@Hungryterri The end-user input was me. I assembled the list and I chose the positions of the restaurants on the list. The input from the sommeliers was color commentary. I apologize if it comes across as "bro's patting each other on the back," but in my opinion it was simply industry professionals giving credit where it's due to other professionals.

kshilcutt
kshilcutt moderator editor

@blackjackdavid I apologize. I should have specified very clearly above that NONE of the sommeliers I polled mentioned their own places of employment. Not a single one.

pirandello
pirandello

@Wade Woodard

Yikes! I'm not crazy about any of those "value" choices, especially since they're all owned by the same duo. For value,  I'd go with L'Olivier, Haven, Poscol, hell, even Sorrel.

adriennebyard
adriennebyard

@blackjackdavid I don't know who you are, but I'm perfectly calm, thanks.

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