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.
Photo by Katharine Shilcutt Sommelier Marc Borel, now of Backstreet Cafe, serving wine at 13 Celsius.
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.