Welcome to the third part of a series where we showcase the noteworthy food and drink experiences of a very weird year. In the spirit of the holidays, it’s also a very special collaboration between the food writers of the Houston Press and Houston Food Finder, the online publication founded by former Houston Press restaurant critic and food editor Phaedra Cook. This third edition highlights wine. Watch for favorite beer and spirits experiences coming soon. Part four will cover some of our writers’ favorites chefs who made the best of a bad year.
Favorite Curbside Sommeliers
During this chaotic year of takeout and temporary closures, beverage experts at area restaurants had to get creative offering curbside pairings, virtual tastings and more.
Backstreet Café, 1003 South Shepherd: When the shutdown made curbside pickup the new normal, Sean Beck, Beverage Director for the H Town Restaurant Group, was quick to create easy kits for cocktails to go along with pre-picked bundles of wine. Beck offers personalized service in addition to regularly promoting packs of wine to suit different budgets and tastes, often offering unique selections such as Mexican wine or Champagne made with an atypical grape. His Bloody Mary kits, available alongside breakfast tacos, made missing weekend brunch far more bearable in those early days and his offerings continue to expand, with the majority of the cocktail list now available by the pint or the quart.
Brennan’s of Houston, 3300 Smith: Upon reopening, Marcus Gausepohl, the acclaimed restaurant’s “wine guy”, opened the establishment’s 2,000 bottle cellar, pairing selections from around the world with southern, Creole and Cajun curbside cuisine. Plus, with an extensive online selection, wine lovers could peruse the long list at their leisure. The older vintages and premium bottles offered at discounted prices has made celebrating at home as good as going out.
Rainbow Lodge, 2011 Ella: Beverage Director, Marc Borel, masterminded takeout date night with packages that included pre-dinner cocktails for two with a bottle of wine paired to a Friday or Saturday night dinner. Early in the shutdown, he was packaging At Home Wine Tasting Kits to help regulars continue to enjoy the #lodgestyle life and he continues keeping curbside fresh with a variety of cocktails and half bottles of wine featured on the take out menu. — Sandra Crittenden, contributing writer, Houston Food Finder
Favorite Virtual Wine Dinners
Backstreet Café, 1003 South Shepherd: Beverage Director, Sean Beck, makes Saturday nights at home special with an eclectic mix of wines from around the world expertly paired with creations from chef Hugo Ortega. These virtual dinners typically include four courses but the price varies depending on the wine and the food. Often focusing on a single winery or region, they usually include a unique wine and a guest host for each course. There is even an occasional cocktail thrown in the mix, as well. During the brief breaks between courses, Beck manages the timing of the meal with reminders on how and when to prepare the food, keeping diners on track as different guest hosts join in on Zoom.
Roma, 2347 University: Every Thursday night, a crowd gathers via Zoom to enjoy a three-course Italian dinner cooked by chef Angelo Cuppone paired with wines from across Italy by a featured winemaker in collaboration with host and Italian wine expert Jeremy Parzen. Diners have the opportunity to ask questions about the different regions, the grapes and the local cuisine while enjoying a laid-back meal with a group that has become like family. Many attendees have been attending every week since the start. Meals are priced at $119 per couple or $89 for an individual and include three entire bottles of wine. — Sandra Crittenden, contributing writer, Houston Food Finder
Favorite Wine Shop
2020 has been a tumultuous year for just about everyone. And a bottle of wine, whether opened in celebration of friends and family or to complement a DIY dinner at home, is the perfect antidote. Here are some shops we love that will help guests find the perfect pairing, no matter why they’re raising a glass.
Central Market, 3815 Westheimer: With a wine section approaching 3,000 bottles, this specialty grocery store is a must-visit for wine beginners and experts alike. Selections include well-known and widely distributed brands, along with unique selections from around the world. The store’s wine staff works exclusively in the wine department, and their knowledge, as well as their customer service, is impressive. Savvy buyers know to look for the staff recommendations on bottles that have earned kudos from this team. Those who need some direction in navigating the huge selection will be well taken care of. Bonus: there’s always a 10% discount for those buying six or more bottles, and Central Market offers other sales and specials throughout the year, all of which are noted in the store’s weekly sales flyer.
French Country Wines, 2433 Bartlett: Owner Jean-Philippe Guy selects every bottle of wine sold in this cozy store tucked off Kirby Drive. All the selections are from France, as the store’s name suggests, and Guy focuses on smaller grower-producers. As a result, he’s curated a collection buyers are unlikely to find anywhere else. This holiday season, he’s recommending the Domaine Rouge Bleu Mistral Ste. Cécile Côtes-du-Rhône Village 2017. “It’s from a small vineyard in the southern Rhône valley owned and run by a young couple, Caroline Jones and Thomas Bertrand,” Guy said of the Grenache-Syrah-Mourvèdre blend. “This is by far one of the most incredible values in our portfolio. With lots of dark fruit, cherries and spices, it will complement many holiday dishes, and it will rival many more expensive appellations in the region.” It’s available for $25. French Country Wines offers curbside pickup Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The shop also open to walk-in guests during those same hours and from Noon to 5 p.m. on Saturdays, guests can also reserve a spot for an in-store tasting.
Houston Wine Merchant, 2646 South Shepherd: This favorite boutique spot has an ample selection of wines from around the globe, with something for every palate and every price range. The small shop’s staff have backgrounds in wine, retail and hospitality, making individual customer service a priority. Whether guests are true wine geeks, looking to discuss in-depth details about regions, climate and vintages, or newbies who need some hand-holding, this team makes everyone feel at home. “I always like to approach wine recommendations in terms of how food and wine pair together,” said manager Antonio Gianola. “But whether it’s to have with a meal or for sipping, we can help people select something that’s under 20 bucks or well into the thousands.” Currently, the shop is open for curbside pickup and delivery only. Call (713) 524-3397 from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday to order wines and for more details.
Vinology Bottle Shop + Wine Bar, 2314 Bissonnet: This Rice Village spot is small but mighty, offering bottles from around the world. The shop models itself after a European enoteca, a store that combines the personalities of being a retail space, bar and educational venue. The tasting area, which is temporarily closed because of the pandemic, offers a daily selection of wine by the glass and bottle, and the shop’s team loves sharing their passion for wines with regulars and newcomers alike. Vinology has developed a devoted following. Its guests love not only the depth of the store’s selection, but the approachable manner of the staff. The shop is currently open for in-store retail sales on Tuesday through Thursday, as well as Sunday, from noon to 8 p.m. and on Friday and Saturday from noon to 9 p.m. — Holly Beretto, contributing writer, Houston Food Finder
The Other Favorite Houston Food & Drink Experiences of 2020