The Tasting Room in CityCentre

“Fried chicken and champagne, why the hell not?” read the slogan on my waiter’s T-shirt at Max’s Wine Dive on Washington Ave. And sure enough, the tight bubbles and crisp, green apple tartness of Schramsberg Blanc de Blanc, a California sparkling wine made with 100 percent Chardonnay grapes, went great with the hot, salty, greasy fried chicken.

The holiday season is a great time to check out Houston’s effervescent wine bar scene, and to sample the ultimate holiday beverage—sparkling wines. I usually buy a case of bubbly this time of year, which is why I went out looking for some new ideas, sampling cavas, proseccos, crémants, and true Champagnes (see glossary), as well as food to pair them with. The 12 wine bars I visited were, to a one, comfortable and inviting—perfect for meeting friends over the holidays,

Max’s Wine Dive sells 150 wines by the glass—the bartender will open any bottle in the house if you order at least two glasses. Along with champagne and fried chicken, Max’s T-shirts also recommend Kobe burgers with a “phat Cab” and “haute dogs” with Shiraz. While the pairings can be outrageous, give them a chance—the warm, oozy marrowbone topped with chilled tuna tartare tastes amazing with Aubry Brut French Champagne.

“I think champagne tastes best with greasy, salty stuff,” said my waiter. “I love it with french fries.” He also recommended mid-priced, California-made J Cuvée over some of the more expensive French sparklers. This is not the sort of wine advice you got in the good old days. Ten years ago, no matter what you were eating, sommeliers at top-end Houston restaurants tried to intimidate you into spending a lot of money. Great wine lists were judged by how many thousand-dollar bottles were included. The stuff you got by the glass (or carafe) was mostly swill. 

How things have changed. Today, sommeliers are younger, cooler, and eager to recommend bargains, and 80 percent of the wine sold in mid-range restaurants nationwide is ordered by the glass. Meanwhile, young millennials (age 21 to 26) constitute the fastest-growing group of wine consumers; 28 percent of them drink wine every day. And the stereotypical aficionado is no longer a middle-aged male, either: 55 percent of wine drinkers are women. Film buffs date the sea change to the Academy Award–winning 2004 movie Sideways, which ridiculed wine snobs and Merlot and glorified wine-tasting tours and Pinot Noir.

Wine bars, which started gaining steam in the mid-2000s, began as a new kind of wine store—a place to “try before you buy,” in the words of Houston wine bar pioneer Jerry Lasco. But the concept soon took off in a different direction. The wine rooms proved to be a genteel alternative to noisy sports bars, sticky-floored beer joints, and un-air-conditioned ice houses, quickly becoming known as gathering places for loungers of good taste. Today, although all true wine bars have retail licenses, some don’t even bother to sell wine by the case.

Lasco, who founded The Tasting Room in 2003, was already working on Max’s Wine Dive in 2004 when Sideways came out. The hipster hangout with the self-deprecating name was packed from day one. “It all worked together in a strange way,” Lasco recently told me. “Sideways created a lot of buzz about wine. It helped get people talking, and they were all thumbing their nose at pretention—which is exactly what Max’s Wine Dive was all about.”

“To revolutionize the wine experience” is the vision statement of Lasco Enterprises, which now owns four Tasting Room bars in Houston, as well as Max’s Wine Dive locations on Washington Ave. (with another set to open in Montrose) and in Austin, San Antonio, Dallas, and Fort Worth. Max’s Wine Dive was recently named one of “50 Breakout Brands” by Nation’s Restaurant News, which called the wine and gourmet comfort food establishment “one of today’s hottest emerging concepts.”

The irreverent Houston wine bar has become something of a cliché by now. Plonk is not only a nickname for cheap wine, it’s a wine bar in Oak Forest that’s too cool to have a sign. Taking it all to new heights is Khon’s Wine Darts Coffee Arton Milam, where they recommend you pair the three sparkling wines on the list with Zapp’s potato chips (it’s the only food available). 

The Tasting Room in CityCentre