It’s 10:30 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. More than 40 young sommeliers are seated in orderly rows in a hip wine bar on Lower Westheimer. Six glasses are arranged in an arc before each. The glasses are filled with different vintages of a garnet-colored wine. In broken English, the winemaker guides the samplers through a chronological tasting of Tuscany’s prized Brunello di Montalcino over the past few decades.
It’s something so extraordinary, you’d think you were in Manhattan’s East Village or Brooklyn’s Williamsburg. But, no, it’s Montrose, in Houston, a place where five years ago, such a remarkable tasting would have been remarkably unusual. Time was when we were widely considered a fly-over market by the international wine trade. But then our city experienced an overnight outbreak of highly contagious wine geekdom, and the scene here has bustled ever since.
The Houston Sommelier Association, founded just last year by Master Sommelier candidates and wine educators David Keck and Ben Roberts, is the epicenter of a new movement of highly educated, exuberant young somms. Every Wednesday morning, the group holds a tasting like the one that recently featured Brunello at Keck’s chic wine bar, Camerata. All are welcome, even non-somms, as long as they register early—every event has a waitlist (see houstonsomms.com for information). Winemakers and leading wine professionals regularly travel here from around the globe to speak to the group, such as celebrity sommelier, winemaker, and author Rajat Parr.
The explosion of interest here hasn’t gone unnoticed. “Houston is definitely the leader,” says purveyor Vincent Henderson, who launched a wine distribution business in Austin two years ago but now spends more time visiting accounts in the Bayou City, which is responsible for half of all his sales statewide. “Houston has the population, the money, and the sophistication,” and thanks to our massive base of energy professionals, “it has people who travel internationally and who like to dine out and who know wine.”
Merchants outside of Texas have taken note as well. The city represents “one of the most dynamic and robust markets in the United States,” says David Weitzenhoffer, a New York–based importer who specializes in “low-alcohol, high-acid” wines—i.e., pours once unpopular among restaurant-goers but today the focus of America’s new obsession with Old World and “food-friendly” bottles (his company is called Acid Inc.). “The constant opening of new restaurants, new retailers, and young entrepreneurs make Houston a very exciting place to sell wine,” he says.
Then there are the wine buyers who have also begun aggressively seeking out and sourcing the wines they pour for guests. Sean Beck, a 16-year industry veteran and wine director of such establishments as Backstreet Cafe, Hugo’s, and Caracol, says he frequently discovers new wineries on his own and then works with Texas-based wine vendors to make them available here. “We’re also living in a golden age for access,” says Beck. “There are so many online resources now.” The wine-blogging revolution, along with the many new tasting-note forums on the web, have reshaped the palates of pros and consumers alike. “I often seek out a wine,” adds Beck, “because I’ve read about it online.”
Bottom line: thanks to the city’s distributors, buyers, and wine lovers, Houstonians now have access to an unprecedented number of bottles to choose from—and sommeliers to select, pour, and pair them.