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Culture / Foodie Events

From Waiter to Partner

Vallone Group Troubleshooter is All About the Guests (and Wine)

BY // 07.18.16

I love to talk about wine with people who share my passion for it. We open bottles, we trade stories about travel and winemakers and terroir and residual sugar, and we talk of taste and food pairings and restaurants. We recommend wines to one another, we drink, and we learn a lot. In Wine Talk, I will introduce you to some of my friends and acquaintances — individuals who love wine as much as I do, who live to taste. You’ll appreciate their insight, and I hope you’ll learn something from them as well. 

I clearly recall the first time I saw Scott Sulma in action. It was at Tony’s, and he was talking to guests seated at a table near mine. Earlier in the evening the guests, a young man and woman who seemed a little uncertain about the menu and wine list, oozed discomfort. Sulma, I am now certain, had noticed their anxiousness as well, and was on a mission, smile on his face, voice calm and authoritative. He explained a few of the menu items, and talked about some wine selections. The young couple’s demeanor changed rapidly, to one of ease and anticipation. Another culinary crisis averted, two more guests won over and satisfied. That’s the Sulma formula.

Sulma is a managing partner in the Vallone family of restaurants, which also includes Ciao Bello and Vallone’s. He’s a product of Houston, and a product of the Vallone approach to hospitality; he started as a waiter, and in 2006, at the age of 24, became the general manager at Tony’s, the group’s flagship property. He now oversees the wine programs at all three restaurants, and is always ready with a pairing recommendation or two. I’ve had the pleasure of dining when he was on duty, at Vallone’s and Tony’s, and to watch him work the floor is to see effortless professionalism at its best. He exudes calm, touches each table at the proper time, and makes it look simple. If you’ve not had the opportunity to talk with him about wine, make a reservation, and prepare for a few hours well spent.

Tell me about three wines you think are drinking well at the moment. What makes them worthwhile?
My go-to during the summer are always Italian whites. Be it the Occhipinti SP68 from Sicily, which has a great mouthfeel and is so easy to drink, to the Enoteca Bisson “Marea,” from the Cinque Terre. This wine has a great saline-like quality, and it is from one of the most beautiful places in the world I have ever been. Third would be a wine from the north, Abbazia di Novacella, Kerner, from the Alto Adige. All three of these wines are rather inexpensive and great with or without food during the Texas heat.

Occhipinti

The Occhipinti and the Kerner each have some weight to them, which is why I like them with olive oil-based pastas — no tomato — and crispy braised octopus dishes. The Marea is made for shellfish, and I also really enjoy it with crudi. All finish clean, and have great acidity.

The Occhipinti is avaliable at Tony’s, Ciao Bello, and Vallone’s ($62-$70), and the Kerner at Ciao Bello and Tony’s — $14 by the glass and $55 a bottle. The Marea is at Tony’s only; it’s a little more obscure and could be more difficult to locate. We have it for $85 a bottle.

If cost was no consideration, tell us the one bottle (must be in existence) you would add to your personal collection, and why.
Domaine Jean Louis-Chave, Hermitage Cuvée Cathelin. I believe the family puts power and elegance in perfect balance. And if we are playing the game with monopoly money, I would like two bottles, so I could see the difference in 30 years.

What is your favorite grape, and why?
That is very tough to say; its hard to narrow down from the flexibility and greatness of Syrah and Sangiovese, but ultimately, it’s Nebbiolo. If I could drink one grape only, over and over, I would be happy with all that Nebbiolo can offer. Big and bold, light and ethereal, aging potential, and it makes good rosé, too, which is important if this scenario plays out in Houston. I love the Vietti family, their history and style. It is still a family-run operation, their prices are not astronomical, and they have multiple offerings.

How about one bottle that our readers should buy now to cellar for 10 years, to celebrate a birth, anniversary, or other red-letter day?
Almost any 2010 Brunello di Montalcino. It’s a great vintage for most regions of France and Italy, but you can still get a spectacular wine from this region without having to take a second mortgage on the house. And if you get antsy six years into the purchase, the vintage drinks well young.

Your establishment excepted, where is your go-to place when you want to have a glass or bottle?
My wife and I live in the heights and love the patio — and wine list — at Hunky Dory.

If there was one thing you wish everyone would keep in mind when buying and drinking wine, what is it?
The only thing that matters is what you, the guest/purchaser, is interested in. If you like rich, fruity Merlot, say that, and it is our job to find a great wine for you while also heightening your wine experience. It does not matter how great I may think white Rioja is, if you think it smells like gasoline that is all that matters.

Wine

What is your “wine eureka moment,” the incident/taste/encounter that put you and wine on an intimate plane forever?
I grew up with wine at the table in my family and started in the industry at a young age, but when a taste of 2002 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Echezeaux melted across my palate in my early years at Tony’s, it was like I had been watching TV in black and white and someone suddenly switched it to color.

What has been the strangest moment/incident involving wine that you have experienced in your career?
It’s the restaurant business; people surprise me all the time on both sides of the transaction. That’s what makes coming in every day so much fun.

Want more Wine Talk? Check out these profiles:

A Man of Letters and Wine
Ms. Champagne Wants a Nebuchadnezzar
The Wine Artist Goes for Chardonnay
This American Loves Spain and Its Wines
Houston’s Wine Whisperer Has a Soft Touch
Blackberry Farm’s Somm Pours in Splendor
Mr. Pinot Noir: Donald Patz of Patz & Hall
A Cork Dork Wants to Spend More Time in Tuscany
Sommelier Turned Restaurateur Daringly Goes Greek
Texas Master Sommelier Debunks Wine Geeks
A Bottle From Gigondas Changed This Houston Man’s Life

Oil Man Falls in Love, and the Rest is Good-Taste History
Ryan Cooper of Camerata is a Riesling Man
Mixing It Up With Jeremy Parzen, an Ambassador of Italy
Sommelier at One of Houston’s Top Wine Bars Loves Underdogs

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