The Wine Artist: Painter Turned Sommelier Defends Everyday Wines and Australian GrapesBY James Brock // 10.24.15
I love to talk about wine with people who share my passion for it. We open bottles, and we trade stories about travel and winemakers and terroir and residual sugar, and we talk of taste and food pairings and cost. We recommend wines to one another, and 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 and learn about it. You’ll appreciate their insight, and I hope you’ll learn something from them as well.
It was a warm evening in Houston a few years ago when I wandered into The Pass & Provisions for dinner. As I settled into my seat, I noticed a well-dressed young man speaking to guests at a nearby table; he was talking about wine, so I guessed, correctly, that he was the restaurant’s sommelier. In due time, he made his way to my table. We began discussing Spain and Rioja, and I decided to order a Tempranillo. The gentleman’s name is Travis Hinkle, and I was impressed by his straightforward and studious manner. He was speaking with me, not at me (too often, I find that front-of-the-house staff at restaurants begin interactions with the assumption that the guest knows nothing). We spoke for a few minutes longer, he brought the bottle to me, and I enjoyed the wine. When I next visited Provisions, Hinkle was no longer employed there.
I am happy to report that the Treadsack group has had the wisdom to employ the young man; Hinkle is now the beverage director at the restaurant group, and I urge you to make his acquaintance. A Fort Worth native, he possesses an MFA in painting and has passed the Court of Master Sommeliers Advanced exam. He’ll treat you well.
Tell us about three wines you think are drinking well at the moment. What makes them worthwhile? How about a food pairing for each?
Riesling Spätlese, Joh. Jos. Prüm, Zeltinger Sonnenuhr, Mosel, Germany 2003. This is one of my all-time favorite Riesling producers, and the 2003 vintage is in a great place right now. I love this wine because it’s the perfect illustration of how incredible aged Riesling can be. The wine is mature at this point, but I expect it will be drinking well for another 10-plus years. Riesling pairs well with just about anything, but I especially adore it with the northern Thai cuisine of our newest restaurant, Foreign Correspondents. We have this priced at $80 on our wine list, but readers may be able to source it though Houston Wine Merchant, likely at around $50.
Bernabeleva, “Garnacha de Viña Bonita,” San Martín de Valdeiglesias, Spain 2011
This is far and away the best Grenache from Spain that I have ever tasted. All of the grapes that go into producing this wine are sourced from a single vineyard, from very old vines. The result is a spicy, powerful Grenache that nevertheless retains a lightness and elegance. In another 10 years, people will write about this producer alongside Chateau Rayas and other fine estates of Chateauneuf du Pape. With this style of wine, I love grilled lamb with samfaina (roasted summer vegetable stew, not unlike ratatouille). This particular cuvée is very small-production, but a better wine shop may be able to source it for you. At Hunky Dory, we have it priced at $115.
Cabernet Sauvignon, Parker Coonawarra Estate “Terra Rossa First Growth” Coonawarra, Australia, 2004
Parker Estate is one of the top producers of Cabernet Sauvignon grown on the red limestone soils called Terra Rossa in South Australia. This wine explodes the notion that Australia is capable only of producing over-alcoholic fruit bombs. The climate here is actually cooler than Bordeaux, so the wines retain herbaceous secondary notes, with firm structure and moderate alcohol. At just over 10 years old, this wine is only now entering its maturity. Enjoy it with dry-aged prime ribeye and roasted mushrooms. Sadly, this wine is difficult to source because it is no longer imported, but there are older vintages still in the market. We’re proud to serve it by the glass at Hunky Dory ($16 glass, $80 bottle).
If cost was no consideration, tell us the one bottle you would add to your personal collection.
Champagne Salon 1985. I’m a huge fan of aged Blanc de Blancs Champagne, and there are none better than those made by Salon. The wines are razor-sharp and focused when young. With bottle age, they develop a nutty, honeyed complexity underscored by a firm of chalky mineral character. I’d choose that particular vintage because it’s my birth year and has the ability to age almost indefinitely.
What is your favorite grape?
Chardonnay. While that might come as a surprise to some of my geekier wine friends, I think Chardonnay deserves its widespread notoriety. Few grapes are capable of producing such a diverse range of styles — from the greatest sparkling wines (Blanc de Blancs Champagne) to lean, mineral-driven Chablis and rich, robust oaked styles from California and the Côte de Beaune. I have pretty diverse tastes (I like almost everything), but if someone told me I could no longer drink Chablis or Blanc de Blancs Champagne, part of me would die.
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?
So many directions you could go in. For white, you can’t beat German Riesling for ageability. I absolutely adore Egon Muller “Scharzhofberger” Spatlese. The Scharzhofberg is arguably the top Riesling vineyard in the world, situated in the Saar area of the southern Mosel. The wines are delicious when young but reward (almost) any length of time aging in the bottle. Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, when made in the right style, is one of the most age-worthy red wines on the planet. Look to Heitz, Corison and Spottswoode for classic age-worthy styles of Napa Cabernet. I think those wines show best at a minimum of 10 years of age.
Your establishment excepted, what is your go-to place when you want to have a glass or bottle?
For a casual night out, I love Camerata. The staff is friendly and knowledgeable, and the wine list is always a lot of fun. For a special occasion (and a much bigger splurge), I think Pappas Bros. Steakhouse is the best place to find and drink great wine in Houston. There are so many amazing gems on their expansive list and often at surprisingly good values, if you know where to look.
If there is one thing you wish everyone would keep in mind when buying and drinking wine, what is it?
First off, be willing to take risks. I think many people fall into a cycle of ordering the same wines because they are afraid of trying something different and not liking it. The truth is, we live in an era in which the quality of wine is excellent at all price points, so risks are minimal. Second, don’t take it too seriously. At the end of the day, wine is just grape juice. It’s a grocery, not a luxury. There are great bottles worth fussing over, but in my experience, enjoying simple wines on a daily basis will enrich your life much more than “special occasion” wines.
What is your “wine eureka moment” — the incident/taste/encounter that put you and wine on an intimate plane forever?
When I was in college, my first serious job was at a Spanish restaurant with a great wine list. One night, a month or so after I had started, a guest came in and ordered one of the most expensive bottles on our list: 1981 Lopez de Heredia Viña Bosconia Grand Reserva Rioja. He was kind enough to leave a glass with me. That wine was unlike anything I had ever experienced. It didn’t taste anything like “wine” as I knew it. Somehow, the earthy, spicy, sour aromas brought back vivid memories of playing outside in the woods as a kid. I was hooked after that, and I wanted more.
What has been the strangest moment/incident involving wine that you have experienced in your career?
Lots of little things could be mentioned, but one of the oddest things for me as a sommelier is the disconnect between the way you perceive money in your professional life versus your personal life. I distinctly remember one afternoon when my wife and I were having a conversation about how we could tighten up our grocery budget by clipping coupons and buying only necessities. Later that night, I served a bottle of 1961 Château Lafite, at nearly $5,000. The guests I served it to were kind and graciously offered me a taste. The wine was extraordinary, but it did make me reflect on what aesthetic pleasure is worth (and not worth) in dollars. I imagine other professions that deal in luxury items experience a similar kind of cognitive dissonance, but that night it really struck me.