Culture / Foodie Events

The Wine Whisperer: Houston’s Service Person of the Year Is a Grape Guru With a Soft Touch

BY // 10.06.15

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. 

Steven McDonald has a great personality. He’s a kind, soft-spoken man, and when he’s pouring wine at a guest’s table, there’s no one more assured, unassuming or gracious. McDonald is the wine director at Houston’s Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, and his stewardship of the program there since 2013 has enhanced the restaurant’s reputation as a wine-lover’s paradise. He’s worked in New York for Michael White, he was a founding member of the Houston Sommelier Association, and this past Sunday evening he was named Service Person of the Year at the Houston Culinary Awards. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with him at the steakhouse on Westheimer, and the wines he chose for my meal there were superb. I recommend that you pay him a visit.

Tell me about three wines that are drinking well at the moment. What makes them worthwhile? How about a food pairing for each?
I have been raving about G.D. Vajra Albe for a couple of vintages now, and the 2010 is great. It performs far past its price point. Tart red fruits framed with roses and black truffle. It is a Burgundian wine drinker’s Barolo – my favorite kind. Pair this wine with braised meats, lamb ragu or filet mignon. We’ve got it on the list for $120 a bottle. [Editor’s note: Houston Wine Merchant sells this vintage for $45.]

A beauty of a Chenin Blanc
A beauty of a Chenin Blanc

Next, the 2012 Domaine Guiberteau Saumur Blanc Clos de Guichaux. This wine was an incredible surprise, and we’re so lucky to have this in Houston. This is a single-vineyard Chenin Blanc from a great Loire Valley producer. It is intensely mineral and assertive with tart citrus fruit and white flowers. For lovers of Sancerre or Chablis, this wine will hit a home run — a perfect pairing for raw seafood, crudo, oysters etc. It’s $85 a bottle on our list. [Expect to pay an average of $46 for this vintage retail.]

Finally, a Cabernet Sauvignon: Pepper Bridge Winery’s 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon. Sommeliers and wine enthusiasts have been talking about the Walla Walla Valley for a few decades, but these wineries are really hitting a stride with Cabernet, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Syrah. This is a Cabernet-based wine, and it’s everything you want in a rich red wine: blueberry, blackberry, mint, clove, coffee and cocoa. Pair this with New York strip, ribeye and even lamb chops. We sell this for $120 at the steakhouse. [This wine, when you can find it, sells for about $60 at wine merchants.]

Let’s say that cost is no consideration. What’s the one bottle you would add to your personal collection?
It would have to be the 2004 D’Auvenay Criots-Bâtard-Montrachet. This is the personal label of Madame Lalou Bize-Leroy (of Domaine Leroy and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti), and she releases an excruciatingly small amount of wine. The complexity and depth of flavor was like nothing I’ve ever tasted. The finish seemed to last for several minutes, and it made me think about the wine for weeks afterward. 2004 was a great vintage for white Burgundy, and this is by far one of the most transformative wines of my career.

A desired wine
A desired wine

What is your favorite grape?
It’s hard to decide between Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir. They are both aromatic, complex, unique in every terroir, and both make some of the world’s greatest wines.

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?
You’ll want some Bordeaux or Rhône wine that will really pay off after that much time. Consider buying 2010s or 2009s from top wineries. You’ll be paying quite a bit of money, but it will be worth it. Remember to keep these bottles stored under temperature control and on their sides.

What is the one thing you wish everyone would remember when buying and drinking wine?
Drink what you like. Always try new things. Keep an open mind when trying new wine and it will pay off big-time.

Where is your go-to place when you want to have a glass or bottle?
Camerata, 13 Celsius and Public Services. David Keck, Adele Corrigan, Mike Sammons and Justin Vann do amazing work. In Houston, we’re blessed with talented sommeliers and beverage professionals. When I get out with my wife or friends, I try to make it to all three spots.

 What was your “wine eureka moment” — the incident/taste/encounter that put you and wine on an intimate plane forever?
A 1978 Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Riserva. A guest brought it into the first fine-dining restaurant I ever worked at, Ai Fiori, in New York. It had been perfectly stored, and it was my first chance to have a great vintage Barbaresco with that much age. It was haunting and beautiful. I had read and studied so much about this wine and wine region, and I was finally tying it all together with the wine itself. It was one of those moments that you step back and say, “This is why I do this job.” It happened in 2010.

What has been the strangest moment/incident you have experienced in your career?
It was April 1, and I was taking care of a famous winemaker who was dining at the restaurant (Pappas Bros. Steakhouse). They were excited to try some older white Bordeaux and splurge on an expensive bottle of red Bordeaux. The first bottle of white was corked (a flaw that isn’t caused by the restaurant storage but the winery itself or the cork sourcing). Then, the first two bottles of red were corked as well. They decided to switch wines, and the first of the new bottles was corked as well! At this point I thought someone was playing a prank on me or that it was some terrible April Fool’s joke gone awry. I even got my colleague, Bill Elsey (who also hold an Advanced Sommelier certificate), to confirm the flaws, just to make sure I wasn’t crazy. Finally, we opened the second bottle of the second red wine choice just as the steaks arrived. The guests loved the wine and everything was perfect. It is still to this day the largest number of corked wines I have ever opened on one occasion.

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