Ciao Bello’s Wine Guy Knows Real Service Drops the Sommelier Attitude: When Dressing and Drinking Well Are Their Own Rewards

BY // 03.25.18

I love to talk about wine with people who share my passion for it. We open bottles, we trade stories about travel and winemakers,  terroir and residual sugar, and we talk of taste and food and restaurants and travel. We recommend wines to one another, we drink, and we learn a lot. In Wine Talk, I introduce you to some of my friends, acquaintances, and individuals I encounter as I make my way around the world, people 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 was having dinner at Ciao Bello, Tony Vallone’s Houston-based trattoria, a few months ago, and, while enjoying my oysters, spied a new face among the staff. He was dressed well — if you are familiar with the restaurant you have likely admired manager David Siegman’s sartorial approach, a fine yet too uncommon touch nowadays, and this stranger was a chip off the stylish Siegman block — and opening a bottle of wine for customers at a nearby table.

I asked our waiter about the new guy, and was told his name was Curtis Sibley, and that wine was his job. I enjoyed the rest of my meal, and made a mental note to pay Sibley a visit in the next week or so.

When I did return to the restaurant, I made the acquaintance of a considerate and thoughtful individual, one who takes notice of the smallest of details when it comes to service. A glass is in the wrong place on a table? Sibley can’t tolerate that, and rectifies the situation.

A guest across the room looks uncomfortable, perhaps in need of attention? Curtis Sibley takes control and soothes the diner. Restaurants need more of this type.

Sibley, I learned during several wide-ranging conversations, was born in Texas, attended Hendrix College in Arkansas, and worked in the industrial- and furniture-design fields for several years after graduating from the liberal arts college. He moved to Houston in 2012, to be closer to his family, and joined the Ciao Bello staff in 2017. He likes soccer, always a good characteristic in my opinion, and speaks with confidence and enthusiasm.

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If you are thirsty for a nice Chianti, go see him.

PaperCity: Tell us about three wines you think are drinking well at the moment. What makes them worthwhile? How about a food pairing for each one?

Curtis Sibley: I’ll start with a 2006 Cupano Brunello di Montalcino. I was fortunate to get a chance to enjoy this terrific example of Brunello recently, and I have not been able to get it off my mind.  A guest turned me on to this producer, as he had just returned from Italy and was raving about the atypical style of this Brunello. A few things to note about it: No chemical pesticides or fertilizers are used in the vineyards, the house follows a biodynamic operation, and the vine plots are hand-chosen by enologist Carlo Ferrini.

It needs at least an hour to decant, but once it does, it unleashes a structure that you won’t soon forget. Big tannins balanced with lively acid, and a velvety texture that secures the mid-palate and eases you into the long finish. I would pair this wine with braised lamb or a truffle-topped filet of beef.

Next, the 2010 Brancaia Il Blu. This Sangiovese-dominated Tuscan blend is an awesome treat for anyone who enjoys the structure of New World Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot and the terrior-driven styles of Tuscany. So many of my guests are apprehensive about ordering Tuscan blends because they are afraid of the compositions being overbearing, and most producers don’t disclose the blend ratios on the label.

This wine is drinking beautifully now and boasts a well-balanced structure with smooth tannins. The 2010 vintage of Il Blu is sourced from world-class plots in Tuscany and produced in Brancaia’s state-of-the-art cellar. Try it with lamb or short ribs; it over-delivers for the price point.

Finally, the 2010 Michele Castellani “Cinque Stelle” Amarone della Valpolicella Classico.This Amarone from Michele Castellani comes from the heart of Valpolicella Classico,  sourced from hillside plots. After the fruit is harvested, grapes are dried for three to four months before undergoing a 40-day fermentation. This time and effort in the cellar result in an amazing expression of Amarone. Pair with a simple arugula salad with bleu cheese, or, again, lamb. The fruit and spice here are amazing.

PC: What is your favorite grape, and why?

I would have to say that my favorite grape variety is Syrah from Rhône Valley. The first time I encountered Rhône Syrah in a blind tasting I was enamored with the notes of dried, smoked meats and the black pepper aroma. With its spice and complexity to balance out the lovely fruit structure, Syrah can be enjoyed as a young expression or can be laid down to age and reach its full potential

PC: Where is your go-to place when you want to have a glass or bottle?

Camerata on Westheimer is my go-to place to enjoy a bottle or a glass. The staff is friendly, approachable, and truly passionate about the wines they serve and educating their clientele on the subtleties of the product. Though they carry classical representations of varieties, they excel in exposing wines that are off the beaten path and atypical examples of varieties. Plus, I always value a bar that I can walk to.

Heaven in a bottle

PC: If cost was no consideration, tell us the one bottle you would add to your personal collection, and why?

If price were no consideration, I would have to posses a bottle of Romanée-Conti from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. I wouldn’t be picky about the vintage or the vineyard, but for the exclusivity that comes with DRC it would be a treasured bottle. The history of the appellation within the Côte-d’Or is remarkable, and the passion that the producers have for this amazing expression of Pinot Noir is unparalleled. The only issue with possessing a bottle of DRC is finding an occasion that is worthy of the wine.

PC: If there was one thing you wish everyone would keep in mind when buying and drinking wine, what is it?

People should drink what they like. Don’t buy a wine based on the price, and please don’t buy a wine based on the label. You don’t have to drop huge money to find a delicious bottle of wine. Do some research.

Whether finding a historical link, a story of a wacky producer, or even a place that you visited that resonated with you, wine is about what went into that bottle during that year and the artisans who created it. Appreciate wine.

It is a beverage, of course, but it’s an experience as well. Find value in lesser-known regions; Italy is a wonderful example right now. It certainly isn’t a “lesser known” region, but producers all over the country are making world-class wines, and as Burgundy and Bordeaux continue to dominate the world market you can find some outstanding wines for a fraction of what you’ll pay for their French counterparts.

Track what you drink and establish a reference point to what you enjoy. Being cognizant of what you’re consuming is key to limiting purchasing mistakes.

PC: What is your “wine eureka moment,” the incident/taste/encounter that put you and wine on an intimate plane forever?

My “eureka moment” in regards to wine was meeting and experiencing the sommelier staff at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse on Westheimer here in Houston. The service industry has always been a supplement to my career and education, and during a brief stint with the Pappas family I saw firsthand a world-class wine program in action.

My interaction with Steven McDonald and Jack Mason was eye-opening. These are individuals with a wealth of knowledge, and they are the most approachable and cool people. Previous encounters with sommeliers resulted in different experiences. I believe we’ve all had moments when perusing a wine list or making a selection during which a sommelier made us feel inferior or even stupid.

The staff at Pappas Bros. is the opposite in that regard. I witnessed the approachability of the staff; how they take time to listen to their guests, guide them through the extensive list, and basically take them on an adventure that results in a wine selection that creates an experience.

I meet guests every day who have experienced the top-tier standards of hospitality and guidance that McDonald and his staff provide, and they light up remembering their experiences. I know that observing them working with wine changed my perception of what a sommelier does and how he or she interacts with guests. Seeing the way they welcome diners and help provide a link between the history and the producers changed the way I approach my clients.

PC: What has been the strangest moment or incident involving wine that you have experienced in your career?

It happened during the last week of service at Mark’s American Cuisine. Word had been spreading that Mark Cox was closing his doors, and people from all over were coming back for one final visit. One guest, in from New York City, ordered a bottle of Château d’Yquem; his wife and he had celebrated many special occasions with Chef Cox, and their first-ever visit to Mark’s had been capped with a bottle of the first-growth Sauternes.

After this “final” bottle was presented, our guest sommelier served the guest and his wife and proceeded to place the bottle in the wine bucket. The guest stopped him, saying the he and his wife were happy with what they had, and that the staff could drink the rest of the bottle. A few servers gathered in a cramped storage space and divided the Château d’Yquem.

Just as Miles drank a ’61 Chateau Cheval Blanc from a paper cup in the movie Sideways, I drank a glass of Château d’Yquem from a Styrofoam cup in the confines of a dry storage space in the middle of a dinner service.

Jack Kerouac’s life was complex and creative, and wine was often in the mix.

PC: What’s your favorite wine reference in a work of literature?

That has to involve Kerouac, either in The Dharma Bums or in On the Road. When Kerouac references wine, a picture is painted for the reader of a freewheeling good time being had with a libation to match the mood. Wine seems to be the gateway to an introspective encounter with one’s soul, according to the author, and I agree.

Even though it’s been years since I last read The  Dharma Bums, I still have a clear mental image of a beatnik twentysomething building his own hut and drinking homemade wine. Kerouac brings the reader to a place where unbridled enthusiasm for the possibilities of an expansive life are real.

Wine is the representation of those thoughts, that with land, freedom, and an optimistic attitude you can achieve happiness and a sense of self-worth in this crazy world. It always made me feel warm and happy to read of Ray and Japhy enjoying wine and howling at the moon.

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