Houston’s Always-Smiling Wine Guy Makes This Galleria Restaurant a Happy Retreat: From Dishwasher to Vino Master

BY // 05.30.18

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. 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 people I meet as I make my way around the world, 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.

His enthusiasm strikes one immediately. One evening earlier this year, we were waiting for our table at Tango & Malbec, an Argentinian steakhouse and wine bar in the Houston Galleria area, and I noticed it. He was standing at a table not far away, talking to two guests about their wine, a Malbec if I recall correctly, and it was obvious that he loved what he was doing.

His smile was one of the most authentic things I had seen that week. Sure enough, when we were seated and looking at the menu, we received our share of Enrique Varela enthusiasm, and our experience was the better for it.

Varela is the wine director at Tango & Malbec, and his journey with wine began in, of all places, Honduras, where he was born into an Italian family. Wine was always on the table in the Varela household, and the young Enrique grew to appreciate its role in meals and celebrations. Then, in 1986, he moved to California, to Santa Rosa, where relatives resided.

He took a job — as a dishwasher — at The Villa, an Italian restaurant in Santa Rosa, and every chance he got visited wineries in the area, learning more and more about what became his passion. He worked his way up the ladder in the restaurant world, and, in 2008, relocated to Houston to accept the position of wine director at Tango & Malbec.

Varela has an easy manner and clearly respects his guests. I saw him engage with every table numerous times during our meal, and he knows how to make wine fun and pleasurable for people. Don’t like Malbec? Well, give Varela a chance and you will change your mind.

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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?

Enrique Varela: First, I like Trivento’s Torrontés Reserve. It has the greatest tropical fruit balance, beautiful nose. I pair it with the Chilean sea bass at Tango & Malbec. Next, a Malbec, the Pascual Toso Alta Reserva. It’s from from Mendoza, and has beautiful, balanced tannins, chocolate flavors…  it’s elegant and a little spicy. I pair it with our filet mignon.

Last but not least, the Revana Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. Eucalyptus, black olives, lilac and rose, with beautiful chocolate and clove accents. I love to pair this wine with our ribeye Tomahawk steak.

This Malbec, a steak, and you.

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

I think the Vérité La Joie Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2012 received 100 points from Parker, and I’ve seen it for around $400 retail. Shows hints of cedar, charcoal, crème de cassis. A great wine.

PC: What is your favorite grape, and why?

Cabernet Sauvignon, for its beautiful balance and tannins, and it pairs with more than most people think it does.

PC: 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?

Amarone Della Valpolicella is one of the first wines I ever taste; it left an unforgettable memory on my palate. To this day, Amarone is one of my favorites, and I drink it about once a month. I would definitely recommend this wine for a special occasion.

So many Amarone, so little time.

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

Amalfi Ristorante Italiano & Bar. Their list is great, and it’s a fun place to sit and enjoy a glass.

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

At the restaurant, I always remind our guests that everyone’s palate is different, and that’s the exciting part about wine for me, finding the wine that best suits the individual. If you are unsure about the wine you are about to order, ask to taste it. Don’t be shy! My job is to find a wine that you not only like, but that also goes well with the meal you are eating.

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

Amarone Della Valpolicella. I first tasted it about 30 years ago, in Honduras. The occasion was a family gathering, and my father introduced me to the wine then. It was definitely my “eureka” moment and the beginning of my love affair with wine.

PC: Your favorite wine reference book?

Karen MacNeil’s “The Wine Bible” is in Enrique Varela’s’ collection, and should be in yours. (

The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil. I have a copy at home which I refer to often to go over specific wines and to refresh my knowledge.

PC: What has been the strangest (or angst-ridden) moment/incident involving wine that you have experienced in your career?

Back when I was younger and living in California, I opened a very expensive bottle of wine and the cork broke. It was a Spanish wine, a Vega Sicilia, and if I recall correctly it cost about $2,800, in the 1990s. It was a stressful moment, but I was able to take the entire cork out.

I decanted the wine and the customer was still able to enjoy it. Of course, I was sweating a little bit!

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