Restaurants / Bars

From McDonald’s to a World Class Sommelier Candidate: The Incredible Journey of a Top Houston Hotel’s Wine Guru

BY // 10.30.17

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 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. 

It happens every now and then: You are in a restaurant or wine bar, and, for whatever reason, a member of the staff exhibits less than professional conduct. You discreetly seek out the person in charge, and hope for the best. That’s how I met Luis Munoz, and it definitely turned out for the best, because Munoz, a senior manager at Houston’s Hotel ZaZa, knows his stuff.

He helps oversee the beverage program at the hotel, and making his acquaintance was a pleasure. We talked wine and hospitality, and the post-museum visit to the hotel’s bar became an enlivening interlude.

Munoz, whose first job was at McDonald’s, also spent time — nearly 20 years — plying his trade at The Houstonian. He attended culinary school at the Art Institute of Houston, and he’s working on his Court of Master Sommeliers certification. In short, he has embraced the world of wine and hospitality with an admirable passion. Pay him at visit at the hotel, and ask him to pour you something good.

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

First, 2016 La Bastide Blanche Rosé from Bandol. I know Miraval is the hot trend right now, but I think Bandol expresses Rosé better than anyone out there. Maybe it’s the high percentage of Mourvèdre. Or maybe it’s the hot Houston weather. A wonderful wine to just sip and enjoy. Lots of bright strawberry notes with some hints of white pepper.

Introducing Pêche

  • Bering's Gift's May 2024
  • Bering's Gift's May 2024
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  • Bering's Gift's May 2024
  • Bering's Gift's May 2024
  • Bering's Gift's May 2024

I usually like to steam some clams or mussels and toss in some bacon for good measure to pair with this. I haven’t really seen this wine in very many restaurants, but I know that Houston Wine Merchant carries it. The magnum goes for about $55.

Next, the 2013 Tate Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain Jack’s Vineyard. I mean, who doesn’t like a Napa cab, especially from Howell Mountain? David Tate is the winemaker at Barnett Vineyards on Spring Mountain, and this is his side project; he produces a couple of hundred cases per year. It’s not an everyday drinking wine, but something I like to splurge on after a hard week at work.

Since I’m splurging on wine, might as well splurge on the food as well. Classic pairing: a grilled rib eye with crumbled blue cheese and roasted potatoes. I’ve purchased this wine at Rice Epicurean for about $70, and have seen it at the Houstonian Hotel, as well as Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, in the $180 range.

Finally, for my just-about-everyday-but-not-everyday wine, I really enjoy a good Malbec, and Terrazas de los Andes does a wonderful job for the value, usually about $15. It’s round but not overbearing, bright red fruit but not jammy in any way. Homemade burgers for this one. H-E-B and Kroger… most large grocery stores carry it.

PC: How was your passion for wine sparked?

It actually started when I got into management. One of my responsibilities was the wine list, and I really didn’t know much about wine. I know that sounds terrible, but I was very fortunate that all my vendors really supported me (even if I didn’t buy their wine!).

It took a trip to Napa and getting some intimate, behind-the-scenes access to the wine world to ignite the spark. We were hanging out at Astrale e Terra with winemakers and somms. It completely changed my outlook and perspective on wine. I dove into the books and became a Level 2 Sommelier after that. Now I’m getting ready to prepare for my advanced. You never stop learning.

This bottle is history. (Courtesy

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

WOW. If money was no object, I would add the 1969 Chappellet Cabernet Sauvignon. One of the most famous vintages from one of most prestigious wineries in Napa Valley. So much history with this wine: Philip Togni was just getting started in Napa. The great André Tchelistcheff noted hillside grapes would make better wine, and so Don Chappellet purchased land in what is now Pritchard Hill. I haven’t tasted it, but just having one would mean having a very important part of the history of Napa Valley.

PC: What is your favorite grape, and why?

They’re all my favorite. Interestingly enough, I’ve really started to appreciate Gamay. There’s just something about a really good Beaujolais. It’s easy to drink, nicely balanced with the fruit and acidity. It doesn’t see any oak, so there aren’t those secondary flavors that mask the raspberry and cherry cola notes.

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?

I’m going all over the place: Napa, Loire, Beaujolais. If I were to tell you to cellar one bottle for the next 10 years, it would be the 2013 Penfolds St Henri Shiraz. Young, it’s big and bold with tannins that make you want to brush your teeth after every sip. I just recently had the 2007, and it was every bit delicious as I expected for a 10-year-old Shiraz: ripe black fruit with well-developed tannins, a hint of licorice, and a juiciness that’s over the top.

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

Cru off of Kirby. Their off-the-beaten-path selections are wonderful. I had a Domaine du Salvarde Cheverny there, and I had never had Cheverny. You can think of it as Sancerre’s wild brother. Their sparkling wines are also a must-try. And they do flights as well, so you can try different wines at one time.

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

Just have fun with it and explore new things. Remember, wine doesn’t have to be expensive to be good. Those of us in the industry are very fortunate to try things that not everyone has access to, so ask the wine stewards about what they drink.

Drink this with chocolate ice cream!

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

Some people have had that moment tasting Grand Cru Burgundy or First Growth Bordeaux. With me, it was Inniskillin Cab Franc Icewine. To this day, it’s one of my all-time favorites, and I keep a couple of bottles at home to enjoy with chocolate ice cream.

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

When I first started as a manager, I put together my first wine list and had a wine from Spain. I don’t remember the label, but I do remember it was from Valdepeñas. I listed it as being a Rioja, and a customer noted that the wine wasn’t a Rioja. Being a novice at wine, I let him know that Valdepeñas was a part of Rioja. Well… he was Spanish and corrected my geography: “Valdepeñas is in the south, and Rioja is in the north!” Now I pay very close attention to regions and subregions.

PC: Your favorite wine reference sources and publications?

I always refer back to The Wine Bible. I’ve read that book from cover to cover numerous times, but I always seem to find something new every time I read it. The Wine Spectator is another great tool I have. It helps me stay updated on some of the latest trends. I’m sort of old school and don’t rely that much on the internet. In fact, I still buy and read the Sunday paper every week.

Part of the Special Series:

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