Friday, May 16, 2008

A wine blog, and wine lists, for the Wine Geek

Wine geeks vs. wine snobs

There are two kinds of wine fans: (1) the wine snob, and (2) the wine geek.

The wine snob prefers wines from the world's top grape five or six varietals and regions. The wine snob follows Robert Parker's wine ratings. The wine snob fondly remembers the night he tasted eight $1,000+ bottles. The wine snob loves the wine lists -- or rather, "wine libraries" -- at Pappas Brothers, Lynn's Steakhouse, and Cafe Annie.

The wine geek is a very different animal. The wine geek loves under-appreciated varietals and exotic regions. The wine geek doesn't care about fashion or Robert Parker. And the wine geek does not worship at the altar of the 5 or 6 "great" varietals. The wine geek loves to find unusual flavors and great values.

There are some sub-groups of wine geeks:

Varietal nuts - They get excited about drinking strange and exotic grape varietals. They keep lists of the varietals they have tried. You can't even join the club if you have had less than 100.

Pairing freaks - They talk about "synergy" and how a wine "brings out" the flavors of the food. They organize an entire meal around the perfect pairing. They stop you from ordering asparagus because it "won't work with the wine." They tend to like Riesling and Gruner Veltliner. (Disclaimer: I am a pairing freak.)

Zin-heads and other varietal or region freaks - They believe that Zinfandel is the great American wine. They dismiss Robert Parker for never rating a Zin over 96. They can immediately tell whether a Zin is from Dry Creek, Lodi, or Paso Robles. Some geeks specialize in other varietals or regions, such as the Oregon Pinot freaks.

So am I a wine snob or a wine geek? Last night at Mary'z, I got excited about drinking a Cinsault-based Lebanese red for under $30. Take a guess.

A New Blog for Wine Geeks

Wine geeks rejoice! A ambitious website site discusses wines available in Houston. Blue State Carpetbagger's Red Wine Blog gives detailed notes about each wine's look, nose, flavor and mouth feel. He likes a variety of wines, including a lot of cheap wines. I don't know how I did not run across this site sooner.

Carpetbagger is a wine geek. He has only reviewed 15 cabernets, but has reviewed 50 Zinfandels. He likes a lot of wines under $20.

The problem with national wine reviews is that the wines reviewed are not always available in Houston. Because Carpetbagger is local, you can find most of the wines he discusses at Spec's. This is a great source for local wine information.

Some Great Wine Lists for Wine Geeks

Many Houston wine lists are geared to wine snobs. But the trend seems to be toward wine geek lists. If you are a wine geek, I highly recommend these lists:

1. Value Lists

Houston is the home of a new trend toward value wines. Instead of the standard 2 or 3 times retail markup, some Houston restaurants are serving great wines at a price near the retail price. Each of these lists includes both popular wines, as well as a large selection of unusual varietals and regions.

Ibiza - The original value list in Houston keeps getting bigger and better. Great selection of west coast Pinots. But given the restaurant's name, there are surprisingly few Spanish wines.

Catalan - Ibiza's sister. I like this list even better because it is more informative and more diverse. There are great selections for Zin-heads and Italian lovers.

Reef - Reef's seafood-based menu has a diverse range of spices and flavors. This list includes a lot of whites that work with the food. Cruelly, it also has some mind-blowing values on some intense, concentrated reds that don't work with the seafood.

Voice - Although it is a new restaurant with a new list, it is already extensive and diverse. Their wine guy is a master at pairing wines with difficult flavors.

2. Obsessively Regional Lists

These lists are great for the wine geek who obsesses about particular wine regions:

Dolce Vita Pizzeria Enotecca - best selection of Italian wines for under $100

Da Marco - best selection of Italian wines for over $100

El Meson - best Spanish list in town

Le Mistral - great French list, including a lot of Rhones

Cafe Rabelais - best French list in town, including a lot of Rhones

3. Food Friendly lists

These are lists for pairing freaks. The wines are carefully selected for how well they work with food. And when a restaurant has particularly challenging food to pair, a successful pairing is a thing of beauty.

Hugo's - Mexican food is very hard to pair with wine. Most people just give up and drink margaritas and beer. But Hugo's has a large, diverse list of red and whites that actually work with the spicy food.

Indika - Indian food is just as hard to pair as Mexican food. Indika pulls it off with a diverse small list. The suggestions are not always what you might suspect. For instance, I am surprised at how well the Italian whites on this list work so well with Indian spices.

Benjy's / Mockingbird Bistro / Shade - American bistro food is not as hard to pair as Mexican or Indian food. But these restaurants have well-rounded, diverse lists with many wines to excite the wine geek.

Backstreet Cafe - Sean Beck (who also does Hugo's list) wins special kudos for highlighting 10 or 12 wines each month and describing them in depth. I usually stick to his highlighted wines because they are so interesting and food friendly. Yet the rest of his large list is diverse, food friendly, and very wine-geek friendly.


Anonymous said...

How did you start getting interested in wine? Do you have any tips for someone who knows next to nothing about wine to be able to start learning more about varieties, pairings, flavors, etc.?

Tom Casagrande said...

To the extent I've tried the restaurants you list, I pretty much agree with your astute observations. Shade in the Heights also qualifies, in my book, as have a very good "Wine Geek"/value-oriented list. Personally, I mark down Da Marco's significantly because it has very slim pickins' under $100--I virtually never pay over $100 for a wine, even at a restaurant--and I find that inexcusable, no matter how great the food is there. In fact, it's the very reason I don't go there more often.

And thanks for the nice comments about my wine blog.

anonymouseater said...

Anonymous -- Great question. To start becoming a wine geek, I suggest four strategies, depending on where you are eating.

1. If you are at one of the restaurants I list above, or at a restaurant that has a wine person, let the waiter know that you might like some help selecting a wine to go with the food you want to order. Hopefully, the wine person will come. Then you tell them what you are ordering and ask if they can suggest a wine under $x amount. Don't be embarrassed to say $20 or $30. The wine geek will enjoy the challenge of pairing your food with a wine in the price range -- much more than if you order a $200 Silver Oak Cabernet.

2. If the restaurant does not seem to have a wine person on staff, order a wine from a region or made from a grape that you have never heard of. The stranger it sounds, the more likely you are getting a value. For instance, a wine from Croatia is likely to be a bargain because no one except wine geeks orders wines from Croatia.

And as a general rule, unless you are prepared to pay over $100, avoid Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Unless you are prepared to pay over $60, avoid Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Why? These varietals are over priced. If you order a cheap one, there is a 99% chance it won't be good.

3. If you are shopping for wines at home, I recommend studying books by Andrea Immer, such as Everyday Dining with Wine and Great Tastes Made Simple. She suggests relatively inexpensive wines to go with food that you might cook at home -- and food that goes well with wine. I learned more about pairing from her than any other source.

4. If you just want to drink, without food, try a wine tasting. Bear Dalton at Spec's holds some very educational tastings about a variety of wines. Look on Spec's web site for tasting information. Houston Wine Merchant has free tastings on Fridays from 5 - 7 and Saturdays from 2 - 4. Trying wines side-by-side in a tasting is a useful way to find out what you like.

Best of luck. It is a long journey, and you will never stop learning.

anonymouseater said...


Thanks. I list Shade on my food-friendly list because it does seem to have some mark up, but not a large one, and certainly not more than two times retail. The prices are quite reasonable.

Da Marco has some good Italian whites for under $100. But I agree completely about their reds. They send all their less expensive reds to Dolce Vita.

Unknown said...

Thanks for this!

I really like wine, but I don't know a whole lot about it. Often I feel as though I am stumbling around in the dark in trying to order. Thanks for the suggestions above. I am most definately a beer geek and know a ton about beer. Wine is new territory. Had a fantastic zinfandel at Indika the other night on the suggestion of their wine guy that went amazingly well with the Indian spices.

Unknown said...

For anonymous at the top:
There are TONS of wine tastings and wine dinners in Houston, ranging from free/cheap (e.g. HWM, The Tasting Rooms) to extravagant.

Save yourself the research, and sign up for The Juice weekly email for Houston. They list loads of wine & food events for a range of cities. It's not 100% of what goes on in Houston, but you'll get more than enough to start and can pick which suits your budget.

John C said...

You left off Divino on West Alabama -- very small mark-ups and bottles you usually don't see elsewhere. See you own April 7th post!

Mandee said...

Hello Fellow Wine Blogger! I love finding other wine lovers in Houston so we can all share insider tips! I will say that I agree with your observation on Catatlan. They have a fantastic wine list (or book) and a great staff that loves to help. The Glass Wall in the Heights is a great one for pairing because they have every single item on their menu paired with a wine most people have probably never heard of. Not only are they always great pairings but they almost always also get you to try something new! Best of luck to you and if you would like to check out my blog it is

anonymouseater said...

John -- You are right about Divino. It is one of the more creative small wine lists in town.

Mandee -- Your site is off to a good start. Best of luck with it. Please help pass the word that there is more to wine that Cabernet and Chardonnay.

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