The quality of the wine lists, mostly in the breadth of offerings, has been one of the most noticeable and welcome improvements in the dining scene here in the past quarter century, similar to what has occurred in most major cities in the country. The wine lists at the best restaurants – just restaurants for this piece; wine bars are treated separately – are resolutely European in makeup; these wines generally pair well with food, much better than the vast majority of the New World wines. Though a great many area diners, and regular wine drinkers, favor the big Napa Cabernet Sauvignons and other fruit-forward New World bottlings, this has been shifting over the years, as many become familiar with a greater range of wines. And that range has been increasing.
There are a number of enticing wine lists at restaurants around Houston today, thankfully. Below are the best, with the number of full bottles at a couple different price levels to give an idea of what might be in store.
Bulbous Wine Bibles
Pappas Bros. (Westheimer) – Long regarded as one of the best wine lists in the entire country – 5,000 labels and 28,000 bottles in the cellar – there is seemingly everything you might want at a fine dining restaurant with depth in Champagne, Burgundy – both colors, with pages of Grand Cru and Premier Cru – Bordeaux, Napa, Super Tuscans, Barolo, Rhone, and much, much more. You can spend a small fortune on just drink here, but you don’t have to as cool gems abound: Beaujolais from Jean Foillard, Guy Breton and Lapierre, a couple from the idiosyncratic Dettori in Sardinia, a number of vintages of Fontodi Flaccianello, Lebanon’s Chateau Masur both recent and affordable and decades old and not so much. Wow. There is plenty of help if needed, too.
Approximate number of bottles under $50 – 70; $100 – 530
Pappas Bros. (Downtown) – The same as above if just slightly smaller; only 3,900 items and 18,500 bottles. You won’t notice the difference, as there are still over 20,000 bottles in its cellar.
Approximate number of bottles under $50 – 60; $100 – 500
Mastro’s (Post Oak) – The scene at the flagship of this Landry’s steakhouse chain might have a sports bar / strip club vibe and cooking not among the top tier locally, but the wine list is incredibly expansive and well-chosen beyond what might appeal to the regular customers, one of the very tops in the country according national publications. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti is here in most of its glory and nearly everything else you can dream of like Screaming Eagle and Mascarello Monprivato in many iterations. Wines might be expensive here – a local wine professional told me he was shocked by what he thought were 400% markups (over wholesale prices), but there are plenty under $50 and finds like a half-dozen Tannants from Uruguay that pair quite well with steak and a Fess Parker Chardonnay – it really is better than from most of its fancier Santa Barbara neighbors – that is just $30. It’s also got a highly respected staff that’s earned their chops at other top wine spots in town. There are 4,000 selections and a total of around 38,000 bottles that they can aptly help navigate.
Approximate number of bottles under $50 – 120; $100 – 620
Vic & Anthony’s – This upscale steakhouse catercorner from the ballpark has exalted Bordeaux labels galore and among its list of Burgundy there is the rare Domaine de la Romanée Conti Romanée Conti in a couple of vintages for $16,000 and more; and La Tâche, Richebourg, Romanée St. Vivant crus if you only want to pay four digits for a DRC. The emphasis is Old World here, but there are plenty of Napa Cabernets and a lot of great New World bottlings. It is a terrific, wide-ranging and fun list that should easily satiate any wine lover. That top local wine pros Gary Lapuyade and Justin Vann once worked here is still evident.
Approximate number of bottles under $50 – 25; $100 – 160
March – With around 12,000 bottles cellared and a list of over 100 pages, it is all here from the biggest names repeated often in Burgundy, Bordeaux, Napa and Barolo, and even many, many more. Among the pages, there are many more listed at over four digits, but there a hundred under $100, if barely. You can find something “affordable” here if you choose not to do a wine pairing, and the excellent wine staff can certainly assist.
Approximate number of bottles under $50 – 0; $100 – 105
Brennan’s – Around since 1967, plenty of time to build a collection, and sibling to Commander’s Palace, which boasts the best wine list in New Orleans, it is not surprising that its offerings skew heavily French, which is a good thing, I believe. It is very deep for Burgundy and excellent for Bordeaux, plus there is plenty of choices from Champagne and much more breadth for dessert wines than elsewhere here, befitting the celebratory mood that the Brennan family is deft at cultivating, and not just in the Crescent City.
Approximate number of bottles under $50 – 35; $100 – 175
a’Bouzy – Champagne – You don’t come to this River Oaks restaurant for its food, it’s the Champagne, around 200 labels at terrific prices; according to the Wine Spectator in 2022, it’s one of the best stops in the country for Champagne geeks. There is actually a lot more, over 1,000 selections, all with generous pricing, if you want a sparkler from elsewhere or even something less effervescent, red, white or pink.
Approximate number of bottles under $50 – 235; under $100 – 460
Giacomo’s – Italian – Possibly my favorite wine list in Houston: very interesting, very affordable, very food-friendly, very easy to navigate, very Italian. And there are number of enticing French selections, too. The dozen or so sections are divided among helpful broad styles like “Bianco: fragrant & vibrant” and “Rosso: structured & textured.” There is a lot from which to choose, and scattered throughout at higher price points, but fairly priced, are offerings from cult producers like ARPEPE, Gravner, Emidio Pepe, Paolo Bea, and Paolo Scavino, too.
Approximate number of bottles under $50 – 70; under $100 – 120
El Meson – Spanish – One of the best wine lists in the city is to found at this casual long-timer on University Boulevard in the Rice Village serving Cuban, Spanish and Tex-Mex fare. There is diversity on the wine menu, too, but the big heart is Spain with enticements from Vega Sicilia in some breadth and depth, La Alta Rioja and Lopez de Heredia and many others, all nicely priced. Excellent by-the-glass program that can be had by quarter-liter carafes, also, filled with neat stuff from Spain like Muga’s Rioja rosé, a Cabernet Sauvignon from Torres in Penedes, plus even a Finger Lakes Riesling.
Approximate number of bottles under $50 – 85; $100 – 285
BCN – Spanish – This grand Spaniard sports one of the city’s most informative and helpful of wine lists featuring very useful descriptions for each wine. There really not too many choices on this all-Spanish wine list that makes no concessions even to Champagne, but what’s here is expertly selected.
Approximate number of bottles under $50 – 0; $100 – 20
Café Rabelais – French – This humble, quaint and a bit kitschy French spot is a paradise from lovers of the wines from France in much of its glory. Seemingly all Gaul is represented here, Jura, Savoie, Rhône, Alsace, and Corsica along with Burgundy, Bordeaux and Champagne, with those more intersting than elsewhere if not the grandest of labels. There are more big bottles here, too, not just magnums but also 3-liters and up. Nicely, there are a number of bottles under $30.
Approximate number of bottles under $50 – 75; $100 – 215
Le Jardinier – French – Not a show-stopper like the restaurant nor the museum in which its set, the wine list is better than it needs to be with plenty of Burgundies and Bordeaux listed by growth. You know there is a plenty of sense here as the only two Pinot Grigios are from the Collio and half the rosés are Bandols.
Approximate number of bottles under $50 – 0; $100 – 40
Bistro 555 – French – From the folks formerly of the lauded Le Mistral on the west side and natives of Bandol, who certainly believe that wine must be part of the meal, the somewhat succinct all-French list obliges to complement the menu of artfully composed familiar Gallic fare. The dozen or so choices by the glass nicely includes a Sauternes to finish.
Approximate number of bottles under $50 – 30; $100 – 70
Just Plain Good
Georgia James – One of the city’s top steakhouses, and the most interesting, its wine list has always been oriented well beyond the Napa Cabernets that have dominated most steakhouse lists around the country. You might be tempted with Sangiovese, as the Tuscans drink with their beef, a robustly tannic Sangrantino from Umbria, or one from the Syrah- or Grenache-dominated Rhone. A lot of neat selections here, as it’s been since inception a couple buildings ago.
Approximate number of bottles under $50 – 5; $100 – 85
Rosie Cannonball – Master Sommelier June Rodil has put together a list with “a strong Italian, Spanish and French focus” that is fun for the Old World wine lover and complementing the mostly Italian fare with options that won’t break the bank. The noted Abruzzo producer Tiberio comes in three colors, all $65 and less, Movia from Slovenia in two plus more than a few of importer Kermit Lynch’s wines.
Approximate number of bottles under $50 – 5; $100 – 90
State of Grace – A quick glance at the thirty or so by the glass options shows Jermann, Massolino, La Rioja Alta and Tolani, which should reassure you that this clubby River Oaks eatery knows and enjoys wine. The wordy wine list – in a very welcome way – is somewhat concise, but there a numerous tempting options for most diners and also those able and willing to splurge in a grand fashion.
Approximate number of bottles under $50 – 20; $100 – 70
Tony’s – Still the grandest dame in Houston dining carries on with a lengthy wine list that might be more approachable and affordable than you might expect. There is enough Bordeaux, Burgundy, Napa Cabs, all nearly three and four numbers after the dollar sign, along with a few bottles stretching back before the Dreyfus Affair, but also a section front and center exclaiming “Over 75 Wines at $75” and another listing “Natural Wines” for the kids. California Syrah and red blends from the Garden State both merit a fair amount of space. Relative values can be found like the lush oak-aged La Rocca bottling from the terrific Pieropan for $70 that I paid 25 euros for at the winery in Soave this summer, and the base Pinot Noir from the acclaimed Au Bon Climat in Santa Barbara that is only $55.
Approximate number of bottles under $50 – 15; $100 – 120
Rainbow Lodge – Enticing selections for most wine drinkers with big-names and finds from California, France and elsewhere: Domaine De La Romanée-Conti, Kosta Browne, Biondi Santi, Vega Sicilia joins a couple score of well-chosen Napa Cabernets including a few cult labels. A robust wines by the glass among white, pink and bubbly also includes a number of rarer treats dispensed by the Coravin system that could be Tignanello, Opus One and an Argiano Brunello di Montalcino that was Gambero Rosso’s red wine of the year.
Approximate number of bottles under $50 – 10; $100 – 85
Backstreet Café – Sean Beck has long done an wonderful job with wines and all matters of beverage here and at the other stars of the H Town Restaurant Group (Hugo’s, Caracol, Xochi, Urbe) and the wine list is user- and food-friendly with more than enough options and featuring prices that beg for at least a bottle at the table for the “Seasonal American Bistro.” Many are even priced below a fair portion of the per glass list at Bludorn, which is not too far away.
Approximate number of bottles under $50 – 75; $100 – 105
Helen Greek – Greek – It’s all Greek to everyone here, and only Greek, but this charming Hellenic bistro will quickly inform you that Greek wine belongs on the world stage; it’s not just the vastly overpriced, barely mediocre and possibly headache-inducing stuff you are stuck with at the Greek festival.
Approximate number of bottles under $50 – 5; $100 – 35
Brasserie 19 – The buoyant atmosphere, healthily encouraged by friendly wine prices and a many fine choices by the glass, rather than the quality of the fare has always been the attraction here. This a great place to drink wine, with a number of alluring options well under $50, featuring a list with a strong French accent.
Approximate number of bottles under $50 – 35; $100 – 80
Nancy’s Hustle – You, at least I, can trust the team here, proprietor and manager Sean Jensen and award-winning sommelier Justin Vann, whose tastes might run more adventurous than most (mine included), but it skews very hard to food friendly and even exciting, often funky, which pares well with the dining buzz at this terrific contemporary bistro.
Approximate number of bottles under $50 – 15; $100 – 40
Squable – The cooking, the creativity, the atmosphere, the cocktails, along with the wine options, make this the best restaurant in the Heights. Just an example, the wines by the glass might even include a nearly decade-old Crianza from the terrific Rioja producer López de Heredia.
Approximate number of bottles under $50 – 0; $100 – 80
Bludorn – Wine prices skew high here, as with the menu, and there are plenty of nice Burgundies to increase the final bill to a really large number. Plenty of nice wines, period. Lengthy by the glass choices average well over $20.
Approximate number of bottles under $50 – 5; $100 – 105
The Very Best Prices
Porta’Vino – Vino is part of the name for a big reason as ridiculously inexpensive wine pricing is key to the popularity and expansion of this casual Italian-themed restaurant. There are about fifty wines, mostly fruit-forward and Californian, nothing much at all to excite enophiles, but it is so inexpensive. Other restaurateurs scratch their heads on how cheaply wine is priced here.
Approximate number of bottles under $50 – 40; $100 – 50