Last weekend nearly 200 wine lovers parked their cars along the narrow streets in Houston’s Museum District and stepped inside the historic Milford House to sample wine and food at the first Houston Wine Conference. Hosted in the Italian Cultural Community Center, participants were treated to speakers inside the comfort of the air-conditioned facility.
Outside on the lawn 50 New and Old World wines were paired with tidbits from six of Houston’s most popular chefs, as well as cheeses from the Houston Dairymaids. In the mix was celebrity chef and Iron Chef contestant Robert Gadsby (most recently of Bedford’s fame), and Monica Pope of t’afia. One Texas winery, Messina Hof, poured from their portfolio.
Attendees could choose from two separate, and segregated tracks – The Wine Connoisseur, downstairs, offering 3 speakers and two breaks for wine and food sampling; and The Wine Enthusiast, upstairs, with two concurrent sessions featuring two other speakers, as well as two opportunities to visit the Wine and Food Expo. The Connoisseur, priced at $149 included seminars by both “old guard” and “new guard.” Denman Moody discussed the American vs. European Palate, as well as an interesting anecdote on the effect of decanting. Guy Stout, Master Sommelier and Corporate Director of Beverage Education for The Glazer’s Family of Companies, directed participants through a tasting of both red and white wines as part of his “Discovering Your Sense of Taste.”
And the incomparable Gary Vaynerchuk, talked about “The Changing Face of Wine,” during which he piped, “For all the wholesalers out there … f*ck you, there’s a reason I left Russia.” Which was pretty damned funny considering he followed a guy who works for one of the biggest distributor/wholesaler cartels in the United States. Gary’s comments were directed at the 3-tier system of wine sales, which lobbies to maintain what some see as draconian post-Prohibition state laws that prohibit direct shipping to consumers from out-of-state wine retailers.
The Enthusiast track, priced at $85, included seminars from Sommelier and Certified Specialist of Wine Shawn Dougherty, talking Old Vs. New World Wines; and Chicago entrepreneur and founder of Israeli Wine Direct Richard Shaffer discussing, “The Origin of Wine….and it’s not Napa Valley.”
In addition to Texas’ own Messina Hof, distributors and importers poured wines from Tuscany, Portugal, Greece, Australia, Chile. We skipped the Yalumba/Hill Smith-owned wines distributed in the United States by Negociants, but have tasted many of them before. Their table was crowded, and after several unanswered attempts to get a pour from the pre-occupied servers there, we decided to move on.
Our favorites of the evening were those from Corte alla Flora. Joe liked the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG best; a blend of Prugnolo Gentile (80%) Merlot (10%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (10%). I preferred the Corte alla Flora – Rosso Toscana IGT, their most popular wine; a Super Tuscan blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (50%) Merlot (10%) Prugnolo Gentile (30%) Syrah (10%). Prugnolo Gentile is the local name for Sangiovese, used in the town of Montepulciano.
In addition to Robert Gadsby and Monica Pope, chefs included Beavers’ Jonathan Jones, Randy Rucker, textile’s Scott Tycer and Plinio Sandalio and Carmelo Mauro from Houston’s award-winning Carmelo’s Ristorante. In addition to his Houston and Austin locations, Carmelo created a high-school based restaurant at Del Valley High School in southeast Austin to teach students entrepreneurial skills.
As part of the program, a Carmelo’s Ristorante was built within the school to serve as a business laboratory accompanied by a comprehensive three-year curriculum. This is all under the auspices of the Texas Restaurant Association Education Foundation whose mission it is to educate the workforce within the foodservice industry as well as provide information about opportunities and careers within the industry.
I haven’t been to Carmelo’s Houston location since the 80s because it’s at least an hour drive from where I live, but we did enjoy dinner at Carmelo’s in Austin during a trip to Austin last summer for a political event. And the pasta selections served at the Wine Conference were Carmelo’s usual tasty Italian fare.
Our favorite of the evening was a dessert from textile, which featured peanut butter mousse, a layer of ganache, topped with nuts, in a little fluted cup. We’ve not yet dined at textile, a new upscale restaurant in the Houston Heights. Chef Tycer owns a number of restaurants in Houston, and worked as Sous Chef at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago in Palo Alto. What I did not know, was that Tycer also worked under Chef Todd Rogers, formerly of the Ritz-Carlson (now St. Regis). While I’ve never tasted Chef’s Rogers creations, I did have a bit of a crush on him in high school as did nearly every girl of this former multi-sport varsity letterman and 1979 Prom King at Barboursville High School in West Virginia where he and I attended. It’s a shame we missed him in Houston. I understand he’s now Executive Chef for Sea Island Resorts, an award-winning property along the Georgia coast.
For a first time affair, founders Carrie Pacini and Geri Druckman pulled off a great event. There were a few things I might consider changing in the future. First and foremost was parking. While a lovely venue for wedding receptions and wine tastings, parking at The Milford House is practically non-existent. It’s possible to run shuttles from another location, but the narrow residential streets just don’t accommodate many cars. And while I really enjoyed the speakers’ for my Connoisseur track; I also wanted to hear what the the other speakers had to say. I’m sure much of it had to do with logistics, but keeping the “Enthusiasts” upstairs, with separate programs meant lost opportunities to network with friends who chose that ticket. I also thought the prices were a bit steep, especially for the Connoisseur. We had media comps, otherwise the $300 for both of us to attend would have kept us home.
“Our first event was a learning experience,” says Geri Druckman. “We’re looking at other venues for next year so we can have the tasting indoors with air-conditioning.”
While the heat didn’t really bother me — the lawn under the tent was a bit difficult to navigate in high heels. With the first wine conference, under their belts, Pacini and Druckman are on the right track. I imagine next year we’ll see more sponsors, more chefs and more wineries clamoring to participate.