The highly anticipated opening of Oxheart is just seven short days from now, and sommelier Justin Vann has been working steadily alongside chefs Justin Yu and Karen Man to not only produce a stellar wine list, but to load steel materials into his truck bed and snap drill bits in half. Thank god he'd already developed the calluses while sabering wine bottles.
Vann spoke with Eater about keeping wine fun, the high level of collaboration within the Houston food scene and how to get a table in a 30-seat room.
First of all, how did you get into wine?
I was working through college and I was working in restaurants. We had wine programs and I would ask, "What does this taste like?" "What does this taste like?" and nobody knew, so I just kind of started looking for myself and I got obsessed really fast. I was at U of H studying political science and I took their wine appreciation class with Kevin Simon on a whim and when I was there, they offered the Quarter Master Sommelier intro class for free. My girlfriend at the time signed us up for the next level so I studied for it and I went for it and I passed. From there it just kind of careened on. [Vic & Anthony's] was my first formal wine job; they hired me as a sommelier and they promoted me as a wine director.
I signed up for the Cicerone program [for beer] and that's the only way I really knew how to study about things. It's nice to have the checkpoints. I did the actual sit down exam with Ray Daniels at Saint Arnold and that was a scary test... I think tests are really helpful for younger people. There's no way I would have been able to get into this stuff as early as I did if I didn't have a little trinket. It's a really good way for someone who wants to go into the wine industry. [Vann is now an advanced sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers.]
What are you trying to do with the wine list at Oxheart?
The wine list just by itself is eclectic and things that I think are undervalued. I don't think we drink enough sparkling wine, enough sherry, enough sweet wine. I think sweet wine is considered of this contrivance that is only for people who are new to wine. But it's great with spicy, salty, fried food — basically 90% of everything we eat in Houston. I would have killed for a bottle of Riesling in Chinatown. A lot of wine lists exist separate from the menu. The first priority of the list is that it goes with the food. Ideally, even if I call in sick you can come in here and order any bottle and it'll be good with the food. With the pairings, it's about finding really specific, finely tuned matches. [Justin's] food is so complex, it's the challenge I've wanted my whole life.
What is one thing you wish would change about the way people approached wine?
The number one emotion that you see when people handle high-end alcohol is anxiety. I wish people were more willing to engage a professional. I'm your best friend. If you tell me how much you want to spend and what you like, I'm dying for a chance to do that. I wish people knew how much we want to talk to them. We want to show them something new and cool. I just wish people were more comfortable asking questions and turning control over, and trusting us. I see people use wine as a tool to make others feel dumb and that makes me completely insane. I want to destroy those people so that everyone can just have fun with it.
How are you guys dealing with the very high expectations?
One of the things I like about Justin and Karen is that they are very modest. All their mental energy is focused on delivering a spectacular product. I think we're all our own toughest critic. It's very flattering that there are high expectations and we're just going to deliver the best product that we can. We could worry about it, but we don't have time. I think it's cool that there are all these restaurants opening up at once, it's great that 2012 is kicking ass. I'm glad that we're a part of that.
Seeing how tiny Oxheart is, what do you anticipate happening with wait times and crushes of people?
The nature of a tasting menu restaurant is that we're going to have to seat in waves. Sixty covers in a night is what we're looking to do. It's 30 seats in here right now. We're going to make the reservations very accurate so there's never a huge glut of people waiting. That's something that's important to consider especially since there isn't a lounge for people to relax in. People will be able to call in, but I do anticipate there being a lot of reservations.
What is one thing that you love about the food scene in Houston and one thing you don't?
I enjoy being friends with all these people in the industry; I like how close-knit we are. I haven't spent a lot of time in Chicago or in New York, but I hear that Houston is different because we're working together. OKRA is a good example of that. I think you see a higher level of collaboration in Houston. I am glad I stayed here, because I would rather help build a community as far a wine. Wine is why I'm here. And I would rather help build a wine community here in Houston than support an already existing one in San Francisco or something. That's part of something I don't like about Houston, because I feel that wine has fallen off the radar just a little bit.
I love 13 Celsius, I went to Cha and they have an impressive collection of stuff, but I wish there were more people championing wine. Bobby [Heugel] and Kevin [Floyd] are killing it with beer and cocktails. They have incredible programs, it's just breathtaking and I'm waiting for those people to come for wine. 13 Celsius is incredible, but I'm waiting for there to be like, 10 of those. As I express discontent, I feel like we are actively doing our work to get there. It's not where I want it to be right now but I can see the wheels of progress turning.
What do you think it will be like in 5 years?
I think just from all the pieces I can see moving into place, it will be a radically different world in 5 years. To say I know what it will look like is over the top, but I think it's going to be a lot more like what we want. There are things that don't come to Texas because people don't ask for them. We need to think of how to get the beer drinker to drink wine. The person who only drinks cocktails. How can we get new people?
What do you want Oxheart to be known for?
For the wine list, I want it to be known for eclectic, hard to find stuff. I would like for it to be considered a thoughtful wine list, one that rotates regularly, one that is well chosen and not common. There's not a lot of big name labels on there. As far as the entire restaurant, the word that I come up with in my mind a lot is balance. Everything is in perfect harmony. I know that Justin's food is damn near perfectly executed and I hope that my wine will complement it. He's going to change his menu based on availablility and freshness so I am going to have to keep up with him and I just want it to stay balanced. And sweet Jesus, Karen's bread is just so good.
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