Justin Vann of Houston’s Nancy’s Hustle on the New Natural - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Justin Vann of Houston’s Nancy’s Hustle
on the New Natural

“My first formal wine job was at a Vic and Anthony’s Steakhouse in Houston and I was very, very lucky to land that job at the age of 22,” Justin Vann recalls. “That was a little too young to be a sommelier I might say in hindsight. But that didn’t stop me from trying. I was there for about three years, and I did a lot of the Court of Master Sommeliers tests at that time.”

At the University of Houston, Justin Vann was studying pre-law, when he took a wine appreciation class at the Hilton College. “They offered the intro exam to any student at U of H for free,” he recalls. “I was in there and I was wearing a suit—I was very excited and it was thrilling to me—while there were students there in pajamas sleeping. It was an extra-credit thing. And I snuck my girlfriend into it as well.” As it turned out, she surprised him by signing him up for the CMS Certified exam, scheduled two months later. “And I was like, ‘Two months—are you out of your mind? I’m not ready for that.’ And by a stroke of luck, I just happened to pass my certified when I was 21 years old. So, meaning again, that I was the dumbest certified that ever walked the earth.”

It turned out to be a difficult semester at college for Vann. “My parents said, ‘Hey, we made that deal where if you start failing your classes, we’re not going to pay for college.’ And I said, ‘You’re absolutely right. That makes sense.’ And they’re like, ‘Might be time to get a job and move out’. And I was like, ‘Heard.’ I was failing half of my classes, but my raw score in wine appreciation was like a hundred. I was obsessed with that class and I thought maybe this is where my destiny is. So I applied at five different places that had sommeliers and the last place I called was Vic and Anthony’s. I was getting more exasperated with each phone call, saying, ‘If you’re hiring any sommelier, I would really love to talk with you.’ And they said, ‘Okay, you can talk to us on Wednesday, we are hiring one.’ Just by luck, I had called at the exact right time. Someone had retired at the exact right moment and I had my foot in the door.

Vann started at Nancy’s Hustle during the pandemic. “We had closed down Public Services Wine & Whisky permanently. I had stopped consulting with pretty much everybody because one of the first things you’re going to want to trim from your labor budget is a wine consultant. And I was strongly considering leaving Houston and Nancy’s Hustle was pretty much the one place that I thought, ‘I’d really like to work here’. My general manager at Public Services, Sean Jensen, started Nancy’s Hustle with his partner, Jason, and he basically gave up the fun part of his job to bring me on. It’s been a dream since. I mean it’ll be four years in November. That’s wild.” —Joshua Greene

Justin Vann

• Personal Favorites

The easiest one to list off right now is definitely old-vine California, not-cabernet wines. There’s a lot of stuff that I think we’re not respecting as much as we should. I find myself becoming more evangelical about really old-vine zinfandel, old-vine carignane, like Martha Stoumen’s recent releases, her petite sirah, which is from a super old vineyard. All the releases from Bedrock have blown my mind. And even just circling back on some big-name producers—the 2021s from Ridge are insane. I think that’s probably the number one wine where it has held my value perception from when I was a baby somm to who I am to today.

And Joel Peterson with Once In Future, that stuff is really exciting. Not just zinfandel, but petite sirah and all these other things. And my spiel was always like the oldest cabernet in America we’re making wine from right now was planted in the sixties. The Bedrock Vineyard has got some vines going back to the 1880s. So I’m like, what’s our real heritage? And beyond that, the list is driven by such attention deficit disorder that it’s hard to point in one direction.

I was really impressed with Raj Parr’s Scythian Revolution. That one is 70 percent zinfandel and 30 percent palomino. It kind of felt like they made that wine just for me. I was like, “Wow, you read my diary.” It comes from the Cucamonga Valley, planted in 1912. It is a leaner style, like those modernist zinfandels are, but it isn’t light on flavor. I gave it to people who drank a lot of classic zinfandels, like Turley, and they were blown away. It’s 13 percent alcohol and not compromising on flavor. That was the most exciting to sell because…how many priorities of mine have ever been combined into one bottle of wine? It’s got old-vine Palomino, it’s got old-vine zinfandel, it’s made naturally. It’s good with food, but it’s also satisfying. I mean, if it was carbonated or fortified, that’s the only way we could have made it more fun for me. And the guests loved it as much as I did. I know that no matter how good a somm we are, we always end up foisting something on someone where they’re like, “It’s good, but maybe it’s not for me.” This is the one where the guests and the staff, everyone was in agreement that this wine is exceptional.

The other one that I have on the menu right now is the Ashanta Zinfandel, and that winemaker [Chenoa Ashton-Lewis] was a student of Tony Coturri, back in the day. She’s working with some really old-vine zinfandel material. Scythian Revolution and the Ashanta Zazen—they’ve both just nailed the sweet-spot between too lean and too ripe.

So it’s always a combination of those more modernist producers with what I would consider to be bigger names—Once & Future, Bedrock and Ridge. We aim for a lot of harder-to-find wines on our list, so I do think there’s a little bit of a shock value in having Ridge Geyserville on our menu, but it’s just such a good wine, you have to stand by it.

• Fortified or Not

I’m watching very closely the new category of Sherry wines, these vino de pastos—unfortified table wines that Coda 45 and other producers are making out of Palomino and a lot of other ancient varieties. And then, fortified wine stays on my radar pretty often. De La Riva is where my heart really is. They’re the other big name in terms of revitalizing these old Sherry styles. They have some classic styles—Amontillado, Oloroso, Manzanilla—but they also have vinos de pastos that are hauntingly delicious. And I can never seem to get enough of them when they’re around. Those categories are still fascinating to me, and I think they represent an outrageous value and incredible food wine.

We have an enormous amount of fortified wine. I think that’s probably what we’re most famous for. Our fortified list is divided between the savory menu and the dessert menu. We have all of our drier Madeiras, dry Sherry on one page, and then we have all the dessert stuff on another one. So it adds up to about 20 to 25 different Sherries, Madeiras, Ports and other miscellaneous fortifieds by the glass.

I would say that Oloroso, specifically the El Maestro Sierra Oloroso, is a really wonderful utilitarian wine at our restaurant—it is like the entry point to Sherry for a lot of consumers. I think that that one has the most recognizable flavors—it’s like the cabernet sauvignon of Sherry. We have a lot of rich food that requires body, but maybe not tannin, so that wine plays really well. The other one would be the Rare Wine Company Sercial Madeira, that Charleston Sercial—we love pouring the sercial with savory food.

• Talking Faults

I suspect that the most aggressive natural wines might be losing ground, and I can’t wait to have someone threaten my life for saying that. I was one of the early adopters of natural wine in my city, and I still use a lot of natural wine, but I am becoming less tolerant of certain faults and trying to be more careful about avoiding those things. I think we’re kind of getting a hangover from mousy wines, and that to me is the biggest deal breaker in all of natural wine. There are certain wines where I’m happy to see volatile acidity, and I enjoy Brettanomyces in just about any European red. Is it correct or is it wild and spooky? The real question is, is it good? It’s a very difficult line to toe in a restaurant that has conventional and natural wines. So for me, it’s about saying if this wine has a fault, it’s one that we think enhances the flavor profile. And mouse never enhances a flavor profile, so we kind of just make it cheaper and move on.

The Natural Wine movement is stronger than ever, in my opinion. I do think people are getting a little exhausted with heavily faulted stuff. A lot of producers are doubling down on quality and being like, “Hey, we can sell more of this if we maybe hit it with 10 parts per million of sulfites. Nothing crazy.”

We don’t like to sell things without disclaimers. We have a little internal code where it’s basically a green light, yellow light, red light, and I never talk about that tableside, but what I will talk about tableside is analogizing how weird wines are to movie ratings. The people will be like, “Hey, can we get a bottle of the Remi Poujol Brutal?” And I’m like, “You can, I just need you to know that if this were a movie, it would be rated R for violence, sexuality, drug use, cursing and hurting animals. This wine has Brett, VA and mouse. It is a horror movie, a psychosexual horror movie. This is Black Swan with your parents. Are you sure you want to drink this?” And they’re like, “Thank you for letting me know. I do not.”

But occasionally I will get someone come in and they’re like, “We want the weirdest shit you got.” Well, I’ve got you covered. And so even if something blows up in my face and it tastes weirder than I remember upon tasting it, I do find that there are consumers out there that are like, “Yeah, we want something really wild.” They represent a small percentage of our consumers, but as long as you advertise what’s happening, people will either become intrigued and order it or they’ll be like, “Thank you. I don’t want a wine that tastes like salad dressing. I will move on.”

Joshua Greene is the editor and publisher of Wine & Spirits magazine.

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