Houston Eaves of Downstairs at the Esquire on Introducing Wine Through Cocktails

Houston Eaves is in his seventh year managing the Esquire’s beverage program—both the upstairs and the Downstairs, a cozy, dim-lit oasis off the bustling Riverwalk in San Antonio. Before Esquire, he lived abroad in Costa Rica and Argentina and then landed back in the States by way of Austin, TX, tending bar and running programs in some of the city’s most integral establishments. His current list includes interesting wines by the glass, half-bottles of Champagne, and a progressive cocktail program—all to pair with oysters and cheese. If you don’t know where to begin, just ask the bartenders.

Your top ten list is full of interesting Champagnes. How do so many hold your top spots?
Our printed list is mainly an offering of Champagne. We only have a handful of things in other categories, and a lot of our options lean towards food-friendly and higher acid wines. It’s based on the fact that we push it, we’re mostly a cocktail bar. I’d much prefer everyone was buying Champagne but the reality is that that wine is about ten percent of total sales. Very occasionally, we will have something that is considered négociant where there are some weird things about where and how they bought the grapes.

Are your Champagne sales a product of consumer interest?
We sell in magnum which is outside the norm. We do offer a number of half bottles and that seems to be a nice accessible point for people. It’s been helpful in being able to offer half-bottles to people and allowing them to be more comfortable with the price point. I’d like to do more by the glass but we have other sparkling wine offerings and one Champagne offering. We do a promotion on Tuesday—free fried chicken with Champagne and we do a lot as well with people celebrating on the weekends. It’s a lot about the hand-sell and people being able to talk about and having oysters. Having foods for it and selling it with them.

Your entire dessert list is sherry. How have you garnered interest in this category?
We sell sherry to people who may have talked about wanting sherry or wanting to try different things. We have a good industry crowd, but the majority of our base is tourists—Texas tourists and not super well-informed. They can be either eager to talk about stuff and try new things or some people just aren’t, but we have a lot of luck with nice people who are very receptive. A lot of people drink cocktails and a lot of neat spirits. Things like sherry are not in front of mind for people but that gets introduced via cocktails. Our cocktails have Madeira, sherry, rancio and people have to ask what they are. Then we talk about it and we sample people with small pours when people are eating meat and cheese. We do a lot of suggestive pours and put a Manzanilla next to someone and then they will order a glass. It’s not a huge portion of sales but our bar team likes to talk about it.

Are people looking toward neat spirits when they think of the dessert category? If so, what are they drinking?
The Bourbon boom is real. Every day someone is looking for a bottle that they’ve seen on the internet. Bourbon drinkers are growing in larger numbers. We do sell a lot of agave spirits and brandies—fruit eau de vies and lesser aged brandies like Reisetbauer and Rochelt.

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