Bill Elsey at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse in Houston on Napa Cabernet and Mendoza Malbec

Pappas Bros. is a famed name in the Southwest, with over 80 restaurants, but it’s the company’s true-to-Texas Pappas Bros. Steakhouse that forms the backbone of its reputation. With three locations, two in Houston and one in Dallas, the steakhouse draws guests from all over the world for red meat and wine lists that are considered some of the best in the state. Bill Elsey, the wine director of the downtown Houston location, embraces the steakhouse mentality with a list particularly deep in California cabernet and large-format bottles. “We crush magnums,” he says. “It’s not uncommon to have twelve magnums go out a night. Our record is twenty-seven in a night.”

There are no Old World wines among your top ten best-selling bottles.

Not this past year: It was just California paying the bills. We are very much a traditional Texas steakhouse where people love California wine, they love the big Cali cabs. Also, we’re downtown, close to the convention center, and all the hotels book up with an international business crowd that wants the best of what the US has to offer—so then we’re dealing with Napa Valley and cabernet sauvignon. People harass me about it—“Do you just get tired of selling California cabernet?” they ask— but that’s what really works for us. And I still get excited when a bottle of Schrader goes down, a bottle of Bryant, or Heitz Martha’s [Vineyard]—we have a semi-vertical and that’s a wine that’s so iconic and out of the norm of those super expensive blue-chip wines. They are more elegant, a little more nuanced, and not a lot of new oak on them. Those are really fun ones, and any time you get any of those, it’s exciting to open, do the decanting tableside on the gueridon, and do the whole show.

Your most successful new addition to the list is a malbec from Argentina.

The malbec that we pour by the glass [Cobos Mendoza Malbec Felino] has just been crushing. Whenever we have a certain placement that we’re looking for, we reach out to all of our distributors and ask them to submit samples and we blind taste all of them. This last go around for malbec, we had probably 75 bottles. We narrowed it down to three, and two vintages of that Felino Malbec made it into the final. The wine just really delivers for the price. Malbec is still a really hot category—people are familiar with it and can say it. If someone is looking for a wine that’s fruit-forward, with relatively intense flavors, a plush style with depth of flavor but they don’t want to spend over a hundred bucks, you go to South America and it’s a pretty safe bet that they’re going to like the wine. People are definitely more aware of the value of South America.

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