Bill Elsey ran the Red Room Lounge in Austin before moving to Houston in 2014 to join the team at Pappas Bros. He opened their 400-seat downtown location the following year, hard by the convention center, specializing in dry-aged steaks and a 3,700 wine list. “Our main bread and butter is California cabernet,” he says when asked if anything has changed over the last five years, “though people are getting into the Rhône—cabernet drinkers are segueing into domestic syrah or classic Old-World wines like St-Joseph.”
Have you noticed any major changes in the wine scene since coming to Houston five years ago?
People are getting into the Rhône. Cab drinkers segue into domestic syrah or Rhône, we sell quite a bit of Alban’s Petrina Syrah from Edna Valley. It’s priced at $120. If someone comes in and says, “We typically like to drink California cabernet, and like to keep it around $100,” I’ve had success with Alban’s Petrina. Or with those same guests, Faury St-Joseph or Gonon St-Joseph, interesting, classic Old World wines. I’ve had some success with those wines recently.
Upchurch Red Mountain Cabernet 2014 for $145, the biggest new success.
I met Chris Upchurch in October on a visit to Washington State—my first visit out there and I loved the state and the people in the wine community. I spent a morning on Red Mountain with Chris, enjoyed his level of knowledge and the time we spent in the vineyard.
I’ve been a fan of Washington wines for more than a decade. Back in 2008 or ’09, the consumer in Texas was not really aware of what was coming out of Washington; what you get for $100 is a significantly higher value than what’s coming out of Napa. It’s still this hidden gem domestically. Oregon has more of a place of the consumer’s mind. The guest isn’t surprised to hear about Oregon pinot, they know about it. But guests are sometimes surprised that there’s wine coming out of Washington, and I’ve had great success introducing people to it.
Your top three wines are Silver Oak Alexander Valley Cabernet at $170, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Artemis at $145 and Jordan at $145.
Every year, it’s the same. For the volume of the wines we do, those wines are amazingly consistent. With Burgundy or Italian wines, there can be some inconsistencies within one case of wine, but with Silver Oak and Shafer One Point Five and Jordan, those wines aren’t anything if they’re not consistent. It’s impressive.
We can see that because, for the past ten months or so, we’ve been tasting all the wines before serving them. The catalyst for that was Jack Mason, MS; he’s been with the company for two years and brought a lot of energy to the program. His experience in New York City has benefited us and elevated the caliber of service we give. It’s been an overwhelming success. It’s been well received by the guests—I consider it a service because we’ve caught bottles that are corked and the guests appreciate it. It takes away the pressure for them knowing whether the wine is sound or not. And from a staff perspective, I can say, ‘I just had that bottle a month ago and you might want to pass on it’ or ‘I just had it and, absolutely, it’s drinking well now.’ It’s a practice that’s commonplace on the coasts and is now trickling down to Houston.
Are you still buying cult cabernets?
I’ve stopped buying every cult cab that is offered. I’m not sure what is a cult cab anymore; really expensive cabernets is the correlation.
I’ve toned down the buying on new producers coming into the market with a $250 or $300 wholesale cabernet. One that’s been really successful for us is Vine Hill Ranch—in Oakville, a vineyard with some pedigree; Rudd is a neighbor and one of the Bond vineyards is a neighbor. We have multiple vintages with their 750s or magnums; at $450 on the list, it’s a premium price point. They are not at that elite in terms of pricing—not the crazy $700 or $1,000 pricing—but in terms of quality, they are. And, we sell a ton of Quintessa; the 2015 is on the list for $350. It’s the Silver Oak for people who want to spend that much in terms of name recognition, the name recognition in Houston is really high. People love it.