When Evan Turner opened Helen in summer 2015, no one in Houston had seen anything like it. To compile an all-Greek wine list, he had to work every connection he’d made while in NYC at places like Periyali and Thalassa, convincing importers and distributors to bring Greek wines into Texas, at a time when they were unknown in the state. Today, Helen has two branches in Houston, and boasts the largest Greek wine list in the US outside of NYC. (That honor would go to Kamal Kouiri at Molyvos.)
How is it that a limniona—from an obscure grape even by Greek standards—is your best-selling bottle?
When people come in, we ask them, “What do you like to drink?” People say pinot noir—and limniona fits that category. The texture is very similar, the quality of the fruit is similarly high, and it has that wonderful earthiness. It’s stunning because the wine [Zafeirakis 2014 Tyrnavos] grows in one of hottest areas in all of Greece, and yet it still manages to come out tasting like Burgundy. We sell it faster than we can keep it in stock. It’s always been an amazing seller, and it’s gotten better every year—the 2014 is heavenly.
Santorini has largely led the way for Greek whites. Is it still as popular as it’s been in the past?
Down here assyrtiko still does really well—it’s still king in many ways—but we’re trying to push away from it a bit, as you can find it everywhere now. Try malagousia, asprouda, any number of things—we just want people to try something else, as there are producers doing amazing things with roditis, savatiano, all sorts of grapes. And there are also a few assyrtiko coming from other parts of Greece now. They sort of end up cannibalizing each other; assyrtiko is still big, but no one wine is on top any more. And it has to be said that wine from Santorini isn’t getting any cheaper. So far, to my taste, I’m not finding mainland assyrtiko that’s as compelling as assyrtiko from Santorini, but assyrtiko from Santorini costs $25, while mainland bottles cost $15. At the end of the day, this is still Greek wine; you still have to be able to come in at certain price points to make people try stuff. Especially for white wine: People are asking, “If I can get an $8 pinot grigio, why am I spending $18 on a glass from Santorini?”
Is there a white-wine grape coming up to compete with assyrtiko?
I’m doing everything I can to get people to drink more malagousia. I love how varied it is—you can go with voluptuous, opulent, decadent styles like Gerovassiliou and Wine Art Estate, and you can also go lean, mineral-driven, like Nerantzi. I love how it’s terroir-driven, beautifully aromatic yet crisp and mineral-driven on the palate, glorious with a wide range of food—especially Gulf Coast seafood. I invite anyone to get a nice bottle of malagousia and a plate of oysters and just go to town. With the fruitiness of the wine and minerality at the same time—it’s so, so good. And it’s a great value, too: you can get a brilliant malagousia for $20.
Interesting that you do well with xinomavro, but it’s Goumenissa rather than Naoussa that sells.
Naoussa tends to be a little more expensive, and there are not a lot of them; I have them and they sell out, and then we don’t have them for a few months. It’s also personal. The first winery I ever went to was in Goumenissa—Boutari. That visit is one of the reasons this restaurant is open. When we were finally able to get wines from Goumenissa on the list, both went on by the glass as well as by the bottle, and we put a huge push on getting them to sell. Also, the current release of the Tatsis is 2004. You’re getting a 14-year-old bottle for $65—where are you possibly going to do that? It makes a huge effect on people.
When did the Akakies Sparkling from Kir-Yianni become so popular?
Akakies sells like crazy—I can’t keep it in stock. Right now I’m actually pouring it from magnums because we ran out of bottles. It’s funny; you can find it everywhere down here now. Actually, if there’s one big trend here, it’s that you can find Greek wine on wine lists everywhere. There is a comfort level coming more and more; rather than people saying, “I’ve heard about Greek wines but never tried them,” they are saying, “I’ve had Greek wines and they are delicious.” People are perfectly fine with drinking Greek wine now.