Before I met Vanessa Trevino Boyd for the first time, I admit I was a bit nervous.
After all, she is brilliant when it comes to wine, having created and collaborated on some of the country’s most highly-regarded wine lists. Food and Wine agrees.
Food and Wine magazine just named Vanessa as one of their top sommeliers of 2012. And they only picked 7.
So walking into the tres chic Philippe Restaurant + Lounge, where she is the sommelier, I’ll admit I was hoping not to look or sound like an idiot. And, of course, I was hoping she’d have some great tips I could share with you.
I was led to a table covered in wine glasses to wait for her and I flipped through the pages of the massive wine list of large-producing wineries and smaller-producing wineries from all over the world. The wine list is diverse in price, varietal and geographic region. And yes, there are a lot of wines there I would not want to attempt to pronounce in front of many people.
Soon Vanessa came over, extended a hand and a smile, and I had a good feeling about the interview.
She asked about VineSleuth, which set me at ease, and then I got to work asking her the questions.
How did she get here?
Back in the beginning, Vanessa thought she would be an actress by now, not an award-winning sommelier. She left Texas to study theatre at Northwestern University.
Like many aspiring actresses, Vanessa took to restaurant work, but unlike most aspiring actresses, this restaurant work led to sommelier and culinary study in New York, which led to working for a wine director whom she described as “insanely cute.”
This inspired her throw herself in to learning more about wine.
“I would practice pronouncing the wines correctly until I had it right,” Vanessa said.
She studied, tasted and learned… and started being noticed.
Acclaim in New York
Soon she was collaborating on the wine list at the Alain Ducasse concept in the St. Regis Hotel in New York, Ardour, and then developing the wine and spirits program at MEGU, also in New York, and basically making an incredible name for herself.
Back to Texas
Chef Philippe Schmit was brilliant to invite her to be a part of Philippe Restaurant + Lounge when he learned she was moving back to Texas. While she waited for the restaurant to open, Vanessa worked at The Tasting Room nearby in Uptown Park. (Which, coincidentally, is another one of my favorite spots to drink wine in Houston.)
About her list at Philippe
In building and maintaining the list at Philippe, Vanessa said it is important to her to have a wine list with a lot of variety, yet still have a unifying message. She says the wines on her list at Philippe are “global and well-balanced.”
“It makes me happy when people are refreshed by a wine, not clobbered over the head,” Vanessa said.
The wine list also boasts a wide selection of wines by the glass, making it easy to try a variety of wines and not have to settle on just one or two for the table, or try a glass before committing to a bottle.
Wine pricing and value at Philippe
She works to keep the prices competitive and flavors interesting as a part of her strategy:
“I keep our markups conservative,” Vanessa said. “I want to encourage people to order a second glass or bottle. They might explore something new when it is affordable.”
I wondered if a higher price meant a higher quality wine on her list.
“My wine list has a lot of great values on it,” Vanessa said. “And when you spend more on my list, you are getting a better wine, but all the wines on it are delicious.”
Helping people find the right wines
With a collection of well-known and not-as-well-known wines, how does the average guest know what to order? You ask the sommelier, of course.
“When I see people flipping through the list, I usually go over and ask if they want to talk about anything on the list,” Vanessa said.
“Someone at the table always has an idea, so I try to ask questions that aren’t intimidating, but can help.”
She said she usually offers three suggestions, and she always wants to be sure the guests end up with the right bottle for them.
“The server usually does the wine service, but if I can tell anyone is apprehensive about a bottle and I think it is a good fit, I’ll be sure to serve the wine so I can see their reaction,” Vanessa said. “I can usually tell right away if they really do like it. If not, I whisk it away and offer another.”
Sommeliers have secrets
Vanessa explained to me that she, like any good sommelier, hides quite a few secrets to be discovered on Philippe’s wine list.
They are not there to fool anyone, but to offer treasures for those who are willing to look or simply ask.
“Good sommeliers share the secrets in the wine list,” Vanessa said. “If they don’t, then they aren’t a good sommelier.”
What about the cheapest wine on the list?
“Don’t be fooled by the least expensive wine on a wine list. Often the secrets are there. Everything on a good wine list should be delicious,” Vanessa said.
As we wrapped up, I was completely at ease and sad to end the interview. My nervousness was completely gone. I could have listened to her talk about wine and her experiences all day long.
She was a great listener and also a great source of fascinating wine knowledge.
My bet is that is exactly how she is with each guest at Philippe.
1800 Post Oak Boulevard, Houston
Open Monday – Saturday
Wanna know a tip from Vanessa on remembering your favorite (and not so favorite) wines? Click over to see her Tip for Wine Tasting Notes.