Swanky Houston Happy Hour

I recently visited Benjy’s Lounge for an after work happy hour with a few of my lady friends and while I felt the happy hour pricing to be pretty weak the experience was still a pleasant one. I had dined in the restaurant for dinner before but never ventured to the Lounge upstairs. It was a great atmosphere with deep, comfy couches and low lighting. There is an outdoor patio that will be great once this Houston weather cools off… maybe around Christmas. If you are a wine drinker, though, you aren’t going to get any sort of happy hour deal on drinks. The only discounts are on the signature cocktails which are mostly martini-style. Happy hour in the Lounge is from 4-7pm. Appetizers are also discounted, though, at $6 each. We shared a few of these and they were all pretty tasty. As for drinks, I started off with a glass of still wine and then decided that I had better kick it up a notch with some bubbles. The situation just called for it… it usually does, though, right?

First let me tell you quickly about the food and then I’ll finish with the most important part… the wine. Like I said before, we shared several of the specially priced appetizers: chicken pizza with manchego cheese, spinach, lemon zest, pine nuts and a garlic confit; beef arepas with griddled corn and jack cheese cakes and something called voodoo cream; smoked salmon tacos with truffled potatoes and grapefruit crème fraiche. My favorite was the chicken pizza which was cheesy and yummy. The lemon zest added a special something that took it from alright to really good. The tacos were a gift from the kitchen on the house which of course made them taste better. The beef arepas wasn’t really anything to write home about. They were OK. The corn cake underneath was the best part. It tasted like polenta which I always enjoy.

Now let us get down to business. I began the night with a glass of the 2006 J Vineyards Pinot Gris from Sonoma County. This Russian River Valley wine was juicy and clean tasting with flavors of apples, pears and tangerine. My favorite part was the smell of honeysuckle when I lifted the glass to my lips. While this wine was lovely, it wasn’t quite what the doctor ordered so I switched it up a little. Next, I had a glass (or two…) of the Domaine Ste. Michelle Brut which is always a classic, and economical, choice in my opinion. This Washington wine is crisp and clean with just a touch of sweetness. It goes down easy but a single sip packs a lot of punch. The Pinot Gris was $10 a glass and the DSM was $8 a glass.

You can see all of the wines Benjy’s offers on their website. While their wine list overall is not exactly extensive, it is creative. I always like seeing a wine list that coaxes customers out of their comfort zones by offering wines that aren’t totally generic. Hopefully it will get some diners to try something new.

Demystifying White Wine

I used to only equate white wine with Chardonnay. It was the only white wine I ever bought and I felt like I was really branching out because I would try a new one every once in a while. I was under the horrible misconception that I didn’t like any other type of white wine because it was all just too sweet. Well that’s just ridiculous.

I think I finally started exploring other whites after visiting a few restaurants that offer wine pairing suggestions on their menus. I love it when restaurants have this because it gives me a chance to try new wines without risking too much because I already know they will go with what I am eating. One Houston restaurant that offers this type of menu is the Glass Wall in the Heights area. Their menu is ever changing because the chef uses local ingredients and creates his menu based on what is in season and available locally. I love it. They have wine pairings under every single item on their menu. The last time I was there I tried a Pinot Gris that was out of this world. It was an Oregon wine by Wine By Joe. I know that sounds like it would have been made in someone’s basement but please do not let the label throw you. This wine isWine By Joe fantastic. It is crisp and clean and just makes you feel like you’re in the midst of Springtime. You can buy this wine for about $19 online or if you can find it in a store. If you order straight from the vineyard you will get it for $14. I tried to find it at Spec’s here in Houston and they didn’t have it – nor had they ever heard of Wine by Joe. That’s their loss because it’s delicious. This wine offers flavors of pear and apricot with grassy undertones and a hint of vanilla. Very fresh tasting. It was paired with crab cakes and what a wonderful combination that was!

So this wine really opened my eyes to the fact that I like Pinot Gris! Interestingly enough I had always turned my nose up to Pinot Grigio. I thought it was the sissy white wine for little girls, not real wine drinkers like me. How silly did I feel when after a little research I learned that Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio are the same thing… color me embarassed. Pinot Gris is the type of grape but it’s just called Pinot Grigio in Italian. Californian versions are also called Pinot Grigio sometimes because the wine tastes more like the Italian varieties than say the French which are a bit sweeter and not quite as dry. So basically whether the label says Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio you are dealing with the same grapes. Tomato Tomahto as they say.

While we’re on the topic of the same wines posing under different names, let’s talk about the mysterious Fumé Blanc. What is Fumé Blanc? I’ll tell you. It’s the exact same thing as Sauvignon Blanc. Robert Mondavi is actually responsible for coining the phrase Fumé Blanc when his Sauvignon Blanc wasn’t selling. He saw that the French versions like the Pouilly-Fumé and Sancerre were being widely accepted and enjoyed so he just took the Fumé and threw it in front of the Blanc and the rest is history. Fumé literally means “smoke” but it’s not because of the flavor of the wine but because the fog in the vineyards looks like smoke. You learn something new every day!

If you are stuck on one wine like I was I seriously suggest broadening your horizons and trying some new things. There are so many wonderful wines out there waiting for you! You’ll probably be surprised at what you find.