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Justin Vann is an assassin of booze, weapon of choice, wine.  He was the opening Sommelier of Oxheart in Houston, and has been named one of the best Somms of 2013 by Food and Wine magazine


1. At what age did you become a booze hound?  I know many of us drink in high school and college, but when did you realize wine and spirits can be complex and delicious?

I was interested in booze way before I could ever drink it. As a little kid I was fascinated by watching adults drink, I guess the social dynamics of alcohol caught my attention first. Why did the grown ups start acting like idiots after drinking for a while? Why does this bottle cost so much? I saw alcohol as something really mysterious and important, something that I was trying to understand before I was self aware of how interesting it was to me.

I used to pantomime drinking. When I was really little I remember filling an empty wine bottle with grape juice and drinking it in front of a bunch of my family one thanksgiving. They thought it was hilarious, and I remember feeling embarrassed, and just wanting to join in the activity of drinking. A more embarrassing memory is high school, I would frequently walk around with a brandy snifter full of apple juice. I did it mostly for shock value, but I also really wanted some goddamn brandy. I loved glassware, but was too young to buy booze. So I was often seen drinking nonalcoholic stuff out of champagne flutes, snifters, really nice tumblers and so forth.

When I finally did find someone to by me alcohol, I remember giving them like 80 dollars and saying, “Get me as many different kinds of port as this will buy.”  My parents found the port under my bed, and maybe their disapproval was blunted by the fact that it was such an obscure type of alcohol for an 18 year old to go out of their way to buy.

If I was left to my own devices, I probably would have started drinking at like the age of 12. I’m deeply jealous of Somms who were exposed to great wine when they were kids. However, I am still grateful of the weird path that got me here.

When I started working in restaurants I had a lot of questions about alcohol that nobody ever gave me a satisfactory answer to. So I just started trying to learn about it myself.


2. Is there one person in your career you can tag as a mentor or someone who showed you the ropes of the wine biz?

Guy Stout was probably my original mentor in terms of helping me form a raw base of wine knowledge. His Monday morning study group was essential. Professionally, Dave Poss who was the wine director at Vic & Anthony’s gave me my first wine job. Dave and my fellow Somms John Sanders and Brandon Becker were the perfect introduction to the wine business. They taught me the number one guiding principle of my wine career: Be humble. Don’t take the job super seriously. Treat the guest with respect. Never talk down to the guest or other professionals. These sound like givens, but wine is burdened by so much pretention that I feel like we can never remind ourselves enough of the importance of being approachable and humble.


3. One of your last gigs was Vic & Anthony’s, a popular and very busy steakhouse. Now you are the Sommelier to Oxheart, a 30-seat restaurant.  I know they both have their intensities.  Describe the intensity at V&A compared to Oxheart.

Vic & Anthony’s was warfare on a massive scale. We had everything we needed and more. The numbers like dollar sales, cover counts, wine inventory, staffing needs were all massive. It was a two story restaurant, a behemoth. On holidays like New Years, they would say things like, Ok, we have 1000 covers tonight. Justin- you have downstairs, approximately 400 people.  When something broke, we had top of the line service there to fix it immediately. We got excellent pricing and support, because Vic’s was (and still is) the gem of the Landry’s corporation. I remember receiving 5000 dollars worth of Riedel stemware at a time. They paid for several of my tests, including the advanced exam. At all times we were armed to the teeth.

Oxheart is the polar opposite of my Vic’s experience. Oxheart was put together on a shoestring budget. It is guerilla warfare. I had so many resources at my disposal at Vic’s that by comparison, Oxheart was like the SAS training finale- being pushed out of the airplane with nothing more than a combat knife. When something breaks, there wasn’t a multinational corporate office I could call to fix the problem. In the early weeks, if we needed something I would just buy it with my own money. Chef disturbed me immensely with a very short sentence, “Stop buying things.”  I was incredulous. He elaborated, “Find a way to solve this problem without spending money.”  Obviously we spent money on a lot of things, but that was the moment my V&A world died and Oxheart began for me. They are both intense, but I prefer the melee of Oxheart to any restaurant I”ve ever worked in. We see everyone, there is no distance between us and the guest. For wine service, I can touch every table in a meaningful way. We can really take time to explain things in detail and tailor each experience to every person.


4. How long have you known your chef, Justin Yu?  How did you first meet?

We’ve known each other since we went to high school together, but we didn’t meaningfully communicate until college. I was taking Kevin Simon’s wine appreciation class at the Hilton College of restaurant management at UofH and I ran into chef. He’s like, “What are you doing here? I thought you were polisci.”  I told him maybe I wanted to do wine someday. He scoffed and said, “We should open a restaurant or something.”  We got a good laugh out of that. The joke, it would seem, is on us.


5. In 2012, Oxheart was named the #8 restaurant in the US by Bon Appetit magazine, and also given a rare 4-star review by Houston’s food critic Alison Cook.  These are extraordinary recognitions, all within just a few months of opening.  Describe the pride you have for you and your team’s accomplishments. 

I am proud that we are still alive. I’m proud of how much we’ve grown up. We all still have a long way to go, but we’ve all come such a long way from when we started. This job is inherently grueling and exhausting on so many levels, and you need a team of genuine badasses if you’re going to survive, let alone try to get better. I’m really proud of the opening team, and I think the new folks bring a lot of talent to the operation.

I’m proud the money cats didn’t run away.


6. I’ve had the opportunity to get to know you a bit through the industry, and I have to say you are one interesting man.  You have many talents, one of which is writing.  If you weren’t selecting delicious wines for a top ten national restaurant, what else could you see yourself doing?

My favorite joke answer to this question is that I would be a blackwater mercenary. But the truth is that I would probably be a starving artist of some sort if I wasn’t working in the service industry. I have always enjoyed writing. If wine could suddenly be illegally downloaded off of the internet and I was out of a job, I think I would try to write. What I would write or whom I would write for is a much harder question to answer. It would likely be an institution that favored hyperbole and overlooked constant grammatical errors. I would turn to a life of petty crime after my writing career inevitably fails to launch.


7. Can you give the people some of your Houston hidden gems?  Like a “Where do the Somms eat?”.

I eat at Paulie’s a lot. My hidden gems aren’t exactly hidden. In the past 8 months or so I’ve spent a lot of time at after hours bars, because my sleep schedule is pretty bad, and I get my best thinking done in places like that- the seedier the better. If I have any secrets to dole out it’s to remind people of the great places wine geeks BYOB to: Himalaya, Vieng Thai, Que Huong, and Pho Binh (Champagne and Pho, seriously).


8. What is the one place in the world you would like to visit, that you have not already?  Why?

I really enjoyed the terror of a language barrier when I visited Spain in January. I think I would like to experience a higher level of cultural isolation if possible. I bet Tokyo would be just the trick.

I mean, Europe is the honest answer. I keep telling myself that I want to go see all the vineyards of Europe, but all I really want to do is walk into the bar and do the only thing I know how to do in any language- order a drink.


9. What color are your toe-nails right now? 

They are normal human colored toenails currently. The last pedicure I got I chose pink, or I think the exactly name of the color was “I mainely eat lobster”. Neon green is probably the next direction I’m gonna go. Maybe glitter? Who doesn’t like glitter.


Photos by Bethany Quillin

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