New OriginalsWednesday, November 18 2015

Justin Vann

Public Services, Houston, Texas

Why he's a New Original: Vann, who's won raves for his work as a sommelier at Houston's Oxheart, is on a one-man mission to better introduce the drinking public to sherry in all its forms. At the whiskey-heavy Public Services (an extension of Oxheart, which supplies the food), he offers 20 selections ranging from dry to sweet—and he teaches a Sherry 101 class to spread the gospel of Spain's oft-misunderstood fortified wine. What original means to him: "Original means a benchmark, at least in the wine world. The person who started doing something first, or is a classic." The most exciting food development in Houston right now: "The base level of food quality has gone up overall. I've been in Houston my whole life, so I've gotten to see the scene rise a lot in the past decade, and it's really exciting." What should disappear from dining in 2016? "I am bothered by the recent phenomenon of the bar and restaurant industry describing good service as a trend. It's not a trend; it's the core of what we do. It's like describing 'tasty food' as a trend. I would like to see everyone stop selling service as a feature that could be considered optional."

Justin set up a "Sherry Shack" at a Brooklyn Brewery—see the video below.

"A lot of people try sherry in the wrong context."

We're in the backyard of the bar Threes Brewing in Brooklyn, and Houston sommelier Justin Vann is preaching about his beloved fortified wine.

"A lot of times, it's a sherry that's been open for a long time when it should have been served fresh. Or it's room temperature when it should have been served cold. Or it's been sitting on top of the refrigerator for the past six months. It's really important, especially with the younger sherries—the lighter styles—that you drink them cold and you drink them fresh."

Vann is the owner of Public Services, a bar that carries an eclectic selection of wines and whiskeys, and, according to Vann, places the largest order for Taiwanese whiskey in the state of Texas. But we're here to talk about sherry, the often-misunderstood wine from Andalucía, Spain.

Vann takes the stuff seriously and can discuss its merits and how he got into it for hours. "It started off as a geeky-cool wine style that I was interested in as a curiosity. There's a lot of wine styles I like, and for some reason, sherry just stuck," he says. "It's this ancient wine that's undervalued."

He argues that when you consider the cost of fine spirits and wine, sherry is a steal—even the high-end bottles.

"Think about what you pay for drinks," he says. "Think about what you pay for a 10-year-old Scotch. A 10-year-old Macallan is at least 15 dollars a shot in a bar. The Valdespino is a 14-year sherry, and it costs about 25 dollars a bottle on the shelf."

Vann's sherry tasting at Threes Brewing

The 2014 Valdespino "En Rama" Manzanilla is one of the three sherries he's pouring at Threes, where we've set up a Sherry Shack (well, we hung a cardboard sign that says "Sherry Shack" on Threes' outdoor bar, but it's a Sherry Shack nonetheless). Vann is also sampling Emilio Hidalgo "Gobernador" Oloroso and Valdespino "Tio Diego" Amontillado, as well as Threes' house-made sherry, a "Katas" Manzanilla served on tap.

Unlike the sweet varieties most people associate with sherry, all four that Vann is pouring are dry and made from the Palomino grape. He suggests more oxidative dry sherries like Oloroso and Amontillado for beginners and lighter, fresh sherries like finos or Manzanilla for more advanced studies.

Vann is especially enthusiastic about the future of the fortified wine: "Sherry has changed dramatically in the 10 years I've been in the industry. The notion that we would have Manzanilla on tap in a bar is incredible to me. That signals that sherry has entered the mainstream. It's still a little bit of a challenge to sell sometimes, because it's not something people organically reach for. But I think that it deserves to be defended."

As guest after guest steps up to the Sherry Shack, Vann greets each one with open arms and a glass of golden deliciousness. They sip, and Vann proselytizes, urging them to reconsider the wine. Most of them are sherry novices, and they seem impressed.

As the sun sets on the Sherry Shack, a happy Vann has won over many buzzed disciples.


This November, Tasting Table is going to party like it's 2015. Join us.