Wine lists rock at two new restaurants in Katy and northeast Houston
When you live near downtown as I do, in a city with such a good wining-and-dining scene, it’s easy to become indifferent to what our suburbs might have to offer. However, in recent weeks, I gassed up the car, then made the effort to think — and drink — outside the Loop. And two trips in opposite directions proved well worth a little freeway time. Harvest Green Winery & Kitchen on the Grand Parkway West near where Richmond melds into Katy (or vice versa) and Bocca Italian Kitchen to the northeast just off the Sam Houston Tollway share two essential elements: great pizzas and excellent, focused wine lists. Of course, the former’s is very narrowly focused, seeing as it’s all Messina Hof wines. Harvest Green is the sleek but casual new restaurant — soon to be surrounded by its own vineyards, too — that doubles as a winery/tasting room for the Bonarrigo family’s Bryan-based mini-empire, finally giving it a welcome presence in Greater Houston. What makes the concept work is the diversity of Messina Hof’s portfolio. “Eighty-eight SKUs,” winemaker Paul Mitchell Bonarrigo said proudly if also a bit sheepishly because, when he took over for his father, Paul Vincent Bonarrigo, in 2012, he vowed to do some trimming. “But I’m cut from the same cloth as my dad, unfortunately or fortunately,” he said. The Harvest Green list has about 60 Messina Hof wines on offer, including a dozen that are on tap by the glass, to pair with salads, burgers and other sandwiches, “shareables” and a half-dozen delicious Neapolitan pizzas. Most of the major American vitis vinifera varietals, white and red, are represented in some form, and the so-called Italian grapes in the mix — a requisite nod to the Bonarrigos’ Sicilian heritage — include primitivo, sangiovese and sagrantino. The more Gulf Coast-friendly varietals blanc du bois and lenoir (also called jacquez or black Spanish) are conspicuous in mix as well, the latter in the ports. Such variety speaks both to Messina Hof’s ambition and to how diverse grape-growing in Texas has become. Team Bonarrigo has been on a remarkable roll of late, collecting major awards and a slew of medals in competitions in Houston, San Antonio, Dallas and even San Francisco, where the largest and arguably most prestigious judging in the country takes place. There, the 2018 Private Reserve Tempranillo and 2019 Private Reserve Viognier both took home Best of Class awards, and the Angel Late Harvest Riesling was awarded a gold medal. Closer to home, Messina Hof was also selected as the Top Texas Winery at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo 2021 Rodeo Uncorked! International Wine Competition while receiving an additional 21 awards, including 10 Class and Texas Class Champion awards, three Reserve Texas Class Champion awards and three golds. Eight golds were collected in the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo International Wine Competition, as was a Top of Class designation for the 2018 GSM. Further, the 2018 Paulo Merlot won gold at the 2021 TEXSOM International Wine Awards. All can be ordered by the glass or bottle (none go for more than $60) at Harvest Green, which becomes Messina Hof’s fourth winery after the Bryan mothership, Fredericksburg and Grapevine. Because this is the Texas Gulf Coast and Pierce’s Disease is endemic in the soil, the grapes that created the aforementioned champions tend not to do well in these parts, save for the PD-resistant lenoir and, somewhat improbably, the sagrantino, which is also thriving on the Bryan estate, although those vines require a good bit of what Bonarrigo called “intervention.” But “not only has it shown no signs of diminishing,” he noted, “the tannin level we get is so much more pronounced than from what we grow in the High Plains. The yield is a lot less, but the fruit concentration is much greater.” And there’s potentially more exciting news. Experimental vitis vinifera vines that are genetically programmed to be PD resistant have been doing well in test plantings, and there’s a very good chance they’ll be in the ground on the Harvest Green property by next year, meaning site-specific wines from the Katy Prairielands may eventually be bottled. Meanwhile, Bocca and its sister pizzeria Lupo next door, which shares the same wine list, have dramatically livened up the scene on another expanse of previously untrammeled soil not far from the western shores of Lake Houston. Located in Redemption Square within the sprawling 4,200-acre new development called Generation Park, it’s another airy, stylish venue that’s hyper focused — but on all things Italian and only Italian, on the plate and in the bottle. Justin Turner, the chef here, made a name for himself locally as the celebrated founder of Bernie’s Burger Bus, which, sadly, met its demise last spring amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Rather than sulk, Turner reinvented himself, having always wanted to give Italian cooking a go after growing up in the culture in Chicago. An even bolder decision, made in concert with his general manager, Kyle Roberts, was to go with just Italian wines from boutique producers despite a modicum of concern that less enlightened imbibers might be miffed when they can’t find their favorite brand-name California cab or chardonnay. “So far we’re happy with how the list is being received,” Turner said. One would hope. Scanning the wildly eclectic options — nearly 40 of them when I visited, including varietals as obscure as the Piemontese white grape timorasso — I couldn’t have been happier spying several of my longstanding go-to wines, from the Carmina Loggia Prosecco ($10 for glass, $36 for a bottle), the Matteo Correggia Roero Arneis ($15, $40), Igino Roagna’s Perpetuae Barbera del Alba ($14, $48), Bruno Rocca’s Barbaresco ($135) and the Siro Pacenti Brunello di Montalcino Vecchie Vigne ($230). All pair splendidly with Turner’s splendidly classic rendition of “New Haven-style” clam pizza.