By most restaurant standards, closing after 11 months would be considered a pretty epic failure. At One Fifth in Houston, it’s by design.
In 2016, chef Chris Shepherd and his business partners opened what’s essentially a restaurant incubator, designed to be overhauled annually, yielding five different restaurant concepts over the course of five years. The space, a former church, has seen two iterations so far, beginning with One Fifth Steak, then transitioning into its current format, One Fifth Romance Languages, which opened in September, 2017, and highlights the wine and food of France, Italy and Spain, in particular.
Shepherd—along with wine director Matt Pridgen, with whom he’s worked for the past 10 years—is most comfortable in an ever-frenetic kitchen. At his beloved restaurant Underbelly (currently closed, and relocating to make way for steakhouse Georgia James), the local menu changed daily, yielding a constant blur of flavors.
“You never knew what was gonna be on the menu,” says Pridgen, who became adept at creating an agile wine list that could bend to the whims of Shepherd’s wide variety of dishes. “I wanted wines that wouldn’t mask the flavors of the cuisine, wines that have balance and finesse and really pair well with Chris’s food—which could go from Korean one day to Mexican the next.”
So, when presented with the challenge of operating a wine program that needed to be reinvented every year, Pridgen was well-equipped. For One Fifth Steak, he went big, building a 500-bottle program around Champagne to align with Shepherd’s behemoth raw bar, plus burly reds—nebbiolos from Piemonte, Rhône blends, Priorats and a supersized American cabernet list—to match the dry-aged beef hanging in a locker behind the bar.
“Most sane people open a restaurant and build a wine list for the long term, hoping they will be around and profitable for as long as possible,” wrote Pridgen at the top of the wine list at One Fifth Steak. “No, we aren’t doing that… are we insane? Maybe… but we are going to have a damn fun time doing it!”
So far, Shepherd has steered the themes based on what he wants to cook, and the design and wine follow suit. In practice—and because in Texas, it’s not legal to sell off wine, or even to relocate it to a different restaurant—this means that Pridgen has stocked about 60 percent of the list with wines (usually priced at $100 or less) that can easily function in the context of any theme. (The steak-worthy reds at One Fifth Steak, for example, were easily rolled over onto the Romance Languages list.) The other 40 percent is in constant flux, and augmented where needed to fit the concept. “Here, I’m planning for the future, but it’s the immediate future, not the long-term future,” says Pridgen.
Despite flipping the list so frequently, Pridgen says he’s still able to get older vintages by working with distributors who offer back-vintage releases and with wineries that consistently hold wines back for a number of years before putting them on the market. For instance, one of his favorite South African wineries, Hamilton Russell, has been selling vertical packs of its pinot noir, an easy prefab for his fast-paced program.
Now, less than six months out from the restaurant’s next iteration, Eastern Mediterranean, Pridgen is already making room in his cellar for the new concept. He’ll give space to reds and whites from southern Italy and Greece, Sicily and Corsica while also exploring regions that most people won’t be all that familiar with—“myself included in a lot of cases,” he says. He’s researching bottles from Lebanon, Israel, Croatia and Turkey, as well as those from Macedonia, Morocco and Slovenia.
“I’m the world’s worst about buying wines that I’m not necessarily going to put on the list immediately… I love to have things on hand and let them sit for six months or three years,” says Pridgen. “This is one thing I’ve really had to change in my buying style.”
One Fifth In Five Bottles
Venica & Venica Ronco del Cerò Sauvignon Blanc
Venica & Venica, in Friuli’s Collio region, has become something of sommelier darling in the past five years. Part of that must be thanks to its affable winemaker, Giampaolo Venica. But the direct freshness of the wines undeniably holds significant sway, too. “I love sauvignon blanc and I really love Venica’s wines,” says Pridgen. “They achieve ripeness without being overripe, or underripe, and they don’t carry a lot of the grassy, overtly fruity characteristics that some sauvignon blanc does.” This bottling comes from the first plot that Venica’s grandfather purchased, in 1929.
- Price: $25
- Vintage: 2015
Hamilton Russell Chardonnay
South Africa is not the first country most think of for Burgundy varieties, but Hamilton Russell has proven that Hemel-en-Aarde, in the coastal Walker Bay region, is prime territory for them. A moderating breeze and fog that creeps in from the ocean every day makes it so. “I just think their wines, for the price, are absolutely amazing,” says Pridgen. “This is reminiscent of white Burgundy—with so much restraint and minerality—at a fraction of the cost.”
- Price: $32
- Vintage: 2016
Domaine du Banneret Le Secret Châteauneuf-du-Pape
For those who often drink pinot noir or cabernet, Pridgen typically suggests this Châteauneuf. “It’s fuller than pinot, but it’s not as full as a cabernet blend,” explains Pridgen. This small estate in Châteauneuf-du-Pape has been around since the 1400s. The wine is based in old-vine grenache, but all 13 Châteauneuf varieties are included in the blend. “This is classic in every sense of the word; The wines are ripe without pushing the envelope,” says Pridgen.
- Price: $51
- Vintage: 2015
Terroir al Límit Vi de Vila de Torroja
In 2001, Eben Sadie, an icon in South Africa’s Swartland, began this collaborative project in Spain’s Priorat with Dominik Huber. Demands of his own winery necessitated that Sadie step away in 2012, but the philosophy of the wines remains. “It’s an atypical wine for the region in that it sees no new oak and ripeness is kept in check,” says Pridgen. The old-vine selection of grenache and carignane is produced from different sites throughout Priorat.
- Price: $45
- Vintage: 2014
“I really gravitate towards Alto Piemonte—regions like Gattinara and Valtellina,” says Pridgen. “With nebbiolo, I like the finesse that comes from cooler, higher elevation climates.” This, from the oldest recognized winery in Gattinara, represents an excellent value for incredibly well-made nebbiolo, rivaling its Barolo brethren. Pridgen is also a fan of Nervi’s sparkling nebbiolo, a wine that comes and goes from the market. “I get it 50 percent of the times that I order it,” he says.
- Price: $27
- Vintage: 2011