That Wine Lyfe: Justin Vann of PSA Wines, Houston

Americas sommeliers have access to some of the best wines in the world. But what are they drinking off duty? Welcome to "That Wine Lyfe," the drink diary of America's wine pros.

Justin Vann’s interest in wine began on paper. While taking classes with the Court of Master Sommeliers, he discovered the “unbridled joy “ that comes when academic study and sensory stimulation meet. Many of the wines he loves today, like vin jaune, he fell in love with before he even had a chance to taste them.

The real turning point, though, came at the age of 22. He had just left a “depressing steakhouse gig” where he was slinging “high-alcohol, Napa wines that all tasted the same.” While on a trip to San Francisco he stopped in at Bi-Rite (a wine shop, among other things) and the abbreviated, but unexpected selection caught his attention. It was enough to renew his curiosity.

That curiosity grew into an interest in the esoteric—he is a self-proclaimed “weird wine” guy—which is a considerably more perilous obsession in his hometown of Houston than it would be in a more established wine drinking town. That’s why, after putting together the exceptional beverage program at Oxheart, he left to start his own importing company, PSA, which is dedicated to expanding the range of wines available in Houston.

Now, a typical week in his drinking life consists of everything from simple, cheap Côtes du Rhône (“I am a giant cheapskate”) to ‘Vin de Constance’ from Klein Constantia, a South African sweet wine that, it turns out, pairs “amazingly with LARP [Live Action Role Play].”

We caught up with him as he was sneaking a bottle of Vouvray into a movie theater to watch the latest Wes Anderson film. Here’s a breakdown of the other things he had to drink this week:

Cesar Florido ‘Cruz de Mar’ Oloroso NV | $20
“Out of desperation and curiosity, I took a bottle of Cesar Florido Oloroso with me to my favorite pho place—Pho Binh by Night. Let me say with zero hyperbole that it wasn’t just a good pairing, it was life-changing. I get a large bowl of rare steak pho with a huge side of piping hot bone marrow and gobs of hoisin. The sherry cut through the unctuous meaty soup like a chainsaw through a piñata. I will never eat pho without sherry again. Please believe me that this works.”

Eric Texier ‘Rouletabulle’ Pet-Nat 2011 | $25
“I took a bottle of this to the opening of my friends Ryan Pera and Morgan Weber’s new Italian restaurant Coltivare, and it worked with everything like a champion. I’ve been drinking a lot of Pet-Nat [rustic, sparkling wines made with no addition of yeast or sugar], and this might be one of the most impressive I’m ever come across. I don’t know where the hell Texier found chasselas [a grape typically found in Alpine regions] in the Rhône and I don’t care. I had it with raw watermelon radishes with butter and seasalt, fried sweetbreads with shallots and coal-grilled chicken with grapes. It was such a perfect meal I felt like I had to go riot and set the cars in the parking lot on fire. I drank the whole bottle myself.”

Klein Constantia ‘Vin de Constance’ 2005 | $60
“On a particularly intoxicated Saturday afternoon a few of my friends and I cracked a bottle of Vin de Constance, and to my dismay at first everyone thought it was too sweet and intense. I ended up pouring it into a paper coffee cup and took it for a walk to go see the Dan Flavin exhibit. On the way, we were stopped dead in our tracks by a LARP (Live Action Role Play) tournament in the park nearby. We watched grown men and women dressed in medieval garb engage in deadly serious combat with foam swords and battle axes, while sipping one of the most timeless dessert wines in the world, out of a paper cup. We agreed unanimously that the wine paired amazingly with LARP—and that maybe we were going insane.”

Clos Ouvert Carmenere 2011 | $23
“I am absolutely obsessed with the wines of Clos Ouvert—they taste nothing like the jacked up, overripe Chilean wines I cut my teeth on back in my steakhouse days. Their carmenere tastes really mineral and brooding, like umami, rocks and fruit. I buy all I can for my accounts, and then I skim a bottle or two off the top for myself. I enjoyed one of the carmeneres and a bottle of their 300-year-old-vine Pais yesterday while I watched my chef Justin Yu make a startlingly gross pot of chicken and dumplings for a dinner party. He’s very good at cooking, so I really cherish calling him out when he fucks up. We also 86-ed a bottle of Jester King Ambree (a sour farmhouse ale made in Austin).”

JL Chave Mon Coeur Côtes du Rhône 2011 | $19
“I’ve probably pigeonholed myself as an advocate of weird and challenging wines, but I swear this is the kind of stuff I regularly drink. Not just JL Chave but all Côtes du Rhône has always been close to my heart because I am a giant cheapskate, and I feel like it has always over delivered. I’ve been doing this just long enough to see some of my favorite cheap wines become expensive. But not CDR. It tastes like ripe black fruit and blood. I killed one during the True Detective finale. So sad it’s over.”

Layla Khabiri studied languages in college (Spanish, French, Farsi) but now works in wine retail. She is the weekend editor for Eater New York and enjoys beer and cocktails almost as much as wine.