A little over a decade ago, Justin Vann dropped out of college to pursue a career in wine.
Since then, he’s made a name for himself in Houston by championing a number of esoteric bottles—from pét-nat to sherry to South Africa’s Vin de Constance—and for being among the first in the city to do so. Having initially gained recognition for his acclaimed list at Justin Yu’s Oxheart, he’s since moved on to work as a consultant for a variety of restaurants across the city, including Bobby Heugel’s Better Luck Tomorrow, not to mention his own wine and whisky bar, Public Services, and the forthcoming Theodore Rex.
Though his list-building philosophy hinges on the needs of each restaurant, he takes care to make each wine program accessible to a variety of drinkers. “I aim for the middle ground between classic, conventional and funky natural wines,” says Vann. “It’s a huge priority for me to represent both sides of the spectrum. They’re not mutually exclusive, and it drives me crazy when people suggest otherwise.”
So what does Vann drink on his days off? Here, he takes a stab at our Lookbook Questionnaire to share his go-to drink in a dive, his weirdest hobby and the one thing he wishes would disappear from drink lists forever. —Amy C. Collins
I’m the owner and wine buyer for Public Services Wine & Whisky. I also buy wine for Mala Sichuan, Better Luck Tomorrow and Justin Yu’s upcoming restaurant in the old Oxheart space.
What do want to be when you grow up?
If everything goes according to plan, I will remain a sommelier ’til the end. I would like to write a book one day. I’d also like to be the guy who cuts up fruit at a fruit stand in a tropical place.
Best thing you ever drank:
This is a tough one with multiple answers. The situation can make something taste better, more memorable in context. Usually it’s Champagne, and usually it’s with a lady. It’s cheesy, I know.
Worst thing you ever drank:
Someone brought us a bottle of Jeppson’s Malort, and Chef thought it would be funny to freeze it and make a Japanese-style highball with it. It tasted like chilly, carbonated bile. It was so much worse than straight Malort.
First time you ever got drunk:
The first time I got drunk was off of cheap vodka with my friend Clayton Pierce while we were freshmen in high school. This is the same guy who would eventually build a still and we would make moonshine together. After that, we didn’t need people to buy alcohol for us.
If you had to listen to one album on loop, for the rest of your life, what would it be?
This sounds like the premise for a Black Mirror episode. Either way: Cross by Justice.
What’s the weirdest hobby you currently have or have had?
I’m exploring getting a license to handle pyrotechnics.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago?
I should have used more Burgundy.
Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted:
When Oxheart opened, we didn’t have a beer or wine license for a few weeks. So I sidestepped this by using ingredients that weren’t legally classified as alcohol. I made a punch with local beet and Meyer lemon juices, maple syrup and like 32 ounces of angostura. It’s the only good-ish cocktail I’ve ever made. It permanently stained everything it touched, my wonky Trinidad Sour-wannabe.
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not eating, drinking or drink-making?
I watch movies, but it’s important to note I almost never watch movies without alcohol. I think it helps suspend doubt. I also like writing in my blog, but I’m sheepish about it.
Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten:
Our options for weird drink requests are limited at Public Services since we have a very Spartan cocktail program. However, I recall being puzzled by someone ordering an Octomore 7.3 cask strength Islay scotch and Coke. Similarly unsettling: Toki and diet Coke.
Your favorite bar, and why:
I go to Poison Girl for the beautiful bar and life-threateningly strong whiskey. I go to Tongue-Cut Sparrow for attentive service and well-executed classic cocktails. I go to Anvil for everything in between these two places. Outside of Houston, it would be Maison Premiere. I like Absinthe Frappés a lot, and I like getting a nice stack of coasters.
Best meal you’ve ever had:
The first thing I did in Spain when I landed in Bilbao was immediately take an 80-euro cab ride to Asador Etxebarri. I was jetlagged out of my mind, and the restaurant was empty. Everything I ate was delicious, beautiful and haunts my dreams to this day. I ate chuleton de buey from an eight-year-old Galician cow that accomplished more in life that I ever did.
Burgundy or dirty natural wine. Frequently French wine.
In a dive bar?
Straight American whiskey or the coldest, shittiest beer possible.
Your preferred hangover recovery regime:
Coffee, and immediately getting back to work. I don’t prefer this method but it’s usually my only option.
The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever:
Batteries. iPad wine lists enrage me. Unless you’re talking about a six thousand item wine list like Bern’s Steakhouse or La Tour D’Argent, iPad wine lists are unnecessary and a liability. Another way I like to say this: Your wine list should still function normally after being shot with a pistol. Extra points if it’s thick enough to stop a bullet.
The last text message you sent:
“So red wine stems and flutes, both with 5oz pour lines, correct? How many do you want to order?”