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Farrah Akhtar | Photo: Debora Smail | August 27, 2013
Wine-bar trendsetter The Tasting Room marks its anny with expansion and spinoffs.
It’s hard to believe that, nearly a decade ago, just about the only establishments in Houston that touted the enjoyment of fine wines were white-tablecloth restaurants that required reservations.
Flash-forward to today, and the options for casual, everyday consumption of vino—come as you are, and drink the good stuff like you might a cocktail or a beer—are abundant. But before the dozens of “wine bars” in town, there was a little wine shop that could: The Tasting Room at Uptown Park (818 Town and Country Blvd., 713.993.9800), which has proved itself a prescient pioneer, a stalwart with spinoffs aplenty and a continuing knack for setting trends.
The original Tasting Room—there are now three other locations in town—marks its 10-year anniversary this month by expanding and renovating. At the same time, parent company Lasco Enterprises is prepping to open the sixth Texas location of sister restaurant concept Max’s Wine Dive in the Montrose area.
As founder and CEO Jerry Lasco, 46, would agree, The Tasting Room, known for pairing Uptown fashionistas with Downtown corporate types during the city’s busiest social hours, has come a long way. “Since we opened, we’ve sold more than 5 million glasses of wine at the Uptown location,” he says. “And right now, we’re selling about a million glasses a year. We’ve been so fortunate. This place has become so iconic, and it just continues to grow. I’m extremely surprised.”
Surprised he truly is. Running wine bars was never really his intended career. The tall family man turned restaurant mogul, originally from O’Fallon, Ill., spent 13 years as a pilot, first with the Air Force and then with Continental. It was the adventures that came with traveling from city to city, vineyard to vineyard, and winery to winery that piqued Lasco’s culinary curiosity.
Pursing his “passion for food, wine and travel,” he attended cooking school in New York and earned his sommelier certification in London. Later, he and wife Laura, a former attorney for Hewlett-Packard, found their way to Houston in 2001, but the tragedy of 9/11 resulted in his furlough with the airline. Lasco spent two years working in sales at Houston Wine Merchant, learning the ins and outs of the wine biz and, with Laura’s help, he formulated a business model for The Tasting Room, which opened Sept. 15, 2003.
“I saw a niche or need... to take the pretension and mystery out of ordering or purchasing wine,” he recalls, noting how, before The Tasting Room, people strictly associated wine drinking with fine dining. “Our goal was to demystify that whole ‘wine snob’ thing.”
The original Tasting Room was a mere 900 square feet and had two employees—Lasco as sommelier and his sister-in-law Emily Resling, who knew about branding. It was “half wine shop, half wine bar,” a first for Houston. “We offered an edited selection of wines that we categorized by taste—not origin or varietal,” explains Lasco, “and we allowed our customers to taste the wine prior to buying.” Price points were set to be attractive to a range of customers, starting at $15 a bottle, with a wide selection of by-the-glass options, too.
Today, the flagship is 9,000 square feet. With an impressive, weekly changing bottle selection of more than 200, including varietals from all over the world (“except Antarctica,” Lasco jokes), patrons keep returning. “Our current best-seller is Guard Shack Zinfandel, a ‘Discovery and Selection’ wine at all our locations.” There’s also a full kitchen, having debuted in 2007, dishing out chef-driven plates like cider-brined pork chops and Louisiana barbecue pizza, with there’s live music seven days a week, attracting a large and loyal following.
“It’s become this phenomena that I never anticipated when we opened it up,” says Lasco. Not only did The Tasting Room spin off four other locations in town—a now-closed one in Midtown in 2005, River Oaks in 2006, CityCentre in 2011 and Kingwood in 2012—but also it arguably is responsible for setting off the wine-bar trend citywide.
The physical growth of the Galleria-area hot spot has been necessary, with as many as 2,000 guests dropping in on busy nights. Cool and collected, Lasco’s green eyes light up when he speaks of the flagship’s evolution. “This space is getting bigger, it’s getting better,” he says as a smile emerges from his scruffy beard, “and it’s all coming together right before our big 10-year anniversary celebration.”
The most recent expansion—Lasco and Co. have annexed neighboring businesses and added on four times prior—includes another wine room with 150 wall-to-wall wine lockers for regulars who wish to rent them out on a monthly or quarterly basis, and a revamped high-end Reserve Room. There’s also a chic, expanded and now even weatherproof patio, which was Lasco’s main focus when conceiving this latest renovation.
“Houstonians are kinda crazy,” he laughs. “They’ll sit outside even when it’s hot. So we decided... to go all out and create the best patio and outdoor seating in the city.” Rain or shine, alfresco-loving oenophiles will enjoy a pergola-style patio with a clear and UV-resistant roof, all built around a towering oak tree.
Of course, offering inventive new ways for Houstonians to wine and dine is nothing new for Lasco. Consider the story of Max’s Wine Dive.
In 2006, as The Tasting Room grew in popularity, he decided to try his hand at another, related concept. Lasco Enterprises introduced the first Max’s (4720 Washington Ave., 713.880.8737) on what was then the burgeoning party zone of the Washington Corridor. The kicked-up-comfort-food-paired-with-wine restaurant, named after the oldest of Lasco’s two young sons, swiftly wooed those craving upscale fare in a fun, casual setting. Again, there had been an untapped void.
“We like to hang out more in dive bars, with jukeboxes and good lively crowds—a little noisier,” he says, describing the thinking behind Max’s. “So let’s just take that atmosphere and throw in good food and good wine. It’s not just baskets of peanuts and buckets of Pabst Blue Ribbon.”
Max’s—known for its tagline, “Fried chicken and Champagne? Why the hell not?!”—also proved a trailblazer, as nearby restaurants with similar concepts such as BRC and Liberty Kitchen have since launched with success. “Our goal is not to set the trends so much,” Lasco insists. “It’s to create really good food that people crave, and pair it with wine and a good time.”
There are now five Max’s locations across Texas. The latest opened in Fort Worth last month, following the arrivals of other outposts in Austin, San Antonio and Dallas in recent years. Another Max’s will bow soon in Houston, in the emerging nightlife mini-district on the border of Midtown and Montrose—where Boheme patio pub, Cuchara restaurant and the busy gay lounges Meteor and F Bar are drawing ever-larger crowds to the pedestrian-friendly area. The 2,400-square-foot space, a former grocery store on the corner of Fairview and Taft, is set to open this winter.
To hear Lasco tell it, the opening of the new location is more about serving the interests of Max’s many fans, who, after seven years, still sometimes must wait amiably for a table. “We get the best patrons in the business,” boasts the CEO. “We feel very fortunate. People go there. And they’re very much regulars, and they keep coming.” Hence the demand for a second Houston location.
The new menu will have its own chef plating up unique and seasonal items, as well as familiar favorites like the Max ’n’ Cheese—cavatappi pasta deliciously drowning in truffle cream, provolone, Gruyère and Parmigiano-Reggiano—and the Texas Haute Dog, a plate-sized beef dog folded in a Slow Dough Bread Co. baguette and towering with Texas chili, cotija cheese and jalapeños. (No one would judge you if you requested a fork and knife.) The vibrant art, lively bar atmosphere, bustling kitchen and patio seating at the new place will also be familiar to loyal Max’s Wine Dive patrons.
With The Tasting Room renovations complete, and plans set for the new Houston restaurant—not to mention the company’s opening late last year of the Boiler House eatery on the River Walk in San Antonio—is Lasco resting on his laurels? Nope. He’s inking deals expanding Max’s to cities outside the state in 2014. “Right now,” he says, “it looks like Denver first, then Atlanta, and then Chicago, all within the first half of the year.”
Closer to home, The Tasting Room helps mark its anny with a month-long series of events for the Houston Cellar Classic, a food and wine festival created at the bar in 2003. The Classic has grown from a single wine-and-food-tasting afternoon into a number of soirees at the multiple locations, like the Sept. 29 Bubbles Brunch in Kingwood, to name one. “We’re expecting 1,000 people for the Grand Tasting event on Oct. 5 [at Uptown Park].”
It’s an ambitious agenda for Lasco, but he isn’t daunted. After all, he says the mission has always been quite simple. “Holistically, [we want to] expose people to wine, and a lifestyle, and a lot of fun,” he says. “You don’t have to go out to a fancy restaurant to have wine. You can drink it on casual patio furniture, listening to live music. And it doesn’t have to be classical music. It can be rock ’n’ roll.”