Chris Shepherd was having a casual conversation about eating and drinking—everyday topics for James Beard Award-winning chef/owner of Houston’s Underbelly—when he was asked to describe how well he understood wine. “Front to back, and side to side,” he responded, referencing a lyric from trailblazing Texas rap group Underground Kingz.
Oklahoma-bred Shepherd is used to getting attention for his imaginative interpretations of “American Creole” cooking, including shawarma meatballs and pecan-smoked beef neck. But, having run the extensive wine program at Brennan’s of Houston for two years, his vast knowledge of vineyards and varietals is also impressive.
When it came time to update Underbelly’s own list—overseen by general manager Matthew Pidgen, and devoted to family-owned and -operated wineries—Shepherd couldn’t get that circa-1994 UGK song out of his head. Local artist Matt Tabor was already in the midst of creating a comic strip to reflect Shepherd’s irreverent approach to wine, so the chef thought it would be fitting to call in his pal Bun B—one half of the acclaimed rap duo—to write a few informal tasting notes for the by-the-glass selections, and serve as the “narrator” of his oenophilic comic-strip.
“I thought it could be a visual—and approachable—way of telling the story. I think wine should be fun, and what’s more fun than comics?” says Shepherd. The result is an eye-catching, colorful list peppered with illustrations, playful descriptions, and a list of favorite neighborhood BYOB joints. There’s even a shout-out to the Beastie Boys and a no-BS explanation of sulfites (“Do sulfites cause headaches? No.).
In recent years, unconventional menu design has emerged as a useful way for bars and restaurants delineate their distinct personalities, and to educate consumers without being didactic. Consider Trick Dog in San Francisco, whose most recent cocktail menu—following versions based on a Pantone color wheel, record album, Zodiac wheel, and tourist map—is inspired by Chinese take-out combos.
Underbelly’s new wine list fits into this burgeoning genre, and the back-and-forth between Shepherd and Bun B adds a welcome degree of accessibility. Of the 2012 Gundlach Bundschu Gewürztraminer from the Sonoma Coast, Shepherd writes, “Bigger than it looks. Not what you’d expect. It will get you in the sack.” Self-described wine neophyte Bun’s take: “Very floral, lots of flowers. An easier grape to drink than spell, for sure.” Likewise, the NV Eric Bordelet Poiré Authentique cider, from Normandy, leads Shepherd to pen, “Quite lovely, so light. Look harder than it is. You can get lost in that.” Bun, however, warns, “This can get you in trouble, too easy to drink. What to drink with your wife after every-one’s gone to bed. This is fun.”
Shepherd notes that the collaboration worked because it felt natural: “I think it’s cool when you have someone like Bun, who is so instrumental in the music industry, to be able to sit down, talk, taste, and learn from each other.”
Bun also found the experience revelatory. “Chris explained the history of the different wines and regions, and it was really informative for me as I’m not necessarily the most educated of wine drinkers,” he says. “In the end, we just went with what we liked. It’s all about your personal preference, whatever sits right on your palate. One man’s Merlot is another man’s Cabernet. Some people find what they like and stick with it. Others may be more open to newer flavors. But no one is necessarily wrong.” Put that way, it sounds a lot like music preferences.
You can read the entire Underbelly wine list—and download a PDF version—over on the restaurant’s website.