By Brian Fry
What: Vernon’s Cafe
Where: 720 Youngstown-Warren Road, Niles, 330-652-1381
Hours: Mon-Thurs.: 11:30 a.m. - 10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat.: 11:30 a.m. - 11 p.m.
There are a few “must visit” restaurants on the list of great places for Valley wine lovers to frequent. Vernon’s Cafe in Niles is at or near the top of that list, thanks in large part to their wine guy, Dennis Huston. Huston has poured wine for lovers of the vino for almost 30 years, including the last 12 at Vernon’s.
Vernon Cesta says Dennis has what it takes to make the wine/food experience enjoyable and understandable for his customers. “Dennis’ experience and knowledge is second to none in our area. He is personable, honest and hard-working.”
Cesta says Huston’s value to Vernon’s goes beyond wine sales. “He is a restaurant manager, educator and psychologist. These skills allow him to upgrade the quality of wines enjoyed with our food.”
The list at Vernon’s is impressive in its quality and depth. They offer 15 wines by the glass and 400 by the bottle ranging in price from $18 to $4,500. Each day when the dinner specials are posted, Huston selects wines to pair with them. He knows that picking wines is about more than selecting wines he likes.
“My job is to taste a wine from our customers’ perspective and decide if the pricing and flavor profiles are correct. Menu pairings are also a very important consideration.”
The role of wine guy goes well beyond tasting and selecting wines. Huston knows that passing his passion and knowledge on the staff is critical to his success.
“Getting our staff to drink wine and enjoy it is critical. If you like wine and understand it, then you’ll sell it. I also try to train our customers at the tables by providing them a good range of wines to choose from so they can find their comfort zone.”
Huston identifies the late Richard Alberini as his mentor and inspiration. He worked at Alberini’s for 17 years before moving to Vernon’s.
“Richard was the leader of wine in this area for 25 years. All people knew around here was Lambrusco and jug wine before Richard started his work. Together, we built one of the most extensive cellars in the state.”
Huston’s knowledge and passion have paid off. Vernon’s has won The Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for 10 years running. He also keeps enjoying wine fun with his annual “Fat Tuesday” tasting, which offers 30-plus selections and “Retail Wine Night,” when all the bottles on the list are sold at state minimum retail price.
When you talk to Huston, it is clear that wine has become integrated into his soul. “Wine is an important part of a meal. They complement each other. It’s just not dinner without wine.”