When Camerata at Paulie’s opened quietly last summer, the wine bar became an instant hit, rising to the top of Houston’s best wine bar lists within a matter of months. What sets it apart from the rest is not just ambience or a great vino list — it’s a place where you drink and enjoy wine, but also learn about it, become more adventurous, go beyond that safe glass of merlot or cabernet sauvignon to explore little known varietals and small producers. It has also become a think tank for young wine professionals and those aspiring to advance in the field, and that’s largely thanks to David Keck.
A professional opera singer (he trained at The Juilliard School and sang operatic bass) until about five years ago, when Keck left his career in music to become a wine professional, he committed himself to mastering his craft. He currently holds an advanced sommelier certification and spends his time not just on his wine bar, which he owns with partner Paul Petronella, but on wine education. He is one of the founders of the burgeoning Houston Sommelier Association, where he’s working to change the way Houstonians drink wine. Forbes Travel Guide interviewed this forward-thinking visionary about the experiences he’s trying to cultivate for his customers, his approach to the wine program at Camerata and what he’s striving to do with the Houston Sommelier Association.
What’s the significance behind naming the wine bar Camerata?
The Florentine Camerata was basically the birthplace of modern opera. It was the place where humanists, thinkers, artists, musicians and politicians hung out and discussed great ideas, what should happen and how the arts should move forward. So the name tied in with the idea of a place where people could come to think, talk and be engaged, as opposed to just hanging out and being entertained. Camerata isn’t just a place to come and drink —although we’re perfectly happy if people want to come and just have a great glass of wine —but if you want to come and engage with the staff, the list, the history behind it or the culture that went into that wine, then that’s also a possibility.
What is the experience you want to give someone who walks into Camerata?
I think wine should always be a conversation. Our list is organized by style, which in and of itself is difficult for Americans, who love to order by grape varietal or region. Both of those were difficult for this list because there are a huge number of regions and grape varieties. I just went stylistically because I think that, despite the fact that Americans like ordering by varietal, the way we, as sommeliers, actually find the right wine for people is by discussing style. When you come in here, we’ll ask you things such as, “Are you looking for a light, dry, aromatic white wine? Are you looking for a white wine with a little more weight to it? Are you looking for something with some sweetness to it? Do you want a wine that is fuller bodied, more structured, more voluptuous? Or are you looking for something that’s a bit lighter, more mineral-driven?”Most people will respond to these questions and know what they want, but if they don’t, it falls on the staff to have that conversation.
Tell us more about your wine program.
Every day, the by-the-glass list changes. It’s a constantly moving target because I think it keeps things interesting for the staff to constantly be pouring new and interesting wines. It also gives us flexibility if one case of a killer wine comes into the state and we know it’s not going to last very long. We pour it by the glass and give people the opportunity to try something new and exciting that’ll be gone in a day or two. The full list changes every couple of months based on dwindling inventory. Everything on the list, to some extent or another, is limited production and made by a family somewhere. For me, wine is as much about culture and history as it is about a sense of place. The French have the word terroir, which literally translates into the soil and dirt in which the grapes are grown, but more figuratively and more importantly, it also relates to the culture and the history of that region. Many of the wines I bring in are hard-to-acquire wines, where just six bottles or a couple of cases come into Texas.
Let’s talk about the Houston Sommelier Association, of which you are a founder. What is it exactly? Why didn’t the city have it before?
Essentially it was a conversation that I had with Ben Roberts, who at the time was the sommelier at Masraff’s, and Steven McDonald, the beverage director at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse. We were saying that there really isn’t a nucleus for discussion, for education, for learning how to taste or discussing theory. There are great winemakers, importers, producers, beverage professionals and sommeliers coming through Houston on a weekly basis. Mostly, if a winemaker comes to town, they bounce from one bar or restaurant to the next, taste with the buyer for half an hour and drive around. It’s a terrible use of time and you don’t really ever get the opportunity to ask all the questions you want. So we said, here’s an opportunity where at least once a week, we can have a winemaker, importer or whoever is available come talk to a group with a vested interest in wine. We hold the meeting every Wednesday morning at 10:30 a.m. and it’s open to whoever can attend —sommeliers, yes, but also servers, bartenders, bloggers, wine aficionados and some collectors.
Who are some of the people you’ve had present at the Houston Sommelier Association and what kind of subjects were discussed?
Peter Wasserman (a major Burgundy importer) did an outstanding presentation on Burgundy for us. We had Ernst Loosen of Dr. Loosen wines in Germany, one of the foremost producers of Riesling, talk about what he’s doing in Washington and his spectacular wines in the Mosel. The folks from Rodney Strong Vineyards [just did] an entire Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon symposium —they discussed soil types throughout Alexander Valley. Klaus Gasser from Cantina Terlano estate in the Alto Adige [in northern Italy] came in to talk about the soils there. Bear Dalton from Spec’s liquor did a presentation on Bordeaux, where he pulled 25 bottles of Bordeaux for us to taste —different appellations, different vintages. It was spectacular. And we don’t charge anything for it. Basically, you just show up and listen to about an hour-and-a-half presentation, taste wines and then people stick around and help polish glasses.
Photo Courtesy of Mai Pham