The Eating Our Words 100: Sean Beck, Sommelier Extraordinaire
Photo courtesy of Paula Murphy
Who he is:
Sommelier and wine consultant to a number of Houston establishments, Sean Beck started working as a waiter at Backstreet Cafe 15 years ago while he was pursuing a history degree at the University of Houston.
"At the time, Backstreet had about a 55-bottle wine list," Beck recalls. Backstreet's owner, Tracy Vaught, noticed that Sean excelled at recommending and selling wines to customers, and began asking him to help her with wine buying. "I started reading all about wine. Jeb Stuart [then chef of the Daily Review Cafe] and I also started meeting up to watch South Park and baseball and taste wines every Wednesday. I just tried to learn as much as possible."
Although Beck later enrolled in more official courses of study and certification programs, he describes his early wine education as "the school of hard knocks." He credits his vast knowledge of wine to being fearless about asking questions. "I went to every tasting possible. Asked about anything I didn't understand or know the answer to. It's always hard to ask questions for fear of looking stupid, but that's the only way to learn."
Why he loves it:
"Being a history major," Beck eagerly explains, "I, of course, love the study of the past. And that's essentially the study of wine: It's learning about conditions and history of the land, who was growing what, etc." Sean also appreciates the artistic elements of wine, how "wine can transport you to a certain time, place, gathering...and evoke certain emotions."
What inspires him:
For Beck, it's the everyday conversations with clients and customers that invigorate him. "I don't think I'll ever want to be a sommelier that won't work the [restaurant] floor," he notes. "Those interactions are just too important to me."
As for developing wine lists and pairings, it's all about the time of year. "I taste all the time to see what's working and what isn't. Seasonality drives everything."
Where he's been and where he's going:
To broaden his viticultural expertise, Beck has traveled extensively in Europe and South America. He also hopes to visit South Africa and especially Australia.
"After the Shiraz boom," Sean explains, "Australia almost became unpopular again. Winemakers really had to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. There's some great value to be had again in Australian wines."
Ask Sean where he'll be in the future and you'll quickly learn he has five-year plans. In addition to continuing to develop the Iron Sommelier competition to benefit the Periwinkle Foundation (which he is determined to make Houston's premier wine event), Sean also has tricks up his sleeve for future projects with Backstreet, Hugo's and Trevisio.
"I've been fortunate to work with really passionate people" says Beck. "I think there's room in Houston for other [wine] ventures." Although in vino veritas, Sean is keeping mum about the specifics. But if history repeats itself, no doubt more successes are on the horizon.
Finally, he knows this much is true:
"Wine should be approachable," says Beck. It was Bear Dalton who emphasized to him that the experience of drinking wine should never be intimidating. "Everyone should feel like they can enjoy wine. You don't have to know something special to drink wine; just because you can't articulate exactly why you like something doesn't mean your opinion isn't valid."
The Eating...Our Words 100:
- Brooksy Smith, Owner of JerryBuilt Homegrown Burgers - Minh Nguyen, Owner of Cafe TH and One of Houston's Best Front-of-House Personalities - Tiffany Tyler and Aimee Turney of Central City Co-Op - Ellen Schwartz, Culinary Instructor & Private Chef - James DeLeon, Certified Sommelier and Craft Beer Nut at Kroger - Alex Padilla, Executive Chef at Ninfa's on Navigation - Kevin Strickland, Herder of Cats at gratifi, a.k.a. Ziggy's - Ron Chen, Owner and "Head Coach" at Rattan Pan-Asian Bistro - Brock Wagner, Godfather of Craft Beer in Houston and Founder of Saint Arnold Brewery, the Oldest Microbrewery in Texas - Blanche Kinze, Murray's Cheese Master at Kroger - Bear Dalton, Wine Buyer & Educator, Spec's - Sam Ray of Republic National, Houston's Largest Wine Distributor - Thai Van, Server Extraordinaire at Kata Robata - Dale Robertson, a Populist Among Wine Writers - Denman Moody, Author of The Advanced Oenophile - Benjy Mason, Executive Chef at Down House
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