And they called him "Grappa Joe."
"When I first started at Spec's 20 years ago," says Joseph "Grappa Joe" Kemble, who was born and raised in Houston, "I was the only one in the store who was into grappa. When a customer would come in and ask for grappa, they would say grappa, Joe over the intercom. After a while, the name just stuck."
The anecdote says a lot about how far Italian wine and spirits have come over the last two decades.
Back when the teenage Joseph abandoned a promising career as a hair stylist -- his father was once ranked the seventeenth best "precision" hair stylist in the world -- and became a box boy at Leibman's Wine and Fine Foods on Memorial, Italian wine was sold mostly in jugs and few had even heard of grappa. Today, Italian wine is one of the hottest categories in wine today and across America, fine dining venues offer top-name grappas alongside entries from Cognac and Armagnac. And 20 years after Grappa Joe began stocking jugs of "Bolla Merlot" at Leibman's, he now oversees the largest selection of Italian wine in Texas at the flagship store of our state's largest wine and spirits retailer.
"I've been to Italy more than 50 times," he told me when we spoke earlier this week, "and even though I have to carry a lot of 'grocery store' wines [at Spec's], I'm really looking for mom-and-pop producers."
I can attest to Joseph's passion for family-owned and run Italian wineries: I run into him every year at Vinitaly, the Italian wine trade fair held in Verona, and we always find time to taste something great together. And I'm here to tell you, people, this dude knows Italian wine.
One of the Italian categories that I'm the most excited about at Spec's is Joseph's selection of Lambrusco (if you've been following along here at Wine Time, you know that Italian wine is my thing). In our parents' day, Lambrusco was marketed to American consumers as a cheap, sweet wine to serve on ice. Today, as the Italian wine revival continues to expand in our country, there are more dry Lambruscos available in the U.S. than ever before and Spec's has, by far, the largest selection in Texas.
"I currently have eight Lambruscos on my shelves right now and I plan to have 12 by the end of the year," he told me.
This is the third post in a series of profiles of Houston wine professionals (see Vanessa Treviño Boyd here and Marcy Jiminez here). They've been inspired by my belief that getting to know your local wine professionals is the key to discovering great value and quality in fine wine. They're the ones who hold the keys to the cellar.
So get your butt over to Spec's on Smith Street and ask them to call out over the intercom: Lambrusco, Joe.
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