James DeLeon is one of the only people I've ever met for an interview who began to interview me before I could even get a single introductory question going. It was my own fault, though, as I admitted to being a craft beer fan upon meeting DeLeon, a certified sommelier who heads up the wine and beer program at several area Kroger stores.
"What kind of beer do you like?" DeLeon immediately wanted to know, his eyes lighting up. "Have you tried any of the Buffalo Bayou stuff yet? What do you think about the new Bishop's Barrel program from Saint Arnold?" He was -- as any good sommelier should be -- eager to know what his customers like so that he can make better and more accurate recommendations.
The same eagerness and excitement was present toward the end of our interview, when I told him that I was a Pinot Noir nut. He practically pulled me by the hand to his vast Pinot Noir section and launched into explanations of various bottles from Oregon and Washington, regaling me with tales of the vineyards he's visited there and the differences between Old World Pinots and New.
Needless to say, although he's not your typical restaurant sommelier, DeLeon knows his stuff. And you don't have to pay for the price of a meal to pick his brain: He's at the Kroger on Shepherd and 11th most days of the week -- and he even hosts free wine-tasting classes on Thursday evenings. All you have to do is sign up to get DeLeon's weekly e-mails and come on out to the class of your choice. He often teams up with Kroger cheesemaster Blanche Kinze to offer free wine and cheese (or occasionally beer and cheese) classes as well.
Who he is:
James DeLeon is a certified sommelier (and prospective Cicerone) who wears the snappy uniform of his trade every single day -- although he's not required by Kroger to wear a suit or a tie -- with his gold Certified Sommelier pin affixed proudly to his lapel.
"It shows people that you've been trained to the highest potential," DeLeon says. "You should act as if you're taking care of the Queen of England every single day."
DeLeon started working at Kroger at the age of 16 while attending Sam Houston High School and has never looked back. "I just got passionate about adult beverages," he says, and eventually worked his way into the wine and beer department. DeLeon has been with Kroger for 25 years and couldn't imagine doing anything else.
"I think it shows when you're passionate about something."
Why does he love his job?
"Some people working in retail treat the customers like a burden," DeLeon says. "Not me. It's not like that here. I want you to come and have a great time and know that you can come to a grocery store for a fine wine." Inside a locked case behind his typical perch in the wine department, he shows off bottles of Penfolds, Tor and Mollydooker Velvet Glove that would easily cost at least twice as much in a restaurant, but can be had for a much more reasonable price at Kroger.
"Grocery stores aren't known for fine wine," he says, "but we're changing that perception." That and educating his customers are things DeLeon is excited to do every day. "If you can get paid for doing something you love," he says, "you've found the perfect job."
What inspires him about Houston?
DeLeon enjoys the study group he's formed with fellow Houston sommeliers such as Ben Roberts of Masraff's and Steven McDonald of Pappas Bros. Steakhouse. He also credits Guy Stout -- Houston's well-known "cowboy sommelier" -- with helping him reach his fullest potential. Stout recommended DeLeon to the Court of Master Sommeliers and still meets with DeLeon every Monday to talk shop.
And being a big craft beer fan, DeLeon is passionate about his two favorite places to grab a pint: Petrol Station and The Hay Merchant. "I'd love to do a beer and cheese thing with Ben from Petrol," he says.
DeLeon is also passionate about the way that Houstonians' perceptions of beer are changing along with their palates. "Our generation wants to float the river and take a pack of Keystone Light," he explains. "But we also want to have a nice pint of vanilla porter outside on the patio in cold weather."
If you weren't in Houston, where would you be?
DeLeon loves Oregon and the entire Pacific northwest, not only for the Pinot Noirs but also for the coffee and the beer. "Full Sail, Rogue, Deschutes," he begins, naming off his favorite breweries in the area. "And anything in Seattle."
What's next for him?
Although he's currently a Certified Sommelier, DeLeon wants to attain his Advanced Sommelier Certificate from the Court of Master Sommeliers -- something that Kroger encourages as well, funding his exams as well as trips to wineries so that DeLeon can continue advancing his education.
"The company sees my goals and ambitions," he says, "and they do what they can to help."
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The Eating...Our Words 100:
Alex Padilla, Executive Chef at Ninfa's on Navigation Kevin Strickland, Herder of Cats and Owner of gratifi Brock Wagner, Godfather of Craft Beer in Houston and Founder of Saint Arnold Brewery Blanche Kinze, Murray's Cheese Master at Kroger Bear Dalton, Wine Buyer and Educator at Spec's Sam Ray of Republic National Server Thai Van of Kata Robata Dale Robertson, a Populist Among Wine Writers Denman Moody, Author of The Advanced Oenophile Benjy Mason of Down House