Wine Time

Wine Lost and Found in Translation with Sean Beck

"The sommelier is there to 'translate' the wine" for the patron, says sommelier Sean Beck. Beck runs one of the city's most respected wine programs at Backstreet Café. "You're there to make the guests feel confident about their choice" of wine, he explains.

In a city like petrochemical-based Houston, where high rollers and dick waggers negotiate the velvet rope of wine with relative ease while the rest of us have to stand at the back of the party bus, Sean's easygoing, collegial attitude is as unusual as it is refreshing.

Having worked as a "floor sommelier" for more than 23 years (since his early twenties), Sean long ago eschewed the affectations embraced by the majority of wine professionals in our town.

"The other day I heard a sommelier use the word tertiary as he was describing a wine to a guest," as in the expression secondary and tertiary flavors. "I mean, come on, who uses a word like that? When you do that, you're developing a language that the guest has to translate."

In an industry where cerebral and celestial analogies are measures of a gold standard in wine descriptors, Sean prefers to describe wine using metaphors that the rest of us common folk can palate. The other day, when I stopped in for a glass of Sylvaner by Abbazia di Novacella (from German-speaking Italy), we compared notes on the 2008 and 2009 vintages of Chablis, he noted that "Chablis is the Steve Buscemi of Chardonnay."

"It can be nervous," he said, referring to its often intense minerality and nervy acidity.

And while there are plenty of wines on his lists that the rich and not so famous can use to one-up each other (he also manages the wine programs at Trevisio and Hugo's, my personal favorite), I find his by-the-glass program to be one of the most approachable and affordable in the city.

A wine program "should be like a hostel, where everyone can afford to stay. I think it's easier to get people to try different wines when they're inexpensive," he said as he poured me a glass of the bright Sylvaner for $11 (which is drinking great right now).

Of course, Sean can afford to take a demotic, balanced approach to sommelier brinksmanship: Having aced Houston's Iron Sommelier competition three times, he has retired from the contest (this year, he is curating the event, to be held at the Houstonian on September 11, 2012, benefiting the Periwinkle Foundation, providing "programs that positively change the lives of children, young adults and families who are challenged by cancer and other life threatening illnesses and are cared for at Texas Children's Hospital").

Despite the many accolades he's received and magazine profiles devoted to him, Sean just seems to have always kept his feet on the ground. While we chatted about pH levels in the 2008 and 2009 expressions of Chablis, he seamlessly switched gears as he poured another guest a glass of Russian River Pinot Noir, patiently describing the wine in terms even my mother could understand. No translation required...

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Jeremy Parzen writes about wine and modern civilization for the Houston Press. A wine trade marketing consultant by day, he is also an adjunct professor at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont, Italy. He spends his free time writing and recording music with his daughters and wife in Houston.
Contact: Jeremy Parzen