Certified Sommelier (and Riesling apostle) Sean Beck has as much wine expertise as someone twice his age. But that’s no surprise. “When I get interested in something,” says Beck, “I tend to immerse myself in it and learn everything I possibly can.” Born in Rochester, New York, Beck first developed an interest in wine while at University of Houston’s Honors College, where he supplemented his income working as a waiter at Backstreet Café. “I started attending waiter training seminars where the owners discussed the wines on the list. Then I sort of hung around when the wine salesmen gave their presentations in the restaurant, and before I knew it, I was hooked,” says Beck.
Since Beck arrived at Backstreet Café, the restaurant has consistently won accolades in national competitions, including Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence. Again, no surprise, as the always hands-on, hospitable Beck has used his sharp palate and extraordinary memory to develop wine lists and perfect pairings for Backstreet Café, Hugo’s, and Trevisio—showcasing a versatility in pairing skills from seasonal American to earthy, spicy Mexican and contemporary Italian cuisines.
The ever-versatile Beck is also beverage director for all three restaurants, emphasizing artisan spirits and seasonality in menu and cocktail development and championing Texan spirits and beers. Among his many awards and accolades—not to mention countless judging positions in national and international wine competitions and summits—Beck was the only individual inducted into My Table’s Wine Hall of Fame. And he’s one of just seven sommeliers hand picked to represent www.wineanswers.com, an industry-run site dedicated to educating and inspiring people to drink and enjoy wine.
Interview with Sommelier Sean Beck of Backstreet Café, Hugo’s, and Trevisio – Houston, TX
Emily Bell: How did you develop an interest in wine?
Sean Beck: When I was in college, I began working at Backstreet Café, waiting tables. We had about a 50- or 60-bottle wine list. I didn’t know much about wine, and I didn’t want to make up stuff or throw out outlandish adjectives to sell the wines. So I began reading about it, absorbing what I could. A chef friend of mine and a group of his staff and other friends would get together at the chef and his wife’s house every Wednesday night. I’d bring wine, and we’d watch "South Park" and "Baseball Tonight" and learn about the wines.
EB: Describe your fondest wine memory.
SB: There’ve been so many great ones. But I still remember hanging out in Jerez at the International Sherry Festival, getting off the plane and going straight to the beach in Jerez and drinking sherry as God intended—right there on the shoreline, on a January day, when it was just warm enough because the sun was coming out and reflecting off the ocean. You’re having the most perfectly cooked seafood and drinking sherry and you’re like, “now I understand why people drink sherry.” When you have those moments with wine, they just stick out in your head.
EB: What courses have you taken? Certifications received?
SB: I’ve started the Court of Master Sommeliers program a number of years ago. But most of my education (I guess you could say I’m self-taught) has been by tasting, traveling, and just absorbing anything I can when I come into contact with great winemakers, growers, and great sommeliers in the Unites States who’ve had experience.
From that standpoint, I say self-taught, but every day is a learning opportunity, and every interaction with fellow wine professionals is a learning opportunity.
EB: What is your philosophy on wine and food?
SB: My understanding of wine and food pairing is that the wine is there to enhance the meal, to make the whole experience a better one. I’m there to be the star; I’m there to light it up.
EB: So the role of the sommelier is an enhancement of the experience?
SB: In many ways, I feel like a good sommelier is like the lighting in an art gallery. You notice it when it’s bad. But when it’s done right, it enhances the whole experience. Our job at the restaurant is to craft and create the whole experience. The food is the star. I guess my mantra is wine is not a luxury. It’s not something extra. It’s a part of everyday good, healthy living. And it’s what makes food taste its best. That’s the basis for all my programs.
EB: What are some of your favorite wine and food combinations?
SB: Sangiovese is an underappreciated grape. It’s probably earned that reputation by putting out a lot of mediocre stuff. But when it’s made right and you get one of those juicy, round, engaging Sangioveses, it’s incredible. They work really well with Mexican food, particularly pork dishes that have been rubbed with achiote.
EB: Any surefire favorites, your go-to wine?
SB: At any given time, I can use Riesling. It’s obviously fantastic with pork dishes. Blue crab and Riesling are just amazing together. It can be used as a fire extinguisher, as an amplifier; it’s just a wonderful sounding board for food—for textures and viscosity.
EB: What is the hardest dish at Backstreet Café, Hugo’s, or Trevisio, that you’ve had to pair with wine, and what do you pair with it?
SB: When I was staring out at Hugo’s, I traveled a little bit to Mexico, and I’d seen a lot of things. But I hadn’t had everything. I remember the first time chef made Chili Nogado, a seasonal poblano dish; [the poblanos are] roasted, stuffed with fruit, raisins, and pork, and [the dish has] a walnut cream sauce and pomegranate. I began thinking “What’s the star here at that moment?” The star was the dish, a very complicated dish, meaning the wine doesn’t necessarily have to be complicated. You should go in the opposite direction—something that’s simple and pure and easy to like. You don’t want the wine shouting over the dish—kind of like an episode of “Crossfire” on CNN.
EB: Any advice for sommeliers on how to approach a difficult pairing?
SB: Whenever you’re in a lurch, think about what the star is. If it’s a really complicated dish, that’s the goal—for that dish to be star.
EB: How do you compile your wine lists? Is it more complex overseeing three lists?
SB: It is and it isn’t. It allows me to compartmentalize. Very rarely is there any instantaneous reaction to the wine. My evaluation of wine is its merits first and foremost—the way every guest evaluates wine. Does it feel like it’s worth the money? I always find it fascinating that some sommeliers and buyers don’t want to know the price when tasting. My customers have an idea of the price of wine before they taste, so why shouldn’t I? I always take that into account.
That’s first line. If it makes it past that point, then I can begin thinking about it in terms of typicity, nuance, story, the narrative of wine. Next the question is: does it work in any of the restaurants? Does it work in our menus? Does it work with our customers? When I’m able to compartmentalize it that way, it makes it a lot easier to put different lists together.
EB: How do trends develop in the Houston wine world?
SB: Houston is very adventurous and really aware of what’s going on. We may not always see the trends right from the start, but they’ll eventually make it here.
EB: What are some current trends?
SB: I think you’re seeing a strong trend toward the esoteric in lots of different establishments. A lot of them are doing very unique cuisines, playing around with the ethnicities of Houston—which is very diverse. They’re really getting Houstonians out of that comfort zones and into Campo Dabora out of Spain; for some people it’s Sauviogniers out of France; for some it’s getting into Greek wines, which are coming into Houston more. Every day, something is coming in that people haven’t seen, particularly on the by-the-glass programs.
EB: What are your favorite wine resources?
SB: I think the Internet—it’s just gotten so easy and so amazing. You can look up every resource. But I’m a big believer that reading only tells you part of the story. It should be support to part of your tasting.
EB: Any personal blogs you follow?
SB: A lot of bloggers specialize in areas you don’t get to focus all your time on. We have a great blogger here in Austin, Texas, Dr. Jeremy Parzen, who has a website called Do Bianchi. He’s an amazing resource on Italian wine. I like reading the blogs of the people who are getting down into the absolute minutiae of a varietal. These are things that stir imagination and get you excited and interested.
EB: What wines do you favor for your cellar at home?
SB: I love Riesling and I think every somm should. My wife and I just eat a wide variety of foods. Just in my own restaurants I’m getting Italian, New American, and Mexican. But when I’m not at work, we’re going to little mom-and-pop Malaysian joints. We eat a lot of Korean food; we go out for Vietnamese food, and I love Indian food, probably more than she does. When you eat all those types of cuisines, Riesling works. And Champagne—we both love Champagne. I like the whites of the Rhone a lot; they’re textured, they’re layered, they’re really fascinating. And lately, Grenache of any type I can get my hands on; it’s born out of its environment and comes to radically different ends in different places. I keep a lot of artisan beers around the house. And a lot of times my wife asks me “can you make me a cocktail?” so we have a few spirits in the house.
EB: What does success mean for you? What are your ultimate career goals?
SB: The goal has always been to leave an impact on the people I interact with—be they staff members that have gone on to careers in wine, or customers who have changed the way they treat wine, talk about wine, and share wine. That’s always the goal: to have some semblance of a mark upon those people.
EB: Do you think you want to spread your wings a little more—travel or expand in any way?
SB: There are areas of cuisine and food I’d like to greater explore, so I can greater explore the wine. Hopefully we’ll do a couple of restaurants that’ll allow me to do that. I’d like to get to a place where eventually I feel comfortable always being at the restaurants, but I don’t feel I always have to be at the restaurants to make sure the experience is great. That’s probably my biggest goal for the next couple of years, to really get everybody on board with delivering our experience.
The other thing I’d like to do is more writing, to do as much academic work as possible. As I write, I can impact more people and it makes me better. Because every time I write, I don’t just want to gush it out, I want to fully understand what I’m talking about.
EB: Where will we see you in five years? Behind a blog? In front of a class? In the restaurants?
SB: I think in the next five years I would be thought of as a sommelier and restaurateur; maybe I’m one of those people who sets trends, maybe on a state or national level, encouraging the next generation of young sommeliers. That’s what I hope to be doing in five years. I’m doing everything I can to get people to make wine a part of their everyday lives.