2015 Boston Rising Star Sommelier Joe Camper of Bar Boulud (Boston)

2015 Boston Rising Star Sommelier Joe Camper of Bar Boulud (Boston)
March 2015

Bar Boulud (Boston)
776 Boylston Street
Boston, MA 02199


For Joe Camper, the summer of 2008 was a climactic one. His years of private music lessons, undergraduate studies at Manhattan’s Mannes College of Music, and master’s program at the New England Conservatory of Music had all paid off. He was about to be offered a contract with a major symphony orchestra in Tokyo. Staring down the opportunity of a lifetime, Camper found his thoughts—and career aspirations—drifting quietly, and insistently, to wine.

He didn’t stay abroad long, and, once back in the States, Camper got in touch with Cat Silirie, wine director and passionate educator at the helm of the Barbara Lynch Gruppo.  Silirie gave Camper a chance as a cellar rat at Menton. The two ensuing years found Camper attending countless tastings, playing host to world-renowned winemakers, and learning every facet of the business needed to become a sommelier.

Looking to return to Manhattan, Camper took a job at Eleven Madison Park, this time working his way through dining room positions to become sommelier. When the head sommelier position at Daniel Boulud’s db Bistro Moderne opened up, Camper was ready, not to mention eager, to dive back into a program rooted in classic French regions. When Boulud announced in 2014 that he was opening a Bar Boulud in Boston, Camper found the perfect way to go home.

Interview with Boston Rising Star Sommelier Joe Camper of Bar Boulud

Caroline Hatchett: How did you get your start?
Joe Camper:
When I was studying at the Mannes College of Music, I used to go to my professor’s house for a lesson. At the end, he would say, “Marie’s [his wife] going to cook lunch, go downstairs to pick a bottle.” No matter what I chose, he would open it, regardless of price. I always had it at the back of my head. I then sort of filed it away, and went off with my music career. I moved halfway around the world for the Tokyo Symphony. Within the first few weeks, I realized I didn’t want to do it. I’d been playing music since I was eight, but I wanted less Beethoven and more wine, so I started counting, doing inventory.

I was going through the Court [of Master Sommeliers], but stopped early on. I didn’t learn about them until I was already a working somm. I was at Eleven Madison Park (EMP), and Dustin Wilson was my boss, he said to me, “I became a Master of Wine to get my job. You have your job. Why do the certification? You’re going to leave your life, wife, friends?”

I don’t think I set out with a specific path. Each new restaurant was an evolution from the previous. It wasn’t that I said I would go to EMP, then Daniel; things just evolved that way. Although, I did want to get back to a more French-oriented program.

CH: Who's your mentor?
Changes every minute: Cat Silirie, Daniel Johnnes, Dustin Wilson, Terry Theise.

CH: How are you involved in the local culinary community?
Boston is an interesting market; there’s not a lot of working sommeliers. But there are a lot of wine directors—people who sit in offices, but don’t work in the trenches. I’ve made a small circle of sommelier comrades.

CH: What's the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
Learning to work in a hotel is a new experience, that’s part of it. Another challenge is to work in a state that restricts what you can do. In New York, 25 percent of list was auction, 25 percent consignment, 5 to 10 percent was retail, then there was distribution. In Boston, it’s 100 percent distribution.

CH: What's your five year plan?
I want to learn more about the importing side of things. Two of the mentors I mentioned are also importers: Daniel Johnnes and Terry Theise. At the same time, they can import Dominique, Logan, all these great Burgundy procures—they come to the United States through him. I’m also interested in having money to buy some land and a pair of overalls and doing it myself. But that’s more than five years—either in Austria, or possibly the Sonoma Coast.

CH: What are your go-to wine regions?
At the end of the month I’m traveling to Krems, Austria. Everything I do is Austria. So, I’m focusing a lot on that. My favorite region always and forever will be Champagne.

CH: How many labels do you stock?
500. It’s been as high as 700. At the end of the day, we’re a French bistro in New England—we don’t need a tomb of a wine list.

CH: What’s your point of view as a somm here?
Ultimately, we focus on Burgundy and the Rhone. What I’ve tried to do is focus on wines with balance. This is one of the few lists I’ve made where there’s no need to have the big California wine just because someone has to have it. It’s an important move, this is who we are and this is what we’re about.

Tips for the Sommelier by Boston Rising Star Sommelier Joe Camper of Bar Boulud

Travel. Remember, wine always tastes better when you know where it’s from, and can picture the soil, the temperature of the environment, and the smell of the local flowers. Also, get to know the people that make the wine, as that connection will only help to further one’s enjoyment of the wine. Wine is experiential, not rote.

Learn the power of lower alcohol wines. It’s not always the big monsters that win lots of points. It’s the smaller, quieter, more introverted wines that make you want to curl up with them. While there are some really great wines with 14% alcohol, at the end of the day, if I have those wines, I can only have one bottle.

Natural wine is not inherently better than conventional wine! There….I said it! Someone had to. However, natural wine is immensely more difficult to make, and therefore requires substantially more work, and I’m a believer that hard work often leads to good results. If I study really hard for an exam, then I should have a better chance of passing than someone that didn’t study much, but we could both pass it. In fact, we could both ace it. On the other hand, we could both fail it!

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