Interview with Boston Rising Star Sommelier Joe Camper of Bar Boulud

by Caroline Hatchett
April 2015

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.