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Culture / Foodie Events

He Gave Up the Law for Wine

Meet the Riesling Apostle, a One-of-a-Kind Houston Restaurant Figure

BY // 01.15.16

I love to talk about wine with people who share my passion for it. We open bottles, and we trade stories about travel and winemakers and terroir and residual sugar, and we talk of taste and food pairings and cost. We recommend wines to one another, and we drink, and we learn a lot. In Wine Talk, I will introduce you to some of my friends and acquaintances — individuals who love wine as much as I do, who live to taste and learn about it. You’ll appreciate their insight, and I hope you’ll learn something from them as well. 

Sean Beck is a serious man, a quality I appreciate. “When I get interested in something,” he says, “I tend to immerse myself in it and learn everything I possibly can.” But that gravitas is not the main reason I like him. Riesling is that reason. He loves that beautiful grape as much as I do — calls himself a Riesling Apostle, even — and that’s been a great thing for guests at the restaurants owned by Hugo Ortega and Tracy Lee Vaught, where his career is now in its second decade.

He started with the couple as a waiter at Backstreet Café, and now spends most of his time on the floor recommending bottles to diners there and at Caracol and Hugo’s. He chose a career in the restaurant world over one in law, and I’m glad he did.

I first met Sean at Caracol, and my first impression of him was, “this guy’s been doing this for a while.” I appreciated that, because the week before, I had dined at a restaurant on Montrose, and the person who was sent to my table as the sommelier told me that he would not recommend a Riesling because “they are too sweet.” (I hope he has gained a bit of knowledge since then, or found another career.)

Each and every time I encounter Sean, the dining experience is relaxed and fun, and the wines are stellar. This past year, a chef I know who works in New York came to town with her husband, and I took them to Caracol. We drank some great wines, including a Riesling tor two, and my friend remarked after the meal that “she could use that guy in her place.”

She was, of course, referring to Sean, but I don’t think Ortega and Vaught are going to let him go anywhere. Houston diners are safe, for now.

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  • Mariquite Masterson
  • Bond No 9 - Candle
  • Casa di Lino
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  • Loeffler Randall - Clutch
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Tell us about three wines you think are drinking well at the moment. What makes them worthwhile? How about a food pairing for each one?

I’ll start with something Italian: Cocchi Vermouth di Torino. Aromatized wines like Vermouth are having a bit of comeback, especially as a building block to great cocktails. However, I’m quite happy drinking them straight or over ice with a piece of citrus and some Topo Chico. This is my favorite, a Moscato-based, old-school recipe with a rich nose of orange, dried fruit, spice and the bitterness of rhubarb. It’s complex, deep and mellow enough that I can casually sip it around the house. Great complement to some shiny meats and cheeses while you relax around the house. Expect to pay $25 at your favorite merchant.

Next, NV François Diligent Brut Nature Champagne, from France. I adore this bubbly. It’s one of a number of tremendous grower-driven Champagnes hitting the market. It also falls into the popular “Brut Nature” category, meaning they don’t have the typical dosage — a mixture of base wine and sugar added after the second fermentation that enhances the sweetness level and determines the style. Most versions are to acidic and sharp for my taste, but Francois makes his bubbly from Pinot Blanc, a grape that is fruitier and more aromatic, so leaving out the sugar balances it perfectly. The delicate bubbles, vivacious citrus, orchard fruit and perfect acidity make this a winner. Fantastic with just about anything, although I do like it with some fresh popcorn topped with sea salt and shaved sheep’s-milk cheese. You can get this for $40-$45 a bottle.

Finally, 2013 Melville “Block M” Pinot Noir, out of Santa Rita, California. The Central Coast makes a distinct style of Pinot Noir, and I crave it in the cooler months of the year. One of the best Pinots of the year, this nine-barrel gem is an intoxicating mix of pungent earth, fruit leather, spice-scented black cherry and boysenberry. Sourced from one of the higher blocks in the vineyard, this wine exudes the unique mix of color, texture and flavor that defines Santa Barbara. Fantastic with fatty, wood-grilled fish or some roasted pork loin rubbed with tea leaves. It’s about $55 in good wine stores.

Salon: Inside this gate resides excellent taste.
Salon: Inside this gate resides excellent taste.

 If cost was no consideration, tell us the one bottle you would most want to add to your personal collection, and why.

The 1985 Salon “Le Mesnil” Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne. Being a Riesling nut, most would assume that would be my answer, but I’ve managed to collect a number of great ones. It’s harder to find the wines that helped me become who I am today. When I had ’85 Salon in my youth it drank like perfection and sealed my eternal love for Champagne. I’d love to track down a three-liter bottling (bigger is better with bubbly) from this incredible wine and lay down to share with my daughter when she graduates from college.

What is your favorite grape, and why? If you don’t have a favorite, tell me about one that you especially like.

It’s said that genius is rarely appreciated in its own time; such is the case with Riesling, the world’s most brilliant grape. No other wine captures the soul of the earth, while expressing the pleasure of life in each sip. Jubilant, life-affirming fruit is offset by pristine acid and minerality, tantalizing the senses with waves of happiness. It’s often achingly beautiful and delivers a world of flavor far beyond the cost. It’s also magical in the company of all types of food.

How about one bottle that our readers should buy now to cellar for 10 years, to celebrate a birth, anniversary, or other red-letter day?

It really depends on what you drink. The 2012 vintage looks pretty great for a number of areas. Same with 2013. It’s best to identify a category you like and pick out something that you can afford; buy two or three bottle of it. If it’s worth cellaring for a decade-plus, than chances are you’d love to be able to drink a bottle along the way to see how it’s holding up. For me, I stocked up on 2012 Rieslings from Alsace and Germany for my daughter’s birth year. The wines of Domaine Weinbach, Marcel Deiss, Donnhoff, Selbach-Oster, and Knoll are a few that I set aside. Just make sure to store them properly.

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Your next tattoo? (Courtesy Schäfer-Reichart Selections)

Your establishment excepted, where is your go-to place when you want to have a glass or bottle?

If I’m throwing down, it’s hard to argue with the depth of offerings at Pappas Bros. If I’m looking to discover something I haven’t tried, then 13 Celsius, Sonoma, or Camerata are great. Wine bars push the envelope and aren’t worried about pairing, so they always have exciting options. It’s really tough to drink badly in town these days … So many wonderful wine programs and sommeliers have invigorated the city’s restaurants and bars.

If there was one thing you wish everyone would keep in mind when buying and drinking wine, what is it?

It’s not a trophy, it’s not a status symbol, it’s not art. Wine is a healthy part of everyday living, and it makes food taste its best. Whether you are talking a simple Vinho Verde or Grand Cru Burgundy, it’s meant to be consumed in the company of people you like. I’ve had more bottles of wine ruined by bad company than anything else.

What is your “wine eureka moment,” the incident/taste/encounter that put you and wine on an intimate plane forever?

First time having a rustic Chianti Classico and old-school Italian food at this little mom and pop restaurant. The place doesn’t exist anymore, but the food and wine were the perfect combination and made me want to discover more.

Want more Wine Talk? Check out these stories:

Underbelly Veteran Goes for Grenache
A Man of Letters and Wine
Ms. Champagne Wants a Nebuchadnezzar
The Wine Artist Goes for Chardonnay
This American Loves Spain and Its Wines
Houston’s Wine Whisperer Has a Soft Touch
Blackberry Farm’s Somm Pours in Splendor
Mr. Pinot Noir: Donald Patz of Patz & Hall
A Cork Dork Wants to Spend More Time in Tuscany
Sommelier Turned Restaurateur Daringly Goes Greek
Texas Master Sommelier Debunks Wine Geeks
A Bottle From Gigondas Changed This Houston Man’s Life

Oil Man Falls in Love, and the Rest is Good-Taste History
Ryan Cooper of Camerata is a Riesling Man
Mixing It Up With Jeremy Parzen, an Ambassador of Italy
Sommelier at One of Houston’s Top Wine Bars Loves Underdogs

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