The Eating...Our Words 100: Bear Dalton, Wine Buyer & Educator, Spec's
Eating...Our Words has embarked on a project to profile 100 Houston culinarians of all fields, practices, careers and backgrounds. This isn't a Best of Houston list, it's not a 100 Favorites list and it's not in any particular order. Instead, the Eating...Our Words 100 is a way to introduce our readers to some of the most notable people behind Houston's exciting and deep-rooted culinary culture. Twice a week, we'll explore a new culinarian's work, his or her inspiration and what makes Houston a perfect home.
Photo by Jeremy Parzen Bear Dalton at one of his favorite spots for lunch and wine dinners, Charivari, around the corner from his office at the mothership Spec's.
Born and bred in Houston to parents who were also raised here, Charles "Bear" Dalton (above) is a true Texas original: He wears a cowboy hat and boots wherever he goes; he rides a horse and knows his way around a shotgun; he goes to church every Sunday; and he also happens to be one of the leading authorities on the wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy in the United States today.
Some outside Texas might have a tough time reconciling his Texas twang with his intimate knowledge of the crus (single-vineyard designations) of the Côte d'Or. But to my surprise, he told me that the only time he's encountered discrimination because of his intense persona texana, it was here in Houston. In two separate restaurants, he told me (over shrimp and grits at his favorite lunch spot, Charivari), he was refused service because of his cowboy hat and boots.
"Even though I had a reservation, the hostess just wouldn't seat me," he said. Luckily, he recounted, "the sommelier recognized me and took me to a table" in both instances.
But Bear -- as he is known to his friends and everyone in the wine business, from El Paso to the village of Bordeaux -- isn't one to hold a grudge.
"Both restaurants are no longer there, so it doesn't matter," he said without even the slightest hint of bitterness.
And maybe that's what is most Texan about him: Bear is a truly nice guy, a rarity in the dog-eat-dog world of wine commerce.
Who is he?
Bear is one of the most powerful wine buyers in the world today. As the chief purchaser for what Houston Chronicle wine writer Dale Robertson has called "Houston's 800-pound wine gorilla," Bear oversees more than 12,000 different wines that are sold in the more than 90 Spec's locations across the state of Texas. He doesn't select Italy, South Africa or southern Mediterranean countries for the Texan wine behemoth retailer, but the rest of the world belongs (literally) to him.
He's also one of the state's leading wine educators. He began teaching "wine 101" in the early 1980s while still in his twenties at the now defunct but fondly remembered retail outfit Wines of America (now the Houston Wine Merchant). And since that time, he's lectured and led countless guided tastings at Rice University, the University of Houston and the Alliance Française de Houston.
He's also one of the state's most widely read and respected wine writers. He first launched a hard-copy newsletter for Spec's in 1996 when he was hired as a buyer there. Since that time, the newsletter's circulation has grown to more than 500,000 electronic subscribers.
Not bad for a dude who dropped out of college at the University of Houston to take a job as a sommelier -- one of only a handful of wine professionals at the time in the city.
Why does he love job?
The answer he gave to this question was as brilliant as it was surprising.
No, it's not the myriad fine and rare wines he gets to taste and the E-ticket access to the highest levels of wine connoisseurship and collecting that comes with his position.
"Information," he told me. "I love information. I'm an information sponge.'"
From Bordeaux and Burgundy and beyond, "all the top winemakers and all the top winery owners come to Texas. And they all want to see me and taste with me." Bear's unique role in the U.S. wine industry, he said, has given him singular insight into how fine wines are produced throughout the world and it has helped him to shape what many consider one of the most finely tuned palates in America.
He's also a computer geek.
"A lot of what I do is sitting in front of a computer and looking at numbers," he said, "trying to figure out why one wine is selling well in Houston but not in Austin," for example.
"Embracing your inner geek is okay," wrote Bear a few years ago when his newsletter was still distributed in hard copy.
When I was growing up, a "geek" was not what you wanted to be. Then somehow in the late 1980s, being a geek became OK. Computer geeks were beginning their rise. The company I worked for wanted us to be wine geeks (of course I already was). People who were good in their fields were called geeks in a non-derogatory way. Suddenly we had physics geeks, math geeks, sci-fi geeks, movie geeks, theater geeks, music geeks, art geeks, philosophy geeks, literature geeks, and so on. In addition to wine geeks, we now have beer geeks and cocktail geeks. Many of our best chefs are food geeks... We now recognize geeks as having peculiar and valuable expertise in their chosen area of obsession or endeavor.
You say "geek"; I say "polymath." Bear's "voice" as a wine writer and educator is the synthesis of his intense passion for wine, his quenchless thirst for knowledge, and his insatiable curiosity.
"I like to call it knowledge 'synthesis,'" he said.
What excites him about the Houston wine scene today?
"Thanks to the Internet, there's more information on wine available to us than ever before. And most of it can be accessed for free. That's going to shape the way we move forward," he said.
"There are also so many more options available today when it comes to wine education," he added. "If you don't like my palate or don't agree with my point of view, there are plenty of other wine educators and wine professionals in Houston today." And if you want to study wine on your own, he noted, "there are so many great wine lists in our city today. You can go to so many different places and create your own wine flights. Back when I started, I was just one of maybe three sommeliers in Houston."
Considering the power he wields and his reputation as one of America's leading authorities on wine, you might expect a touch of hubris to accompany his Texas-size personality. It would only be natural for someone whose career in wine has spanned nearly three decades and whose role as an educator has touched the lives of an entire generation of Houston wine enthusiasts.
But I've listened intently as he gently explained to a young wine lover that most Champagne is actually made from red grapes. And that gentleness is rivaled only by the authority with which he delivered a talk on the changing relationship between grape-growers and the marquee-name domains in Champagne today.
He's a proud and polite Texan through and through, whether discussing the finer points of Burgundy or turning me on to the best shrimp and grits in town. And I, for one, am thankful for that.
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