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Head Sommelier Joe Camper on Wine at Bar Boulud

Welcome to the inaugural installment of The Cellar, delving into the Boston wine world. To start, Bar Boulud head sommelier Joe Camper discusses the wine program at the new Back Bay restaurant.

Joe Camper, head sommelier at Bar Boulud in Boston
Joe Camper, head sommelier at Bar Boulud in Boston
Official Website

Here is the kind of wine program you can expect at Bar Boulud, now open in the former Asana space at the Mandarin Oriental:

One night a couple in New York are in a cab on their way to meet a fairly coveted dinner reservation. Not at Bar Boulud. The lady receives a tweet informing her that very shortly Bar Boulud NYC will be popping open a magnum of something decadently Burgundian (as is their habit), which they will then pour by the glass. For one evening only. At cost. The couple immediately cancels said fairly coveted dinner reservation, makes another call, and redirects the cab to Bar Boulud.

Which means that even though Joe Camper may not be the very first name that comes to mind when guest enter the new Boston outpost of the emphatically eponymous Daniel Boulud restaurant universe, before they take their first bite of charcuterie they will raise the wines of a head sommelier whose articulate selections from Burgundy and the Rhône may prove every bit as memorable as the dishes to which they have been so precisely paired.

Just prior to popping that first magnum, the not surprisingly articulate and precise Camper (whose Boston roots stretch back, even less surprisingly, to Menton) took a moment to discuss the misunderstood nature of champagne, the future of trousseau, the comforting influence of Cat Silirie, and how many liters of wine one man is allowed to pour, solo.

First off, congratulations and welcome back to Boston. I’m not sure if it seems less condescending to assume everyone reading knows who Daniel Boulud is, or to have you introduce a chef with 16 restaurants in four countries, but to start with perhaps you could very briefly introduce the wine program as it has developed under Chef Boulud.

Thank you. Daniel Boulud is from a small village just outside of Lyon, so essentially Lyon. And he got his start, culinarily, in that city. Just to the north of that is Burgundy, and just to the south is the Rhône. Over the course of his career, he’s discovered that not only is this area his heritage, but that these are also his two favorite winemaking regions. So the list is focused pretty much exclusively around Burgundy and the Rhône.

With those two regions as a basis, how have you formatted the list?

The way we’ll divide it up is we’re going to present very classic examples, and then we’ll have some other categories as well. For example, we’ll have Discoveries—unknown small producers within Burgundy that are overachieving. Then we’ll have a page called The Legends. The Legends will be your Grand Crus; they’ll probably start at $400 and make their way to $20k. Then we’ll have a section called The Cousins. For example, in red Burgundy, the primary grape is pinot noir, so the cousins will be pinot noir from other regions, but very much with Burgundian DNA. We’ll do the same thing with the Rhône. And at the end we’ll have a couple of pages we call the Coup de Cœur—heartthrob wines. It’s everything else in the world of winemaking, in one page.

"You're able to have a 30-page wine list with absolutely no problems and still have variety and depth."

At first glance it might seem as if focusing the list entirely on two regions would be limiting, but when it comes to those two regions in particular, would you say it actually allows for a greater opportunity for nuance?

Exactly. And with The Cousins, you get to explore every region in the world. It is a limited set of grape varieties, but if you think about it, you have chardonnay, aligoté, pinot blanc, pinot noir, gamay, grenache, syrah, mourvèdre, cinsaut, marsanne, roussanne—you have everything. Which means you’re able to have a 30-page wine list with absolutely no problems and still have variety and depth.

For those who have been to Bar Boulud in New York, what can you tell them to expect in terms of variation on the wine list here in Boston?

There will be a couple of things. First and foremost, we don’t have the abundant supply of seafood in New York that we have here in New England, specifically in Boston. Chef Chambers will certainly be focusing more on seafood than Bar Boulud does in New York. In turn, I will focus more on seafood-friendly wines. That being said, as much as I love Burgundy and as much as I love the Rhône, if you had to ask me my favorite wine-making region, it would be Champagne. And that’s such a natural pairing for the seafood portion of the menu. So in that sense we’ll depart a little bit from Bar Boulud New York. We’ll still be Burgundy- and Rhône-centric, but [he pauses to smile] we’re going to have a good amount of champagne.

[It should be added that while Mr. Camper speaks with a cool, professorial clarity about the wines of Burgundy and the Rhone, he almost always smiles whenever he mentions the word champagne. This ought to make the question at Bar Boulud of ‘Should we start with a glass/bottle of champagne?’ much easier to answer.]

"The only way you are ever going to get trust from a guest, as a sommelier, is if they can come in and order a glass of wine that works with the food."

There seems to be an ever-increasing demand on lists for a higher quality wines by the glass. How have you gone about selecting the glass pours for Bar Boulud?

The wines by the glass program has to be focused around the menu. The only way you are ever going to get trust from a guest, as a sommelier, is if they can come in and order a glass of wine that works with the food. Even if you line up a wines by the glass program with a bunch of trophies, if it doesn’t work with the cuisine, there’s absolutely no reason for them to be there. I make sure the wines by the glass are the most versatile wines on the list, and that they’re the best representations of what they are, and that they work with the cuisine perfectly. Then I think about everything else.

Obviously with this program there’s Rhône and Burgundy by the glass, but we’re very careful about which Rhône and Burgundy. For example, a Côte d'Or, while substantially more famous and substantially more noble, if you will, doesn’t necessarily provide that ferrous [see below], irony quality that something like a Mercurey would provide. Well then, what works really well with blood sausage? Probably that irony, ferrous quality. So we’re serving Mercurey by the glass, as opposed to Gevrey-Chambertin. We could do either, but it will always be focused on what works best with the food.

Having been at Menton, and now coming back to Boston, are there any wine lists here that you are particularly looking forward to sitting down in front of as a guest?

I always love Cat’s wine lists, of course [Note: When talking wine in Boston there are one or two names one assumes both familiarity with - and admiration of. Cat Silirie, Wine Director of the Barbara Lynch Gruppo, is without question one of them]. That’s where I began, and no matter what restaurant I’m working at, I always find myself gravitating towards similar wines. I think it’s a lot like food; you tend to crave the food you grew up with. It’s your comfort food. And from a wine standpoint, those are my comfort points. I’m also super excited about small lists that you find at places like Oleana or Bergamot.

On New York wine lists, there’s something for everyone, sometimes to a fault. Sometimes you don’t really know who the wine director is. You go to a place like Eastern Standard, and you look at Colleen [Hein]’s list, and even if you’ve never met Colleen, if you know anything about wine, you’ve met Colleen. You know her. You understand what she likes; you understand what she’s doing. And whether it’s the direction you’d have gone or not, there’s such a clear, distinct point of view, which I love.

"So, what I wish people understood more is champagne."

Getting down to specific wines, if you had to bet your cellar on one region or wine changing in the popular American wine-drinking imagination, what would it be? Other than champagne.

I wish you wouldn’t have said other than champagne. I would certainly pick champagne. My feeling on champagne is it’s so misunderstood, people only use it for celebrations. They think even if they’re drinking it, it should be with fish and oysters and stuff like that; when rosé champagne and beef is amazing. Absolutely spectacular. So, what I wish people understood more is champagne.

However, what wine do I think is going to be the next big wine; I really think that you’re going to see some nontraditional varietals in the United States—very traditional in the Old World—things like trousseau, coming from the Sonoma coast and Mendocino, really taking off. I mean really taking off. While I think that trousseau is a grape that is amazing from the Jura, some of the most intriguing examples of trousseau I’ve had, and some of the things I’ve poured for winemakers when they’re in the restaurants, are coming from California. I think that grape has a great potential and a great home in California. [pauses] But I think it’s a hard sell.

Getting back to your cellar, even wine lovers who have never been to Bar Boulud or DB Bistro Moderne have probably heard about the Big Bottles program there. Could you explain how that began and whether you intend to carry it over to Boston?

It’s certainly going to be something we do in Boston. We call it the Pannier du jour program. It all began by being at an auction and seeing a very large bottle of Montrachet and sort of sitting in the back of the room and realizing that no one is bidding on it. And the reason no one is bidding on it is because everyone is saying to themselves: what am I going to do with a bottle that big? I’m going to have to throw a really big party—a really expensive big party—in order to open this bottle of wine. And so we essentially [note: not literally] stole the bottle at the auction. And it sat in the cellar for a while. No one quite knew what to do with it.

And then Daniel Johnnes (wine director for Boulud’s Dinex group) and Michael Madrigale (head sommelier for Bar Boulud in New York) said we should serve it by the glass, and we should make it available to the public at our cost. Just so we can expose more people to this wine and because quite frankly, we want to drink this wine. [Naturally.] It sort of began from there, and now it is a bottle a day. It changes every single day, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. We’ll open a three-liter today, a magnum the next day, a six-liter the next day. It has developed a bit of a following. The wine doesn’t have to fit into the Burgundy/Rhône mold for the Pannier program.

Alright, so then, what is your personal best for a solo large-format glass pour?

Six liters is the biggest bottle that I try to pour by myself. Beyond that, I often get two guys to pour the bottle and one to hold the glass.

And finally (with apologies to James Lipton, and Cat), two words on wine. What is your least favorite wine descriptor?

[Instantly] Dry.

And, one of your favorites.

Ferrous, which is how I described Mercurey. It’s like licking a piece of rusty metal. It’s one of my favorite wine flavors to pair with Daniel’s food.

Bar Boulud Boston

776 Boylston Street, Boston, MA 02199 (617) 535-8800 Visit Website