Earlier this year, Paul Petronella–owner of Houston’s famed Paulie’s restaurant–partnered with former Uchi Beverage Director David Keck to open an elegant wine bar called Camerata. Deriving its name from the sixteenth century Florentine Camerata–which served as a meeting place for Italian musicians, scholar and artists–Camerata is quickly becoming one of the most esteemed wine bars in the city. Though the wine menu is long and extensive, it remains fervently humble and unpretentious, best described summed up by its tagline: “I just want a damn wine list.”
Petronella and Keck recently talked about the plans they have in store for their Houston wine bar.
Layne Lynch: Take me through the genesis of Camerata. How did the idea to open a wine bar next to Paulie’s come about?
Paul Petronella: The space next to Paulie’s had been open for several months. There was a lot of encouragement from the community to expand Paulie’s dining room, but I knew because of the size of our kitchen we wouldn’t be able to keep up with 1,500 additional square feet, so the idea for a wine bar naturally came about. The most important factor for me in opening a wine bar was finding the right partner. I talked to a few candidates, but they all didn’t feel right. David [Keck] and I have been friends through the industry for several years, and Justin Vann [owner of PSA Wines,] brought to my attention that David was interested in opening his own place. We started basic talks and next thing I knew we had negotiated a lease agreement and had two months to open.
LL: How did you all go about collaborating on this project? In other words, what did both of you want to incorporate into Camerata?
PP: I think we both already had the same idea of what we wanted Camerata to become. That was one of the reasons it made sense for David and I to collaborate in the first place. We wanted Camerata to be classy but not uptight. We wanted a unique, attractive space but something that was still comfortable. We wanted a smart wine list but something that was still fun.
David Keck: Basically, we wanted a place where people could come and drink something that had a conscience – something that spoke of the place it was made. I think we’ve created that to a great extent. Camerata is small enough to remain cozy, and the wine and beer list is constantly evolving and changing.
LL: I’m sure this is a tedious question, but how do you go about selecting the wine list? What steps go into that process?
DK: We wanted the wine list to be multi-faceted; on one side, it is full of very classic wines made in classic grape-growing regions that express tradition and history. On the other side, there are examples of up-and-coming, adventurous, and challenging producers and winemakers, like Pax Mahle’s Wind Gap project and Frank Cornelissen’s wines from Etna. But the two uncompromising elements were that the wines had to taste amazing and needed to come from very specific places. They’re not made by corporations; they’re made by people.
LL: Paulie’s and Camerata seem to be propelling the Houston culinary scene forward. What are some things you’d still like to do with both Paulie’s and Camerata?
PP: Restaurants are more than just the food on their menu. They can be incubators for their employees, they can be venues for pop-ups for chefs who are honing their skills, they can be venues for fundraisers, they can be meeting places for important business deals, they can be where relationships build or even break. I think too often establishments focus so much on their menu that they miss the intangibles. In Paulie’s case, we try to be more than our menu. Food is only one aspect of running a restaurant. We will continue to offer our space as an incubator as long as people are still interested. I feel like David takes the same approach with the wine world at Camerata.
DK: I couldn’t agree more; the source of our name – the Florentine Camerata – was a think-tank of intellectuals, humanists, and artists. This space can be used to discuss beverages and the world of wine and beer, but it can, and often is, a space for people to come and relax in each other’s company, talk business, or discuss ideas. If wine can be the catalyst for those discussions, then we’re doing our job. Part of the mission at Camerata is also to get people to focus on what they drink in the same way they focus on their food. Too frequently wine is relegated to either a snobby affectation to discuss among the elite or a quaffable grocery-store item, frequently mass-produced with grapes that are covered in chemicals and harvested indiscriminately in bulk. If we can change that just a little bit, then we’re succeeding.
LL: I know you all played a big part in forming the Houston Sommelier Association. Tell me what inspired the formation of the group.
DK: That conversation began a while ago among a small group of sommeliers in Houston, essentially bemoaning the lack of community and organized sommelier activity in Houston. Ben Roberts from Masraff’s and I basically decided to get the ball rolling full force, and Camerata had just opened, so it was the perfect home. The goal of this space is very congruent with the goals of that organization – encouraging discussion, education, and sharing among wine professionals and providing the tools for those that want to move ahead with their personal certifications and wine goals. We meet twice a week at this point; once is frequently with a guest speaker presenting on his or her area of expertise, followed by discussion among the group as to how we best present those beverages to our guests, what is in the market, what should be in the market, and other important items. The second meeting is a serious blind tasting and theory study for those preparing for higher level sommelier certifications.