Today the Houston wine community mourns the loss of one of its most beloved members, Joseph Kemble, longtime Italian wine buyer for Spec’s retail operations and distribution.
According to numerous posts by his friends on Facebook, he died yesterday after a long bout with cirrhosis. He was 48 years old and would have celebrated his 49th birthday next month.
Joseph was a larger-than-life figure in the Italian wine world: as the Italian buyer for one of the largest retail chains in the country, with more than 150 locations across Texas, he oversaw one of the biggest Italian wine programs in the U.S.
He traveled regularly in Italy, tasting wines and visiting with winemakers. And he reveled in his Texan persona, so adored by Italian and American wine professionals alike. Many of them knew and referred to him affectionately as “Grappa Joe.”
His career in Italian wine mirrored and aligned nearly seamlessly with the Italian wine renaissance that took shape over the last 20 years. The son of a noted Houston hair stylist, he started working at Spec’s as a sales person and ultimately became one of its most influential buyers, developing an Italian wine program at a time when Texans had little interest in the category.
Over the last 10 years, as demographics and opportunity reshaped the Houston wine scene, his unbridled passion for Italian wine proved visionary. Today the city is home to one of the country’s most vibrant markets for Italian wine, a “must” destination for Italian winemakers and traveling Italian wine professionals. As a retailer and distributor of Italian fine wine, Joseph played an outsized role in making Houston into one of the most important Italian wine epicenters in north America.
An affable and colorful ambassador of his state, Joseph would don a classic oversized western-style belt buckle when he attended Vinitaly, the annual Italian wine trade fair in Verona. Although few of his Italian colleagues perceived his distinctive Texas twang, he was the embodiment of the Texan character that many of them knew from the movies.
Across his Facebook timeline yesterday and today, friends and colleagues have been posting heartfelt tributes and remembrances.
Sit tibi terra levis Iosephe. You will be sorely missed by your community on both sides of the Atlantic.