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Aug 13, 2014 | Kevin Thompson

A Bear Grip on Faith and Wine

[Diolog Magazine] Talking with Charles “Bear” Dalton is like diving into an encyclopedia of wine and Texas culture. Equal parts connoisseur and Louis L’Amour character, Dalton’s calm and genuine demeanor belies his nickname. 

“The truth of the matter is, I like wine,” Dalton said, sitting at his favorite table in a Houston restaurant where he hosts frequent wine tastings. As the lead wine buyer for Spec’s Liquor’s 150 stores, Dalton has come by his taste for wine over four decades. 

With his signature cowboy hat and boots, Dalton does not immediately look like the expert on France’s Bordeaux and Burgundy wine regions that he is. Bear, a nickname he received at nineteen “just kind of stuck,” he said. A neatly trimmed, full white beard and a perpetual smile punctuate his southern charm.

“My wine friends think that, in addition to being a wine geek and foodie, I am quite the cowboy, but most of my real cowboy friends probably think I am quite the wine guy,” Dalton wrote in one of his many articles on wine. Although his looks may be deceiving, any doubt about his passion for good wine is put to rest when Dalton starts talking about his profession, covering topics from the science behind a certain vintage, to the history of wine in biblical times. 

Ask Dalton for wine tips and you’ll likely be greeted with a laundry list of questions to help narrow down your palate. All it took was my affinity for bourbon before he recommended a Vina Robles Red 4, with its oak barrel-aged qualities. 

A leading wine educator, Dalton has taught classes at Rice University, the University of Houston and Alliance Française de Houston. He has written extensively in Spec’s newsletter as well as on his own website, “The only way to know what you like is to try a lot of things,” Dalton said when asked for wine tips. He tastes upwards of 9,000 wines per year to choose Spec’s inventory. 

“If the wine has fruit and balance, everything else it may have is a bonus. If it lacks fruit or is out of balance, nothing else it has matters,” Dalton said. “I want the wines I drink to taste like they are from a specific somewhere and made by a specific someone.”

When it comes to wine and faith, Dalton sees the two in tandem. “Wine is an element of communion,” he said, matter of factly. “The Church and wine are very tied together.” 

A member of Episcopal Church of the Epiphany, Houston, Dalton stumbled into the Episcopal faith because he was late to church. In the late 1980s, Dalton attended a service at Palmer Memorial, Houston, simply because the nearby Methodist church’s service had already begun. The experience proved providential. “The service at Palmer was familiar but unfamiliar,” Dalton said.  “There was a joy that you could feel.”  

Dalton became a lay reader at Palmer in order to be involved in the Morning and Evening Prayer. That led to becoming a lay Eucharistic minister, serving the chalice during communion. Dalton holds a holistic view of faith. “If you’re a Christian, your Christianity has to inform your daily life,” he said. A fan of C.S Lewis, Dalton subscribes to the view of latent Christianity, or a faith that permeates every part of your life and shines through in everything that you do. “For me, the Episcopal Church gives me the grip I need to hold on to my Christianity.” 

After his brother, Kevin, was diagnosed with AIDS, Dalton struggled to find the right words with which to pray. “A fellow lay reader introduced me to the prayers for the sick in the Book of Common Prayer,” Dalton said. “It gave me exactly [what] I needed … I learned that the [BCP] had a lot of prayers that could give voice to my thoughts when my words would not come.”

Most Sunday afternoons, Dalton heads north of Houston to ride his quarter horses for “a connection to God through nature,” after which he most often enjoys a glass of rosé or Riesling. “Rosé is refreshing in the summer, especially after you’ve been out riding.”

For almost 20 years, Dalton volunteered with the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo where he helped found HLSR’s Wine Competition and Auction Committee. “The wine business allowed me to integrate everything I learned from my profession [with everything I enjoyed doing],” Dalton said. “The more integrated your life, the more complete you feel.”

Dalton volunteers his time and expertise to help raise money for charity at Epiphany and even started a women’s wine industry social and networking group called WOW (Women of Wine) that helps support the Houston Area Women’s Center.  

Dalton holds the CSW from the Society of Wine Educators, is certified by the Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux as an International Bordeaux Educator and was honored with the Legend Award at the 2008 My Table Houston Culinary Awards. But it’s not the awards that keep “Bear” going, it’s his “do unto others” attitude and holistic view of his faith, life, work and wine. Just don’t ask him what his favorite wine is, or as he puts it, “the impossible question.”