In this new series, Forbes explores the women and men who dedicate their lives to wine, including how they got their start and they’re unique contributions to the world of fine wine and guest hospitality.
In the heart of Panama City, amidst the bustling streets and complicated history of Casco Viejo, lies the city’s latest luxury hotel property, Hotel La Compañia – The Unbound Collection by Hyatt. Within its historic walls works Angelo Keith, a sommelier who seeks to elevate the culinary experience of guests by sharing intriguing stories about the history and production of wine. Meet the sommelier of Hotel La Compañia, a passionate professional whose journey is as remarkable as the wines they curate.
A Journey from Colon to Gatun to Casco Viejo
Keith was born in the city of Colon, located in the Republic of Panama. However, it was his upbringing in the tranquil town of Gatun, situated near the iconic locks of the Panama Canal, that shaped his early years. Surrounded by lush jungles and the vast Gatun Lake, his childhood blended nature and history.
After graduating from high school, he embarked on a new adventure, moving to South Carolina and becoming a member of the National Guard for six years. It was during this time in 1992 that his journey into the world of hospitality began. He became involved in corporate culinary training for well-known companies such as Brinker International and Darden International, solidifying his passion for the food and beverage industry.
“Perhaps it was my passion for service that initially led me into the world of wine,” Keith reflects. “The better your service, the fancier the restaurants you get to work at. The fancier the restaurant, the more wine guests consume.”
This initial interest in food soon evolved into a fascination with specific grape varieties, regions, and countries. Dedication to wine proved to be a stepping stone to success in the hospitality industry, with promotions soon to follow.
A Sommelier’s Journey: From Managing Restaurants to Hotel La Compañia
Keith’s journey into wine stewardship began around 2005 while managing restaurants. He worked at two of the city’s highest-rated spots, gaining recognition and marketability.
One evening, Chris Lenz, now owner of Hotel La Compañia, dined in Keith’s restaurant where they struck up a conversation. “I had just put together, what I considered, a masterpiece of a wine list. Our style of service and level of hospitality made us very popular very quickly. We waited on Chris and his friend when he eventually told me that in about a year, he would be opening a hotel in the historic part of town,” says Keith.
A year later, a call from Fidel Reyes, the general manager of Hotel La Compañia, invited Keith to interview for the position of sommelier.
“I had a decent job at the time, so I was in no hurry, yet, when I saw the hotel, I fell in love with the architecture and the history behind this incredible project. I suppose the word pride is in order because that’s what I felt when I thought about what this living museum meant to my country,” he says. In May 2022 he landed the role, just a month after its grand opening.
A Love Affair with Wine and History
Today, Hotel La Compañia offers guests a wine journey that spans from 7000 BC and takes them through the annals of history. The tour includes cold cuts, cheeses, bread, and a comprehensive discourse on civilization, religion, and wine. These three elements have intertwined for thousands of years, and Keith traces them across Western civilization.
“The rich tapestry of wine’s history is an integral part of the extraordinary wine experience at La Compañia” says Keith, adding “from the rugged Caucasus Mountains to the cradle of civilization in Mesopotamia, from the ancient wonders of Egypt to the bustling streets of Alexandria, the maritime prowess of Phoenicia, and the grandeur of Carthage, wine has been a constant thread in the fabric of human existence.”
The creation of the immersive history of wine tour at La Compañia was a bold and ambitious endeavor to align with the hotel’s historical theme, says Keith. As guests savor wines and delve into the nuances of flavors, body, and structure, there’s a distinct emphasis on the narrative of wine’s history. It’s a journey that transports participants back in time, winding through the ancient civilizations that held wine in reverence.
Traveling down the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates, thousands of years before the birth of Christ, a newfound appreciation for the grape unfolds. Lost civilizations like the Minoans attributed wine as a divine gift, adding depth to wine’s allure. The journey takes guests to the heights of Greece, where guests can imagine climbing the mountains and visiting the oracle at Delphi, while discovering wine’s integral role in the ancient Greek world.
Following the footsteps of Phoenician traders, guests traverse the globe, unraveling the mysteries of wine’s role in trade and culture. Guests learn how in 1525, in what is modern-day Mexico, pioneers who first planted grapes in the hemisphere, shaped the course of New World winemaking.
Keith has received positive feedback on the historical wine tour. “At La Compañia, the wine experience is not just about tasting, but about immersing oneself in a timeless narrative that enriches the soul and leaves an indelible mark on those who partake in it,” he says, adding “when you take people down the Tigris and Euphrates into Mesopotamia thousands of years before Christ, a new appreciation for the grape takes place. Wine is an Indiana Jones movie.”
The wine list at Hotel La Compañia boasts a diverse selection of bottles, including cult favorites like Vega Sicilia, as well as popular wines from Whispering Angel, Catena Zapata, Penfolds 407, Orin Swift, Pio Cesare, Falernia Syrah, Lan a Mano, Chateau Gazin, Caymus, and many more. These wines complements both the Panamanian flavors and international cuisine served at the hotel.
As the sommelier for Hotel La Compañia, Keith brings not only a wealth of knowledge about wine but also a deep appreciation for the history and stories that surround the drink. His journey, from humble beginnings in Gatun to chief wine storyteller at this historic establishment, is a testament to Keith’s dedication and passion. For those seeking an immersive wine experience, a visit to Hotel La Compañia for its sommelier-led wine tour should undoubtedly be on the bucket list.
Hotel La Compañia – The Unbound Collection by Hyatt, Av. A Calle 8, Panamá City, Panama