There has been, as of late, a collective sigh of disappointment among industry colleagues regarding the state of wine writing in Chicago. There is none. New York has Eric Asimov, San Francisco has Jon Bonné, and Chicago- well, crickets. Do you hear them chirping? They are singing about small batch cocktails! And the tumbleweeds are buying craft beer.
I think this sad state of affairs can be be attributed to the dismal fiscal states of our two city papers (I use this term loosely) The Sun-Times and The Tribune. Outlets such as The Reader, Time-Out Chicago, Thrillist, and the various on-line sites that devote space to food and drinks have writers that seem much more comfortable in the beer and cocktail realm. I want to exclude John Lenart and Michael Nagrant from this fold because I feel as if both these writers enjoy and have made an attempt to include wine in their writings. But mostly, restaurant reviewers avoid the subject of wine completely. And as a wine drinker living in a city of wine drinkers, this is sad news.
I have decided to take this space here and "review", and talk about, three wine lists in Chicago. I may continue to do this in the future. All three lists belong to restaurants that have opened this year. The most difficult part of this exercise is my fear that criticism of any type could revert back to the shop, and having worked in the Chicago market for 14 years, I have connections to all these people. However, if we are going to do this, let's do it. Let's get the conversation going about wine.
I truly hope that in the interest of opening a dialogue about wine, that this post is received positively. I welcome any commentary, granted that it is constructive.
So, I am going to try and be fair and transparent. I decided not to interview any of the three wine directors about their lists, because I wanted to try and interpret their visions without any extra information. I am happy to also write a follow-up with their points of view. I think this is the best way to go about this.
The restaurants whose lists I have decided to take a look at this week are: Osteria Langhe, Ceres' Table & Acanto. I have neither eaten nor been in any of these restaurants yet, but the advantage to looking at wine lists is that you do not have to taste anything to get the story. Some may find this completely ludicrous, but I taste often enough, and know many of the producers intimately. I printed out each of the wine lists at home, and these are my findings.
2824 W. Armitage
Chicago, IL 60647
Let's just get this out of the way: I have known Aldo Zaninotto, co-owner and wine buyer, for over 12 years and consider him a friend.
The logo at Osteria Langhe has a small banner that reads "cibo e vini tipici piemontese", or the typical food and wine of Piedmont. There are 58 D.O.P. in Piemonte, 13 of which are represented on the list. Several of these DOP are pretty obscure and possible not represented on the market, but I think as the restaurant continues to grow in popularity and flourish, he could really have quite the collection here.
The BTG (by the glass) list shows good range, from a Favorita (aka Vermentino or Rolle) to a Chardonnay (there is a large amount growing in this region) in the white section, and the holy trinity of reds (Dolcetto, Barbera & Nebbiolo) plus a few interesting others in the red BTG selection.
The bottle list is small, but very nice. Two, count 'em, two Ruchés are represented along with a Grignolino and a Freisa, so even some of these obscure accessory grapes get menu time. I love that this list, while Nebbiolo heavy (not a bad things in my mind) also pays attention to the little guys. However, at $72.00/ bottle, the 2010 Vietti Barolo Castiglione is such a steal you shouldn't be drinking anything but that. Sure it's young but you may die tomorrow! There are so many nice things here, especially on the red side, that it would be hard to choose just one bottle.
The big issue I have with the list is organization and lack of symmetry. The organizational scheme (sub-regions/DOP of Piemonte) would be difficult to navigate for a diner who is not a sommelier, and even then, is a cause for consternation. In some listings, the varietal is stated and in other listings it is not. In most cases the producer is listed first, but not all the listings. The Sperino Lessona is listed as a DOC under the sub-region of Lessona, but then so is Clerico's Spanna, a DOP outside of Lessona, although Clerico is located in Lessona. We need a map. Aldo, where are the maps?
Other confusing listings are: "Braida di Giacomo Bologna Bricco dell'uccellone" (Under Alba, it's a Barbera D'Alba but there is really no way of knowing this due to the exclusion of the DOP) and "Braida di Giacomo Bologna Il Baciale"which is a Barbera/Pinot Noir blend and technically from Monferrato, for which there has a separate category but for some reason, he lists this under Alba. Again, I surmise it is probably the location of the producer, but that's a lot of guess work on my part.
I found this list a bit hard to navigate, but I am also seeing that there are really some terrific and exciting wines to drink here. I imagine the list really comes to life when Aldo is on-hand to help. So shame on me for not eating/drinking here yet!
3124 N Broadway
Chicago, IL 60657
Let's just get this out of the way: I have known Giuseppe Scurato (the Chef) and Scott Manlin (wine buyer and partner) also for 12 years. I worked under Giuseppe (in the FOH) when he was the Chef de Cuisine at MK, and Scott I met as a customer there and would describe our relationship over the years as warm acquaintances, with many mutual friends.
I was happily surprised by the depth and affordability of this menu upon first reading. They have gone for a "styles category" approach here and include a three or four word description underneath each wine. This is a good idea, especially for a neighborhood restaurant that may not have the wine director on the floor every night. The wines really come to life with this context, although, like with any type of tasting note, some of these go overboard. Some did honestly make me so thirsty though I nearly had a glass of wine at 10am!
Varieties are neatly highlighted in bold letters which I think is very helpful, and for the most part symmetry is respected, although on the current on-line menu there are a few errors: Montepulciano is in bold for Avignonesi; the variety here should be Prugnolo Gentile or more simply Sangiovese. The Paolo Be a Montefalco is composed of Sagrantino, not Sangiovese (as stated) and there is no new oak on the Passopisciaro Etna Rosso (only neutral large barrels are used for this bottling). The tasting note for the Lageder Pinot Grigio is confusing: "stewed fruit, baking spice, perfume". These cannot possibly describe a basic tank aged Pinot Grigio, so perhaps this is the "Porer" bottling and if so, shouldn't that be noted on the menu?
Am I nit picking? Yes! But my wine lists were never, ever free of mistakes so I think it is good to have several sets of eyes going over the list, especially before you commit them to printing.
What I love about this list is its uncompromised devotion to Italy, and fearless approach. This wine menu, in the way it is written and laid out, allows the diner to plunge headfirst into an unknown sea, with a bit of information and a sense of what kind of water they will find. The fact that they are willing to feature 14 different expressions of Nerello Mascalese, the noble grape of Mount Etna, in order to pay homage to Chef Scurato's roots is inspiring (although the fact that Passopisciaro is misspelled at least twice, as well as Catarratto, is not so inspiring). There is also an extended rosé list, and a nice "orange wine" selection, which they thankfully, chose to keep off the BTG program. Orange wines are terrible choices for BTG due to perishability and expense. I applaud them for being smart.
Overall, a big thumbs up here, for me. And another shame on you Shebnem for not going to the new location yet.
18 S. Michigan
Chicago, IL 60603
Let's just get this out of the way: while I don't know Jon McDaniel very well, the wine director at Acanto (and The Gage and The Dawson), I held this position at The Gage and Henri for 7 years. I am friends with the Chef of this restaurant (Chris Garownski) and also hold the owner, Billy Lawless, and his family, dear to my heart.
Now closed, Henri was re-concepted as Acanto, and opened last week.
First of all, for a tiny restaurant (70 seats?) this is a ginormous list, 16 pages came off my home printer. Organization is a little chaotic, with all types of headers being employed (DOP, Regions, Style Categories and more!). Jon also employs the three and four word tasting note, but his are less succinct than those at Ceres' Table. There is a category of whites called "Glass Jumpers" with many things from Piemonte, so why not put those wines in the Piemonte section? Well, for one thing, all "Glass Jumpers" are white and Piemontese only features red wines and I am puzzled by this bifurcation, although I have to say I wanted to drink nearly all the "Glass Jumpers" this minute!
I am happy he devotes some small space to Valle D'Aosta (a personal favorite) and Northern Italy (other than Piemonte). And there is a nice fat section for the Veneto, devoid of the usual suspects with some fascinating wines. I would tuck right in there! And while the Tuscan section is neither alarming nor surprising, there are many classic producers that I forgot I really loved, and this was a nice reminder that they are still making wines, and that I should drink them once in a while. A lovely, respectful nod to the wonderful and noble grape, Sangiovese.
While the sections devoted to Sicily and Sardegna are well fleshed out, there is a glaring error in the Sicilian section. Passopisciaro's "Franchetti" is not, and has never been made from Cabernet Franc. It has always been a Petit Verdot/Cesanese D'Affile blend.
There is also an odd choice of terminology being employed in his orange wine/rosé section, although I think it is so smart to put these two categories together. This section is called "Wines of Color". Given what is going on in the world, in Ferguson, etc. I find this heading unfortunate, and honestly, a bit distasteful. The fact that he also chooses to feature the now infamous racist ranter Fulvio Bressan's wines on the list does not help matters either. Hash tag awkward!
Another section that goes off the rails for me are the last few pages which are all over the place- Italian Grapes grown on American soil, Pinot Noir (American & Burgundy) Rhone Grapes and Bordeaux Grapes. Perhaps these sections were created to alleviate the burden of some of Henri's leftover inventory; I do not know but they seem like wines out of step with the rest of the menu.
The BTG list here was less compelling to me than the bottle list. $42 for a 6 ounce glass of Brunello? It had better had be a "life-changer" as promised by it's description. To be fair, this is a "reserve" pouring. The rest of the BTG prices are certainly in step with location and food quality. Speaking of pricing, one of the nicer things about this list is its range. If you feel like balling it out with a 1998 Scavino Barolo "Bric Dël Fiasc" ($285)- yes, you can! Feel like keeping it cheap and happy with a 2011 Bastianich Sauvignon Blanc ($45)? Yes, you can do that too.
I think this list could ultimately use some pruning, and Jon will have time to do this. I suspect in a year it will be much tighter and more focused, and has the potential to be a very exciting list for Chicago. But clearly a lot of thought and devotion was put into this and it shows.
Another shame on Shebnem for not going down there yet.
Summary: 3 interesting Italian wine lists and 3 shame on Shebnems!!!!! How much more shaming can I take? I suppose I will find out when I hit "publish" for this post!!!!