Booze Muse

The art and craft of liquid inspiration

Somme Wisdom: Bringing Your Own to Higher-End Restaurants

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Charles Ford/Photo: Anjali Pinto

Charles Ford/Photo: Anjali Pinto

By David Hammond

There are restaurants, usually smaller ones, all over Chicago that proudly display “BYO,” announcing to us that it’s cool to bring our own alcoholic beverages. This is usually a way to reduce your overall price of dinner out because it’s common practice for restaurants to mark up wine upwards of three-hundred percent.

What you may not know is that bringing your own wine is acceptable—sometimes welcomed—by higher-end restaurants that don’t officially announce the BYO option.  In some cases, they may even waive the usual corkage fee (anywhere from a few dollars to over fifty).

To gain some pointers about when and how it’s cool to bring your own wine to dinner at places with their own good wine lists, we talked to sommeliers and others who handle wine and spirits. Before you even arrive at the restaurant with your own wine, however, Arthur Hon, beverage director of Sepia, advises, “We prefer that diners communicate beforehand that they’ll be bringing in a bottle so that we can serve you in the best way possible.” This theme of mutual respect runs throughout the following pro tips. Read the rest of this entry »

Terroir o’ Land o’ Lincoln: Tasting the Wines of Our State

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Illinois vineyard in winter/Photo: David Hammond

Illinois vineyard in winter/Photo: David Hammond

By David Hammond

Illinois is not generally recognized for its wine. Napa, Willamette Valley, parts of New York and Virginia, sure. But our state? No, not really.

Having tasted wines in regions as disparate as sunny Havana and cool Quebec, it’s clear that wine can, indeed, be made anywhere. Even here.

Wine has been “made” in Illinois for some time, but a lot of the juice has come from other regions like, say, California. It’s way more difficult to grow good wine grapes on the Great Plains than it is in sunnier states, but if you want a taste of the state, you want to drink wine made of grapes grown here.

At Galena’s Wine Lovers’ Weekend, we were more than a little surprised to taste a lot of wine made from Illinois-grown grapes. Read the rest of this entry »

Sort of the College of Cardinals Conclave for the Wine Industry: Spending a Night at the Wine Spectator Grand Tour

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Wine Spectator Grand Tour/Photo: Camilla Sjodin

Wine Spectator Grand Tour/Photo: Camilla Sjodin

By Harris Meyer

Corina Alfaro and Carissa Emery, who only recently turned legal drinking age, stand holding sparkling wine in their expensive Riedel wine glasses, looking excited and a little tipsy.

The two young women had won free tickets from the B96 radio station—which otherwise would have cost $225 each—to attend the Wine Spectator Grand Tour 2015 at Navy Pier’s Grand Ballroom. They obviously are enjoying the three-hour event, featuring sips of 228 of the best and most expensive wines from sixteen countries and four American states, with retail prices up to nearly $500 a bottle for top-of-the-line Bordeaux. It’s Alfaro’s and Emery’s first-ever serious wine tasting.

They both say they prefer sweeter white wines and sparklers to the drier, more tannic reds. “We used to drink boxed wine, whatever, give us the cheapest thing,” Emery says with a giggle. “Now this has opened our eyes to a lot of different wines.” Read the rest of this entry »

Untraditional: Shake Up Thanksgiving Drinking with Oddball White Wines

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Photo: Tim Parkinson

Photo: Tim Parkinson

By Wendy Aeschlimann

Thanksgiving is maybe not the best time to go against tradition. Changing out your great aunt’s green-bean casserole or your mother’s sweet-potato-marshmallow dish could get you fired from the family. Still, Thanksgiving can be predictable and boring, comprised of discordant sweet, tart and savory flavors that are not easy to match with one type of wine. You just know the meal will be heavy with fat, butter and cream. Turkey, the star protein, is frequently bland and dry. And, alas, the dinner lasts for hours; if you drink too heavily, you’ll be snoozing on the couch by four.

Beaujolais nouveau arrives in stores about a week before Thanksgiving. (Funny how that works, right?) Bottles of this popular red usually find their way to the table. Instead of going with that lightweight red, we suggest serving an oddball white wine. Or two.

White wines have a pronounced acidity and citrusy, mineral notes that cut through fatty foods and accent a variety of flavors. White wine is also lighter on the palate so you can drink plenty without blowing out your taste buds. In addition, whites are usually more reasonably priced than reds. You don’t have to default to routine California Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Chardonnay tends to be over-oaked and so can make turkey taste like wood. Sauvignon Blanc is too often horrifyingly tart. Both varietals—especially in less expensive price ranges—can be dull and one-dimensional.

By branching out to oddball whites, you’re likely to get lucky in even the under-$15-a-bottle range. Shebnem Ince of Perman Wine Selections (802 West Washington) is a sommelier who knows a lot about unusual wines. I asked her to pick a weirdo white wine in three price categories. After we get her suggestions in each category, I’ll suggest a few of my own. Read the rest of this entry »

Pairing Charcuterie: A Conversation with Joe Fiely of Francesca’s Restaurant Group

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By David Hammond

Charcuterie is our favorite part of the meal. That’s because we’re always hungriest at the start, but also because charcuterie offers such a wide spectrum of flavors. Though these flavors perk the palate, it’s challenging to find one wine that pairs well with, for instance, fresh and ripe cheeses, cured meat and condiments.

Joe Fiely is corporate wine ambassador for Francesca’s Restaurant Group. We ran into him at Davanti Enoteca with some questions about how to pair wines with charcuterie.

Generally, what pairs best with charcuterie—white or red wine?
I love white wines with cheese, in part because they work with a much wider range of cheeses. My favorites are crisp, young whites paired with goat cheese; slightly sweet, off-dry whites with blue cheese; aged and oxidized whites with aged cheeses. With white wines, it’s hard to go wrong. Read the rest of this entry »

Top of the Pops: Salon might be the champagne of Champagnes

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ChampagneSalon1996By Michael Nagrant

You should always cook with good wine, but whoever set that rule probably didn’t expect anyone to deglaze their risotto pan with $400 Champagne like Jean-Baptiste Cristini. Cristini didn’t want me to mention this, probably because you’d think he’s some snooty rich dude. He’s not. He just happens to work for Salon and Delamotte Champagnes, and was lucky to taste some 1988 Salon that hadn’t aged well and got it as a side perk.

Such circumstance is emblematic of Cristini’s life. He’s like a younger version of the guy from Dos Equis’ “Most Interesting Man in the World” beer commercials, a cosmopolitan handsome 28-year-old dude who drinks Grand Cru Champagne like tap water. He hangs out in Paris on weekends with his girlfriend, a veteran chef of Michelin-starred kitchens, throws parties for friends larded with Iberico ham and trophy wines, and works as the globetrotting export director for one of the best bubbly makers in the world.

The luster of Cristini’s employer Salon/Delamotte shines even brighter. Located in the French commune of Le Mesnil sur Oger in the Côte des Blancs, Salon/Delamotte produces some of the world’s most prestigious Champagne. If you haven’t heard of Salon, you’ve likely heard of its cohorts Cristal and upstart cousin Dom Perignon which produce 300,000 and 5 million or so bottles a year respectively. If this trio of sparklers were baseball cards, Salon Champagne, which produces no more than 60,000 bottles in a vintage year, would be its Honus Wagner. Read the rest of this entry »

The Boozehound Strikes Back: Why Drinks Over Dearborn needs to be saved

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By Michael NagrantBeer_Wall-200x149

“Second floor retail is murder, ” says Kyle McHugh, aka “The Boozehound” and owner of boutique wine, beer and spirits retailer Drinks Over Dearborn (DOD). Though McHugh learned this truism in business school, he opened DOD on the second floor of an old office building called The Raleigh on Dearborn between Erie and Ontario anyway.

It wasn’t that he was the Evil Knievel of liquor retailers interested in spitting on MBA textbook theories. Rather, a greater truism trumped all: rent prices in the Gold Coast (an area he preferred for its affluent traffic) were a straight-up serial killing. McHugh figured he could better avoid the death of his business by executing his business plan the right way: get a bigger space to conduct classes, tastings and host a wide variety of interesting stock instead of compromising and blowing his life’s savings and small-business loan on a dinky little box on the first floor.

And in a business climate where faux anonymity and cloak and dagger is the new version of the Vegas-style blinking neon sign, who could discount McHugh’s decision? After all, the Lincoln Park restaurant Alinea doesn’t even have a sign and the popular Wicker Park cocktail lounge The Violet Hour looks like a graffiti-covered abandoned building.

If you build it, they will come, right? Read the rest of this entry »

411: Woke Up This Morning…

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Sopranos1.SchiantiA piece of “The Sopranos” has come to the Midwest with the Chicago-area launch of The Sopranos Wines. Sopranos Wines was originally launched in November 2008 in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut mainly for the large Italian population and wine-drinking market, managing partner Mark Gonsalves says. Over the past few months, after getting their key markets up to speed, Sopranos entered into conversations and contracts with Franklin Park distributor Stoller Wholesale to bring the wine to Chicago. “We’re always attracted to family-run trades,” Gonsalves says. “The Sopranos is a family  business. We liked what [Stoller] had done with other products.” Gonsalves says Chicago is a great market because of the high concentration of Italian-American families. Prior to coming to Chicago, the brand was launched in Arizona and California. They plan to take their wine to Vegas next then to the northwest United States and eventually throughout the rest of the Midwest. The Sopranos Wines has three main tiers of pricing per bottle—$9.99, $14.99 and $24.99. “In today’s market, people are looking for value, a brand they can trust and that they can enjoy with their meal,” Gonsalves says. “The Sopranos fits the bill. We want to communicate that our wine is serious wine, family made and Italian-bottled. It’s value.”

Grapes of Mirth: In search of the ultimate value wine

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trufferBy Michael Nagrant

There may be no better time in our history to hit the bottle. Certainly we are not lacking for motivation, what with all the layoffs, pay reductions, bankruptcies and mortgage adjustments. But, more importantly, even with thinner wallets, because of the over-production of wine, the growth in negociants (folks who often capitalize on that over-production by buying great wines for a song and selling them for a comparably low price at retail), and increases in manufacturing efficiencies, we’ve never had greater opportunity to buy relatively low-priced wine.

Of course, many wineries have capitalized on this idea not by offering great wines, but by saturating the market with a ridiculous amount of swill that forces us to sift through an ever-growing supply of junk to find anything good. I don’t know about you, but my track record for finding really good wines at a discount retailers has been a very hit-or-miss proposition, with a lot more misses.

I know, I know. You’re ready to smack me in the back of a head with a case of Two Buck Chuck. I’m not saying there’s not a lot of drinkable stuff out there, but I’m talking about the grapes that really stand out, the kind of pour you dream about and rush back to buy a case of. Read the rest of this entry »

No More Rules: Wine Aficionado Gary Vaynerchuk and his 101 Wines

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Picture a wine critic, and what do you see? A middle-aged Englishman with glasses wearing a suit and sitting with his legs crossed? A room full of bearded baby-boomers standing in a circle with their pinkies stuck out, speaking in droll tones? It probably isn’t Gary Vaynerchuk, the Belarus-born wine aficionado who has blown up in popularity over the last few years. In a picture on the home page of his Web site, Vaynerchuk sits on a leather couch with a sneer on his face, pointing his finger at the camera. Your father’s wine critic he is not.

“All rules out there are crap,” Vaynerchuk says, when asked what to keep in mind when selecting a wine to go with your dinner. “You should explore a bit more because they’ve killed creativity.”

His honesty is refreshing, and plenty of other people think so. Vaynerchuk’s daily video blog in which he reviews wines draws over 80,000 viewers with each new installment. That Vaynerchuk has been able to achieve such popularity in a niche market is impressive, especially given how unorthodox of a critic he is. All of his videos are filmed in his office, he speaks a mile-a-minute in his New Jersey accent and he spits each sip of wine into a New York Jets trashcan.

Vaynerchuk recently did a signing in Chicago to promote his new book, “101 Wines Guaranteed to Inspire, Delight, and Bring Thunder to Your World,” drawing plenty of fans. In our conversation, he dished on what wines he thought worked best with traditional Chicago-style pizza and hot dogs, staples of city summer cuisine.

“Rich wines like Syrah would go great with those kinds of pizza. You can go with something with a really bright fruit, like a Super Tuscan,” he says. “With [the hot dogs], I’d be more interested in different varieties. I’ve actually been very fond of having Zinfadel with that. Also, I think that Pinot Noir from the central Otago of New Zealand goes extremely well as well.”

As a retailer in the wine industry for fifteen years before he became a critic, Vaynerchuk’s built up a lot of credibility in the industry and is proud to represent it. It’s hard to imagine a wine critic becoming a celebrity, but if there was one who would fit in on the red carpet, it’s Vaynerchuk. “I kind of felt I was the perfect character, based on my personality and my credibility,” he says of his job. “I felt like I could do it.” (Jeremy Gordon)