By Jacky Runice
Would you buy a pair of shoes without trying them on just because they don a Balenciaga label? It's the same situation with wine - many buy by a whimsical label which may mean a creative graphic artist but not necessarily a satisfying bottle of grapes. Turn to the sommelier who can help navigate the dizzying world of vino. In the oenophile vernacular, here are a handful of Chicago's best sommeliers and wine directors who are bold, deep, crisp, focused, sparkling, noble and yes, perhaps a little spicy!
339 N. Dearbon St.
Chicago, IL 60654
If you think wine is too complicated to understand or that good wine is simply too expensive, you haven't met Brian Duncan of BIN 36 who prefers the moniker of wine director rather than Sommelier. According to Duncan, "We're not looking to argue the merits or subtle differences between Chardonnays from the Napa Valley and Sonoma County," he says. "Instead, we'd like to give our guests an opportunity to understand the difference between oak barrel-aged Chardonnay and one aged in stainless steel, and even Sauvignon Blanc." Good thing because the kitchen turns out contemporary American cuisine with an emphasis on seasonal ingredients and wine pairing. Grapes are also featured to escort the 50-selection cheese menu as well as a prix-fixe Chef's Tasting menu that changes daily. Featured as one of America's leading wine experts in national publications, seminar leader and panelist at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic, a recipient of the "Good Eating" award from the Chicago Tribune and the recipient of five nominations for Chicago's Jean Banchet Awards for Culinary Excellence in the Best Sommelier category, Duncan obviously has the chops but also a sympathetic approach to wine education.
123 N. Jefferson St.
Chicago, IL 60661
As wine director, Arthur Hon oversees Sepia's seasonal, food-driven wine list of approximately 350 bottles featuring boutique winemakers and lesser-known grapes and wine regions. In addition to discovering new finds and facilitating wine-pairing events at the Michelin star-rated restaurant throughout the year, he also hosts weekly wine training for staff to ramp up servers' knowledge and passion for grapes. You'll find nary a dash of pretension nor intimidation when you're handed the roster of wine, but rather lively conversation and inspiration to try something new. Hon must be driving in the right direction because the James Beard Foundation named Sepia a semifinalist in the Outstanding Wine Program category in 2012. Hon is certified by the Court of Master Sommeliers and is currently studying for the Advanced Level exam, which he will take in 2012. A supporter of local and sustainable growers, Hon says, "Creativity and passion don't always have to be complex or come from afar. Simpler is always better."
2601 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Chicago, IL 60647
You will hit a trifecta when you connect with Jeremy Quinn, the sommelier at Telegraph, The Bluebird and Webster's Wine Bar, who was chosen as one of the top Sommeliers of 2012 in Food and Wine Magazine. Quinn champions small, family-owned wineries that produce wines in natural and traditional ways and he imports a small number of carefully selected European wines under his own label. "This fall, I'm looking forward to featuring newly arrived, artisanal red and white wines from Sicily at Telegraph," he explained, "a host of outstanding dry Lambruscos at Telegraph and The Bluebird; a flight of orange wines by the glass and a by-the-glass comparison of red wines from Burgundy and the Jura at Webster Wine Bar; sparkling 'Petillant Naturels' at Webster's and Telegraph; and responsibly farmed Syrahs from California at the Bluebird." No matter the season, catch up with Quinn's current choices on his blogs found at both the Webster's (40 wines by the glass and over 500 reserve wines) and Telegraph's websites.
Mercat a la Planxa
638 S. Michigan Ave.
Chicago, IL 60605
For a sure bet on what Robert Louis Stevenson called "bottled poetry," seek out Sommelier Anne Jackson who showcases a wide variety of wines from Spain at the Catalan tapas restaurant Mercat a la Planxa. If the thought of Spanish wine puts a puzzled look on your face, "no problema." Jackson makes Mercat's wine list accessible no matter your knowledge level by categorizing the offerings by style or body - such as "Crisp & Refreshing" whites or "Hearty & Lush" reds - rather than by varietal. "This way, guests do not need to be experts in the Spanish regions and varietals, some of which are more obscure, but they can focus on a category of flavors instead," she says. "I want all guests to have a fun time with food and wine, free of pretension, so that they can't wait to come back and try something different." Ole, indeed!
JW Marriott Chicago
151 West Adams Street
Chicago, IL 60603
If friendship is the wine of life, then Olivier Lau, certified Sommelier, Chief Wine Ambassador and Director of Restaurants at JW Marriott Chicago, may be your new best pal. Lau started the Wine Ambassador program at the luxe hotel which expands a once internal training program into an interactive wine experience for guests. Usually held once a month, the program offers hotel and local guests intimate Wine Ambassador Tastings in which six people enjoy a monthly varietal of wine with food pairings and voice their feedback. Those thoughts are then shared among all other Wine Ambassadors across JW Marriott properties. The experience is unstuffy and downright fun. "My approach to wine is that anyone, no matter how knowledgeable, is able to understand and enjoy wine as long as it is explained in a structured and comprehensive way as well as in a non intimidating environment," Lau says. "Our local oenophiles amaze me by their passion and their open mind when it comes to the wines they talk about." You might catch him in the hotel's lovely Italian restaurant, The Florentine, answering questions about his current favorite, Syrah.
Jacky Runice has been a columnist with the Daily Herald Chicago since grunge music and flannel was the new black. Her fingers and gray matter have been busy as travel editor of Reunions Magazine; penning a column that was syndicated around the nation via Tribune Media Services. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.
for more features.