It can take a formidable ego to be a chef in any large city, let alone Chicago. But for Jason Paskewitz – the man who has driven notable cuisine at local restaurants where the term “fusion” would be a trite catchall phrase – customers must feel comfortable. And that is a challenge if one has to genuflect to culinary craftsmanship.
By “comfort,” does that mean Paskewitz’s latest destination, Gemini Bistro, simply features mac & cheese with a few extra pats of butter? Hardly. But in Chicago, there’s still a market for those who enjoy a prime rib with all the trimmings. Paskewitz, Gemini Bistro’s straight-shooting chef/partner, has re-discovered, or at least reawakened, that group of diners. That means offering affordable, recognizable wine to match the timeless courses on the menu.
In fact, American diners crave such a sanctuary in familiarity, that Paskewitz says they might make domestic wine virtually their only choice a decade from now. (Paskewitz makes this prediction despite his personal love of Burgundy and Rhône wines.) If home is where the heart is, then California and Oregon, et al., are where the favored grapes grow.
Some sommeliers point to terroir; Paskewitz, for all his accomplishments, stresses varietal recognition and the resulting ease felt by the diner – and with his decidedly Queens-borough accent. To be sure, American winemakers’ penchant for varietal-based products certainly hinges on this latter precept.
Value Wine Chicago had a lively discussion with Gemini Bistro’s self-effacing chef for his take on the wine, food and American dining habits. Paskewitz displays interestingly candid warmth, and delivers definite opinions on where the industry is headed:
Value Wine Chicago: How have you gone about assembling your wine list here, in a way that perhaps reflects the trend among wine consumers toward approachability and away from snobbery?
Jason Paskewitz: We separate the lists; the special Reserve section is for the expensive, high-end wine. But there’s nothing higher than $80 per bottle on our regular list. Also, there are no wines by the glass that are over $15. My advice is: you have to shop it and just keep tasting, and it’s perfect when the price is right. I devote Tuesday afternoons to tasting new and different wines. Wine is not like food; it changes every year. Cows and chickens really don’t change. I let all my wine purveyors and distributors know exactly what I’m looking for: Nothing over-the-top or more than $40 (wholesale) per bottle. My two parameters when I buy wine are that the products are affordable and recognizable. I want people to know what they’re ordering, just as with our entrees. The items are familiar to many diners; there’s nothing that will confuse anybody.
VWC: So, you prefer to find value amongst the tried-and-true rather than, say, obscure varietals?
JP: Yes. There are a few selections on the list that might not be as recognizable, but these are actually fewer than what we had before. I’m not a sommelier or a wine steward by trade, so I’m not trying to win all sorts of awards for discovering things that are obscure. I just want things to be recognizable and of good quality. It’s been a good formula for me so far. At the end of the day, 90% of the people will look to the right-hand column of the menu to see the price.
Hey, people like to be comfortable, and so I keep bin numbers on the list. That way, customers can order bottle #212, instead of having to pronounce, “Chapoutier Crozes-Hermitage.” I don’t want wine to be intimidating. When I go out and see a wine that has a difficult pronunciation, even if I can pronounce it, I always order by the number.
VWC: Any other industry trends you’ve seen in recent months? Care to make any predictions?
JP: I have seen a lot more interest and sales in Malbec and Spanish wines lately. Like any other trend, something could become even bigger (than those). But, I think that within another 10 years, most restaurants will really have a heavy emphasis on California wines and other domestic wines. Obviously, France and Italy have had their grapes and vines for so long, but California is still relatively young. So in the future, I don’t think you’ll have to shop for wine made outside of this country. And, when I say that, I’m talking about the average restaurant patron. Oregon Pinot Noir is easier to remember than the long name of a wine from Burgundy. The same is true with Chardonnay. But that’s been happening more lately, anyway – so that’s not much of prediction, really.
VWC: What are your personal favorites priced under $15 per bottle?
JP: For a red, I like Guigal Cotes-du-Rhone. It’s a good middle-of-the-road wine for 12 bucks. You could go with salmon, roast chicken or filet mignon. It’s not going to overpower many things, and it’ll stand up to a lot. There’s so much to enjoy from the Rhone, both north and south. I think Guigal is very consistent.
When it comes to whites, I like really cold, crisp wines. The Pomelo Sauvignon Blanc 2009 from California is crisp, fruity and clean. If you’re on a picnic or the weather is hot, just keep it cold, and you don’t have to worry about bringing a corkscrew, because the Pomelo is a screwtop.