One of Chicago’s most beautiful vistas is the south view from Lincoln Park toward downtown. The skyline might catch one’s initial gaze, but the ponds in the foreground provide a sense of serenity.
The setting is an ideal place to enjoy a glass of wine (imagine that!), and – in more temperate seasons – a nice alfresco meal. It is a way to relax and experience a true “taste” of the city.
As luck would have it, a celebrated restaurateur has refined his craft in this area of Lincoln Park. North Pond Restaurant is not only a culinary destination for celebrating all seasons, but a place to witness the city’s distinct charm, local farmers’ quality produce – and experience an excellent wine list.
Renowned Chef Bruce Sherman is a native Chicagoan who traveled the world. He brought his cosmopolitan experiences back to the city, and blended them with his passion for local ingredients and products – creating a menu and wine list that expresses homage to world cuisine and Chicago’s unique spirit.
The same level of dedication to things both international and local is embodied the wine expertise of North Pond’s General Manager, Rian Hill. A Wisconsin native who started as a Wine Director for T. Ashwell’s in Ellison Bay, Hill went on to New York’s Savoy before returning to the Midwest at North Pond. Sherman and Hill have produced a wine list that is an expression of season, and true to places of origin.
Value Wine Chicago sat down with Rian Hill recently, and discussed the unique fusion of a worldly sense of taste and Midwestern sensibilities – and of course, the best values in the wine industry:
Value Wine Chicago: There’s a movement to rediscover things that are local, as it relates to authenticity. Do you believe there is a trend in the wine industry away from just varietals and towards authentic places of origin?
Rian Hill: I agree with that. The onus is on me to craft a wine program and to pair with Chef Sherman’s fantastic menu. He is so heavily involved, looking to protect farmers and to “bring things back home” as much as possible. And it’s important to realize that the average wine consumer is savvier than ever now. America’s wine tradition isn’t as lengthy as our European counterparts, so we’ve been presented with a tremendous opportunity to grow free of the constraints of history. We can appreciate our own efforts, but can draw on our influences from abroad, and this has made us very worldly in our perspective of wine. So, America is developing its own great winemaking tradition.
I had the opportunity to meet with Ken Wright of Oregon’s Ken Wright Cellars earlier this season. His self-characterization as a “farmer” made me realize that is probably the most important aspect of the wine industry. I think it’s easy to get wrapped up in the finished product and all the romance of wine. To sense his connection with the different parcels of land on which he’s working was just such an authentic sense of something local, and it illustrated wine’s connection with its place of origin. He expounded upon the practices of being bio-dynamic and sustainable. Many larger wine companies have jumped on these words because of their marketability, but he [truly embraces] them.
VWC: How have you responded to the challenges of the recession and how it affects the way people order wine?
RH: It’s more important than ever during these times to communicate to the customer that the necessary time and energy has been devoted to making smart value selections on a relatively small list. We, in turn, have an opportunity to understand each of these products a little more intimately than servers in other restaurants [that have huge wine lists]. And we’re lucky to have such knowledgeable servers; our staff can really communicate flavor profiles and aspects of these items to customers, making the subject of wine as conversational as possible.
During times of recession, we’ve tread off the beaten path with our tasting menu. We pair with each one of those courses, and those pairings not only are an authentic expression of food, but express value. This menu has a pairing of Muscadet with lobster, and an Austrian Grüner Veltliner with almond-crusted halibut. Many varietals [with] greater obscurity also represent value. We pour these wines tableside with each course, and we have a conversation with the customers about them, as to why we’ve made the selections, and even some history.
VWC: Give me your personal recommendations for the best wine values that might retail for $15 or less per bottle.
RH: For a red, I recommend the Faugères Domaine Leon Barral 2006. It is a wonderful, rustic Languedoc selection that’s mostly Grenache and Carignan, with a bit of Syrah. It appeared on the list at North Pond as the weather turned cold. As far as values go, southern France is great because it’s so incredibly diverse. Languedoc wines are so full of garrigue – a sort of low-level scrub-brush aspect. Winemaker Didier Barral has created a biodynamic wine that features a lot of sweet, saturated fruit. I think we’ve moved toward more intense and more rustic wines. We have venison on the menu and wild pheasant and squab, and we continue to look for wines that will do those entrées justice. The retail price will be around $17.
For whites, the Muscadet that we pair with the lobster on our tasting menu is an incredible value (at $13 – $15). The Claude Branger Le Fils de Gras Moutons 2007 is more Atlantic-influenced than most other Muscadets, as it’s from the extreme western region of the Loire Valley. The grape varietal is the Melon de Bourgogne. We love this one so much because, paired with the lobster, it serves as a foil. Lobster has such a creamy richness that we’re looking to contrast with one of the most perfect seafood wines. This Muscadet has such wonderful minerality, zest and acidity, plus almost a bit of saltiness – this is the effect of the sea breeze.