Signs of the Great Recession literally hold forth in many storefronts and malls. Placards reading “Space Available” are a common sight. But there is a bright side: an emergence of new concepts and ways of doing business.
The food and beverage industry has been at the forefront of this phenomenon: Winemakers and their representatives unearth new (rather, ancient) treasures; intrepid and innovative chefs and sommeliers have blazed new trails, identifying value.
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The Purple Pig, on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, is an example of this brazen, full head of steam into the stiff, biting winds of recession. Its tagline, “Cheese, Swine & Wine,” might have not had the same resonance several years ago, but Chicagoans and critics are certainly eating it up. Last month, The Purple Pig received the prestigious Bib Gourmand from the Michelin Guide.
This award identifies restaurants judged to offer their diners top value. In these lean times, it makes sense to chew the fat with restaurateurs and wine directors who provide a lot of bang for the buck. Chef Jimmy Bannos, Jr. and Wine Director Joe Fiely heartily embrace it as a crucial element in running a successful restaurant.
Value Wine Chicago: You have more than 200 bottles of wine on your list, with a wide price range. Your tagline is also “Cheese, Swine & Wine.” What went into selecting the wines for your list, in relation to your cuisine, and why a list of this size?
Jimmy Bannos, Jr.: Well, even though it says [Cheese, Swine & Wine], we are known as a wine bar, so it was important that we have a large wine list. We really wanted to showcase parts of the world that might not be getting their due. For example, although Italy is well known for wine, we wanted to feature some southern Italian wines that might not be getting a lot of love. There’s some unbelievable stuff coming from Calabria and Sicily. And wines from Greece have been unreal, so I wanted to put them on the map. These European wines are the ones that work with our menu. Our customers have commented about how well the pairings work here.
VWC: Other sommeliers and wine directors say that the recession has influenced the wine industry’s move from being primarily score-driven to being more food-driven. Do you agree?
JB: Yes, very much so. And, that has certainly been the case here.
Joe Fiely: In the past, people would order and drink what they liked and didn’t care if it went with their food. Now, I feel people get excited when the food and wine go together and enhance their experience.
VWC: Are there any trends you see developing in the wine industry along those lines, say among your purveyors or customers?
JB: More and more, I’ll meet with [wine salesmen] who will say things like, “Try this wine from Greece instead of getting a Burgundy that might be double the price, because this Greek wine is going to be as good or better.” I hope this trend continues, too — where the prices stay reasonable for these [under-the-radar] wines. I want to keep building our Greek wine list, and our section of Spanish wines, too. The thing about wines from Spain is that they are so drinkable. You don’t need to have food with them; they’re often so enjoyable on their own.
JF: Anyone can drink an expensive Cabernet Sauvignon with a steak, but an Aglianico or a Touriga National at a fraction of the price is just more fun. I am always recommending people seek out lesser known regions and grape varietals; Italy’s Marche region as opposed to super famous Tuscany, or the Jumilla region of Spain as opposed to Rioja.