Even though he grew up in Hammond, Ind., Jack Lewis always thought of himself as a Chicagoan. But Lewis – the affable owner of Michael Diversey’s Tavern in Lakeview – had to venture much further to the southeast than Hammond to catch the wine bug.
There was a Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Columbia, S.C., (the first in the state) and it needed a big wine list. Lewis was put in charge of assembling one that featured 340 bottles.
“That was an education,” says Lewis. “And my wine education never stops; it’s a moving animal.”
Lewis was ready to move after his sojourn to the Deep South, aching to get back “home” to Chicago. His vision to build a business of his own crystallized with Michael Diversey’s. It’s a distinctly Chicago tavern – neighborly, casual and fun – but one that embraces the foodie and wine culture.
The increased emphasis on wine has not only been good for Lewis’s business, it’s also helped to establish Michael Diversey’s as a place to learn about the basics of wine and food pairings. Value Wine Chicago sat down with Jack Lewis recently to discuss the value sector of the wine industry, and what might be afoot in 2012 and beyond:
Value Wine Chicago: This is known as a tavern and has a tavern/pub/beer history. What went into the decision to “pair” wine with an image that’s not often associated with it?
Jack Lewis: This restaurant actually opened as a franchise called Firkin & Pheasant. But, in Chicago, particularly when you’re north of North Ave., it’s important to be local and connected to the neighborhood. We learned that [lesson] and re-launched as Michael Diversey’s. The type of wine list we have now is larger than with Firkin & Pheasant. But our menu expanded, and between Chef Josh Spooner’s and my input, we made a point to attract some real dinner business and emphasize our entrées. It’s paid off because we’re now known for our food. And because of that, it made sense to have a good wine list become part of the dining experience here — a decision that’s allowed our wine sales to jump 45 percent. We made a point with our vendors that we wanted things that were middle-of-the road – good quality and reasonably priced.
VWC: What are some of your personal wine discoveries? Are any of those favorites on the list, or is there anything you’ve tried that you believe has potential?
JL: A wine on our list that I like is the Gascon Malbec. It’s not super bold, and it’s very enjoyable when the weather is either warm or a bit chilly. But, when you talk about a wine discovery, I was in Michigan recently and had some great local wine. And, since we’re a local-oriented Chicago restaurant, I’d like to [support] more Midwest wineries. I mean, six or seven of our beers are brewed within 50 miles of here.
We went up to Lemon Creek and Roundhouse, and did some of those Michigan wine tours. The idea was to see if they could become available to us; right now, they need a Chicago distributor. So I’ve started talking to some that are more involved with [artisanal] wines. But it doesn’t have to be Michigan wines; they could be from Indiana or Illinois. I’d really like to feature some of those on the menu. Lemon Creek had a nice Cabernet Sauvignon called Pheasant Run, and it was a nice $12 bottle of wine. Michigan has shown it’s capable of great things; not just ice wine, either. When people think wines, they immediately think California or France, but the local wines could be the next booming trend in the industry.
VWC: What are your personal favorites – a white and a red – that are priced at less than $15 per bottle?
JL: I’d recommend the Creme de Lys Chardonnay for a white wine to pair with our agave lime salmon. It’s a smooth Chard, with a flavor profile that doesn’t take away from the flavor of the salmon.
For a red – and I know I mentioned it already – but I really like the Gascon Malbec. I’d have it with our bone-in pork chop. It’s not overly heavy, and really works well with pork.