Chicago wine mavens discuss the overlooked, overrated

When the movie Sideways went from curious comedy to a cult classic and silver screen sensation, it seemed proof was in the Pinot. For a while, anything labeled Pinot Noir – even if it was jammy or tannic (!) was a hit. Now, it’s fairly accepted that an authentic Pinot should not have those traits.

Before that 2005 film, inexpensive Aussie Shiraz was a favorite at hotel bars, airports and clattery steak chains. But now, the folks Down Under have a glut of syrupy inventory.

Then, a few years ago, the recession hit the luxury segment of the wine market, and once-invincible Napa Cabs showed they really were mortal. Bottles that regularly sold out at $100 started showing up for maybe $70 – and being opened for retailer tastings. Even when (if?) the economy recovers, it’s safe to say that many of these wines’ prices will never rise again. Their myth has been shattered.

Everyone agrees Malbec is hot; purveyors are happy to sell it while demand is there. But, how long until the Malbec music stops, and a slow-to-respond supplier/retailer/restaurant is left without a chair? Obviously, some trends in wine consumption last longer than others, so a couple of questions were recently extended to Chicago sommeliers, retailers and wine directors:

1. What do you believe is the most overrated wine/varietal on the market?

2. What relatively obscure or overlooked wine has a chance to break through and become a consumer favorite?

Aaron Sherman: Sommelier, Park Hyatt, Chicago

Overrated? Let me start by saying that the term overrated is a bit scary, making it seem that a wine is “unworthy” and lacking merit.  But, Malbec is a grape that will need to show a lot of development if it will be included in the annals of the Great Grapes from Around the World.  It has indeed exploded onto the wine scene over the last few years. Unfortunately, I think it has positioned itself in much the same way that Shiraz did: The new, “inexpensive, delicious, big red wine.” So far, other than on price, Malbec has not managed to present a compelling reason for undying affection.

Trendsetter? Pick 3: Raw bars with oysters, shrimp and crab legs have become very popular in Chicago. A platter of ice, mollusks, and bivalves needs a wine of crispness, transparency and acidity. I offer three contenders vying for the spot: Albariño, with the briny hints of the sea balanced by ripe luscious fruit; Muscadet, a favorite amongst sommeliers; and a long shot, Txakoli, (pronounced Choc-o-lee). The spritz, lightness and freshness might be just what we’ve all been waiting for.

Dean Schlabowske: Owner, Cellar Rat, Chicago

Good, not great: Sauvignon Blanc. This is a grape that mostly produces very simple wines; very good is as good as this grape gets. For those drinking everyday examples, there is little to distinguish a $20 bottle from an $8 bottle. Other than the trademark green quality of New Zealand, there is little to distinguish a Chilean from a Californian from a South African example.

Another Argentine: Perhaps Argentina’s nice Bonarda and Bonarda/Sangiovese blends can get a foothold, as the country’s popular, full-bodied Malbec benefits from a consistent climate, cheap land and labor, and a weak currency. I find Bonarda to be more interesting and pleasing than Malbec and it can be made in full, ripe styles that appeal to the wine novice.

Eoin O’Donnell: Sommelier, First Hospitality Group, Salsa 17:

North by Northwest: Italian Pinot Grigio, while enormously successful in the marketplace, is mostly one-dimensional and lacking any real complexity. But, when the grape is grown 300 miles northwest, in Alsace, we land in what can be the greatest expression of the grape under the synonym, Pinot Gris. With firm acidity, these big, stony white wines have a range of flavors of delicious ripe tangerine and peach with smoke and lemon zest topped with a racy finish of spice.

Volcanic value: Aglianico (an obscure Italian wine) is certainly breaking on to the scene. Better vintners produce wines that are earthy, tarry and chocolaty. The Taurasi Riserva from Mastroberardino is phenomenal. The volcanic soils of Taurasi are where this powerhouse of a grape thrives – originating from areas that don’t command the real estate (burden) of Sonoma, Paso Robles, etc., so the consumer gets a great value. The Taurasi Riserva from Mastroberardino is phenomenal.

Posted in Mediterranean wines, Obscure red wines, Obscure white wines, Southern Hemisphere wines, Spanish wines | Leave a comment

Art and bottle: Sandeep Ghaey of Vinic Wine

Wine distribution can lead its practitioners on a circuitous route throughout a territory. For some, the constantly changing ports of call – restaurants and liquor stores – can turn one’s job into a blur.

Those involved in distribution might also acquire a knowledge base that can be propelled into a whole new aspect of the wine business. Distribution might seem like it’s all about pounding the pavement, but tastings are commonplace in that segment of the industry, too.

For Sandeep Ghaey, these tastings made him aware of his own keen palate, which then led him out of distribution and to his own retail business. He now owns and operates Vinic Wine Company on Chicago Avenue in Evanston.

The store is artfully designed – literally. Numerous, dramatic paintings share space with creative merchandising. He and his staff have more than 20 years of food & beverage experience, with plenty of knowledge about fine wine. Yet they are enthusiastic about identifying good values, too.

Value Wine Chicago stopped by the warm and inviting wine shop in downtown Evanston to discuss the ever-fickle wine industry in detail:

Value Wine Chicago: What was involved in starting Vinic? How do you distinguish your brand from other small, Chicago-are wine shops, and from the high-volume discount stores?

Sandeep Ghaey: We started about two years ago. I always thought Evanston really needed a fine wine store. My career path led to wine, and after working in distribution for Union and Heritage for about seven years combined, I wanted to get into the retail side of things. Many of my experiences led me to come up with the idea for this store. To be very frank about it, a good wine store builds relationships with distributors, makes the smart wine purchases, puts the right margin on it and it’s successful.

When I was in distribution, I was able to really get a true sense of the value of a particular wine. I could taste the wine and get a pretty good idea of how it would sell. After tasting, I’d look at the price, and could tell whether a wine would be an easy sell or a tough sell.

What makes us distinct? We can be very dynamic with our selection, which actually changes often. We choose wines that are often “on special” with a particular distributor. We pass that kind of value on to our customers. Big-box stores have negotiated their prices, in the long run, on certain brands. And they push those brands, rather than getting to know their customers’ palates. When we get something in that’s new and exciting, we know the customers who might like it. Say a customer loves Italian wine. We’ll let them know about a Sangiovese – one from Argentina. A change [in geographic region], but we think those who like Italian wine would like something like that. Our approach is literally tailored to our customers.

VWC: In your own words, briefly tell me how you distinguish value wine from wine that’s simply inexpensive (some people think they are the same).

SD: There’s, of course, the quality-to-cost ratio. But, when you taste wines all day, and they’re all of a similar caliber, and then one comes in at half the price, then it’s obviouslya great deal. It’s context and perception more than anything else, really. There are a whole lot of factors: true value wines have a certain nuance, a sense of place, which cheap wine doesn’t have. There is great value in everything, and untapped resources within each category. Fifteen years ago, California’s Central Coast was where you looked for great value; Santa Barbara wasn’t as well-known back then. There are places right outside of Bordeaux that have great wines – they aren’t Bordeaux per se, but there’s great value there.

VWC: Name your favorite wines – a red and a white – priced at less than $15. What would you pair with them?

SD: For a white wine, I like Chemistry, which is from Chehalem in Oregon. It’s a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Riesling. It’s mostly dry, with a touch of sweetness – more of a roundness, actually. It’s great for the autumn. Butternut squash soup would be perfect with Chemistry, because of the creaminess and the butter. The acidity and depth of flavor is great. Chehalem was smart to make a cheaper, second label during this recession.

For a red, I’d recommend the Mas Donis Barrica, which is a blend of 85 percent Grenache and 15 percent Syrah. It’s from the Monstant region of Spain. It’s got nice flavor, soft tannins, and really pleases a lot of different palates. I’d pair it with braised pork shoulder, because it has enough heft, and the softer tannins make it a great food wine overall.

Posted in Blended wines, Dry Riesling, Mediterranean wines, Obscure red wines | Leave a comment

La Taberna Tapas: Going beyond Iberia

Typically, many restaurateurs’ notions of tapas cuisine are that all the miniature entrees must trace their origins to the Iberian Peninsula, and that the sangria might as well flow from a spigot. Or, to balance the sangria, the alcoholic offerings go bi-polar, with harsh and boozy red wines that attack the palate with a torrent of tannins.

It’s a template so tired, it might as well reduce the buoyant sound of salsa music to the predictability of a Prussian military hymn.

Not so at La Taberna Tapas in University Village. There, the Spanish culinary concept of small plates is enhanced by the many spices and flavors found throughout the Latin world. A sumptuous Catalonian flatbread, or helpings of Argentine-style beef are the restaurant’s examples of these. And, there is an energetic, light ceviche, too.

Of course, La Taberna’s offerings include the staples of Spanish origin – such as Pan Con Tomate. It features one of Spain’s most sought-after exports: Manchego cheese. And, the region’s famous Paella makes a robust appearance, too – with spicy chorizo, chicken and a decadent saffron-infused rice.

A menu with such pronounced ambition and wide-ranging flavor can’t feature wines from just one area, or be limited to a few familiar varietals. And with a clientele that’s drawn heavily from the nearby University of Illinois-Chicago, keeping prices reasonable for both food and wine is paramount.

Wine director Moises Gonzalez has had to take these many variables into account. Value Wine Chicago met recently with Mr. Gonzalez to find out more of the details:

Value Wine Chicago: What was your philosophy in crafting your wine list? How does your list stand out from those of other tapas restaurants – other than not being dominated by Spanish wine?

Moises Gonzalez: I wanted to build a wine list that would really be food-driven. Our wine selection is able to really touch a lot of different foods from around the world. This is important because our tapas has [influences and that are] Mexican, Mediterranean, South American and Spanish. So, that’s why I have wines from California, Chile, Argentina and even one from Sicily.

As an example, we have Empanadas. This is a classic dish in Argentina. So, that’s why we carry a few Malbecs and Argentine Cabernet Sauvignon. But, if you choose a seafood item – a lot of people in Spain enjoy seafood – we offer a few different Albariños. And the reason we carry some California wines is that we think their complexity works well with our Mexican-influenced tapas entrees.

VWC: Have any varietals or regions caught your attention lately, or that you have put on the list recently?

MG: I’d say a region that really impressed me was South Africa. I recently tried the La Capra Cabernet Sauvignon, and I had to put it on the list. It’s very reasonably priced. It has flavors of chocolate and black cherry. This Cabernet is great on its own, and it would be nice with a full-bodied meal such as steak, spice-rubbed pork tenderloin – and even Paella, with chorizo and chicken.

VWC: Please recommend a white and red value wine, priced at less than $15 at retail, and what you would pair with each?

MG:I really like the Lo Tengo Torrontés. one of my favorite white wines. You can find it at Whole Foods. Torrontés was originally a wild grape that’s native to Argentina. I like this wine’s citrus aspect, and although there’s sweetness in the aroma, it’s dry on the palate. I’d pair it with ceviche, or with our Asparagus tapas with shaved Manchego.

For a red, I love the Penélope Campo de Borja 2009. It’s 85 percent Garnacha and 15 percent Syrah. There’s a lot of dark fruit in this wine, but it’s versatile in that there’s not much tannin. It’s very easy to drink. There’s a nice fullness from the Garnacha, with a dry finish that comes from the Syrah. I’d pair this with a Cornish Hen.

Posted in Full-bodied red wines, Mediterranean wines, Obscure red wines, Obscure white wines, Southern Hemisphere wines, Spanish wines | Leave a comment

Chill the hot summer with crisp white wine

The torrid summer of 2011 continues to induce amnesia about Snowmageddon. Many buildings have responded to the heat by cranking the air conditioning, turning themselves into virtual meat lockers. This leads to intense extremes: Once inside for more than three hours, many once-sweaty office workers might be tempted to brand themselves with a blue USDA stamp of approval.

While the sun roasts outside and a menacing meat hook looms indoors, there’s always a more reasonable way to find a cool, happy medium: Have a refreshing  glass of white wine, or three. Sipping it alfresco is ideal, as long as this delightful interlude is made in the shade.

Chicago-area restaurateurs, sommeliers and merchants are finding the  Deep-South-style summer to be a blessing for the sales of crisp, minerally white wines. Buttery Chards and pallid, one-dimensional guises of Pinot Grigio don’t count, though. This is somewhat gratifying, as Value Wine Chicago is known for a sneering, adversarial approach to the dominant wine culture. Despite any twisted glee in being the oenophilic gadfly, it’s also nice to perform the quasi-noble service  of revealing high-quality value wines.

And now, the sultry weather has joined forces with a still-sputtering economy and Millennials saying, “I’ll try THAT,” in vaulting value-priced,  interesting whites to the fore. Below are some steamy-day suggestions from local purveyors on the front lines:

Michael Taylor, Wine Director, Italian Village: “A real star has to be the Silvio Jermann ‘Vinnae,’ Ribolla Gialla, Fruili-Venezia Giulia, IGT. The Ribolla Gialla  grape produces wine that’s absolutely stunning. Aromas are of freshly cut white flowers and stone fruit. The straw colored wine reveals a very dry, mineral  driven palate, with tangy acidity that pairs perfectly with seafood. But it’s great for just enjoying as a laid-back summer vino!”

Alain Njike, Chef/General Manager, Park 52: San Giuliano Moscato d’Asti and St. Urbans-Hof Riesling are the top sellers during this hot Chicago summer. The tropical fruit  flavor and crisp texture make these the perfect complement to the sultry weather. Our patrons constantly describe these as ‘sexy’ wines.”

Doug Dunlay – Co-Owner, Dunlays on Clark, Frasca Pizzeria: “One of my favorite white wines of the summer would have to be Raventos i Blanc, Perfum de Vi Blanc, from the Penedés region of Spain. It is an  equal blend of Muscat and Macabeo. It is a marriage of the beautifully floral and intensely aromatic Muscat, and the often temperamental, indigenous Macabeo,  which displays bright, crisp acidity and vivacious salty minerality. It is a perfect white wine for the summer, paired with food or standing alone.”

Posted in Blended wines, Mediterranean wines, Obscure white wines, Spanish wines | 2 Comments

American wines for Independence Day

When California vintners began to seriously cultivate the red wine grapes of Bordeaux (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, etc.) to compete on even footing with the French, it created both a successful business model, plus expectations among connoisseurs and collectors. The ante was then raised with the American “victory” in the Judgment of Paris.

The effect was almost a oenophilic duplicate of the American Revolution: the strident intent of the Declaration of Independence; and the closure (and location) of the Treaty of Paris. All was combined in a relatively peaceful swirl-sniff-and-sip – no bayonets, no musket fire. And delightfully, all to the chagrin of wine’s most obstinate Loyalists.

This accomplishment should not be diminished, especially with America’s 235th birthday celebration in the offing. Amazingly, the triumph occurred, albeit coincidentally, during the nation’s bicentennial, and on foreign terroi…. er, soil.

But one result was that California/Napa Valley Cabernet, and other Bordeaux blends and meritage wines now have a tough reputation to uphold. So, the better offerings end up being priced in a similar range as their illustrious French counterparts. And, at the truly inexpensive end of the spectrum, many California Cabs and Merlots can be insipid. These dullards are sourced from bulk grapes – not unlike the way watery beer gushes from behemoth breweries that compromise hops and barley.

“[We have proven that] we can make the greatest wines in the world,” says Italian Village Wine Director Michael Taylor. “What we didn’t do much of (and what many European countries have been doing for centuries) is cultivating grape varietals for wines that can be enjoyed on an everyday basis.”

Taylor’s hunch is that the recession might encourage American producers to set aside some land for lesser-known grapes to make exciting, interesting wines. California Zinfandel actually has an American legacy dating back to the Gold Rush, but it’s obscured by an obsession with greatness.

“What I’d like to see is some Cinsault or Grenache [cultivated] in American soil,” Taylor adds.

So, with the Fourth of July approaching, many American wine drinkers might feel a certain patriotic urge to purchase and enjoy wines that are indigenous to the homeland – our domestic terroir. Below are a few value-priced options that aren’t from bulk juice, aren’t trying to masquerade as challengers to Château Petrus, and arereflecting American innovation.

Windmill Estates Old Vine Zinfandel 2009: A delicious Zin from Lodi, California, it’s not overly jammy; good body and structure. Smooth, with black cherry and plum on the palate. All of the great American barbecue favorites would go with it, especially barbecued chicken and pork chops, and Sheboygan bratwurst, too. $12 at Binny’s.

Hinman Vineyards Oregon Pinot Noir 2009: Perhaps there’s nothing all that revolutionary about a Pinot Noir from Oregon. But this wine’s value pricing would have impressed even the most parsimonious Boston patriot – while modern drinkers would swear this light-to-medium-bodied Pinot is from tiny cult plots, or even Burgundy. Has a smooth flavor of cherry and raspberry, with soft tannins and a long finish. Serve slightly chilled (about 20 minutes in the refrigerator). $14.

Alexander Valley Vineyards Rosé of Sangiovese: One truth that is self-evident: Sangiovese can thrive outside of Tuscany. Its use here precludes Rosé’s tendency to overemphasize strawberry flavors. Instead, the aroma is of fresh cherry pie, and flavors tend toward melon and tangy stone fruit. To eat? Burgers: Turkey; lamb; beef; veggie. But be careful. It’s easy to drain the bottle before the meal is ready! $11.

Note: Be sure to check out my column in the Examiner, too.

Posted in Full-bodied red wines, Rosé | Leave a comment

Dry Riesling: Whet the appetite for spicy food

Chicago boasts quite an array of restaurants whose fare has a notable kick. The pronounced heat associated with Thai, Chinese and Mexican food can produce one’s natural pain killers – and (happily) a mild euphoria.
This tableside bliss can be tempered, however, by an unwieldy pairing between these cuisines and most wines. Many diners punt, and order a watery beer or (horrors) a soft drink to wash down the fiery food.
But there are wines that actually enhance the spicy culinary experience.  Dry Riesling, especially one that’s from Washington State, can perhaps foil such resignation to carbonation. Vintners in France’s Alsace region perfected this crisper version of Riesling, which is usually associated with Germanic vineyards.  Unlike the latter’s cloying sweetness, dry Riesling finishes clean after its initial floral burst.
Taken one step further, dry Riesling from Washington eliminates the hand-wringing over the prices of its French counterparts.
An example of a reasonably priced dry Riesling comes from Washington’s Chateau Ste. Michelle. Its 2009 Columbia Valley Dry Riesling has a light aroma of honeysuckle, with the flavor of ripe peach. Any initial sweetness is fleeting. The entire bottle might also go quickly once opened; it goes for $9-12 at most retailers— a great B.Y.O.B. option at the local noodle shop or burrito palace!For more detailed reviews of locally available value wines, check out my column on Examiner. Cheers!

Posted in Dry Riesling, Obscure white wines, Washington State wines | Leave a comment

Thirst for different wines quenched by summery Italian whites

Following a harsh winter made for booming red wines, people might want something wholly different from the toothsome and the tannic. A sputtering spring notwithstanding, the alfresco dining season is finally here in earnest. A good drinking partner is in order: one who can swat away the pests with ease (despite a marked slurring tendency); and a drinkable one that’s a good match for outdoor-themed cuisine.

The Chicago wine trade is alive with fresh, crisp whites that would pair with the onslaught of deliciously sultry weather. Although Italy’s brooding and luscious reds held sway during Snowmageddon and March Mud, it’s time to drink in the country’s enticing white offerings. They come from the mountainous north and torrid south – and it’s time for them to have their days in the sun (preferably, in an ice bucket).

Read the unabridged version on Enjoy spring white wines from Italy’s north and south – Chicago Budget Wine |

One region in Italy that produces distinctive white wines is Alto Adige – a far-northern, sub-Alpine region that borders Austria. (It was, in fact, part of Habsburg Austria before the First World War.) Pinot Grigio is the dominant varietal here. Yes, there are some brands and wineries that over-produce and over-hype Pinot Grigio. A morass of mediocrity has flooded the market with one-dimensional astringency. Wines like these are turn-offs to adventurous imbibers. But a closer look at Alto Adige reveals some lovely Pinot Grigio – and Pinot Bianco – from some of the region’s smaller producers.

Another Italian region of note is Campania. Located at the opposite end of the country, just northeast of Naples, Campania is in the heart of Italy’s sultry south. Lots of muscular red wine comes from here. But it’s also the home of “mineral-driven, steely white varietals that (thrive) in the volcanic soil,” says Michael Taylor, Wine Director at Chicago’s Italian Village. Falanghina and Greco di Tufo are just two these. Unlike Pinot Grigio, they continue to fight for general recognition.

The angling for shelf space by these geographically distinct producers might be motivated by different reasons. Their placement, however, yields a positively similar trait: value. The wines that follow are actually not the least expensive in their realm (some approach or exceed the $15 threshold). But, for the patio/rooftop season, the delightful change in weather should be paralleled by an altered state of wine.

Below are several options that complement the patio/alfresco experience:

San Michele Appiano Pinot Grigio 2009: A truly multi-dimensional white wine, this is not a single-gear Pinot Grigio that gets by solely on its brand-building prowess. The San Michele has a nice, honeysuckle aroma. Its flavors build from light pear, to pleasantly tart citrus, followed by cantaloupe. The finish is dry and clean. A delight with linguine and clams or mussels and frites, but it’s also very nice with herbed olives and cheese. $14.

Peter Zemmer Pinot Bianco 2010: Featuring a new label, note how the name and varietal show the confluence of Teutonic-Latin viticulture.  Fresh and vibrant with balanced acidity and aromas and flavors of apricot and lemon, this one pivots nicely from a quaffer to vinaigrette-dressed salads and crab dip on Melba toast. $15.

Vesevo Falanghina 2009: Floral and fruit-forward scents of white flowers and green apple, its flavors are light-to-medium bodied, featuring pear and honeydew. Great wine to have with grilled Mahi-Mahi or Swordfish, with a basil-caper butter. $15 at Convito Italiano.

Terradora Greco di Tufo 2009: A nice dry and earthy wine style; not as aromatic as Falanghina. Still, it has nice scents of apple, with flavors of stone fruit (peach and white cherry) and a lingering finish. Medium-bodied, even slightly rich, it’s more of a food white than a sipper. Try with grilled sea bass. $17.

Posted in Mediterranean wines, Obscure white wines | Leave a comment