Booze Muse

The art and craft of liquid inspiration

Top of the Pops: Salon might be the champagne of Champagnes

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ChampagneSalon1996By Michael Nagrant

You should always cook with good wine, but whoever set that rule probably didn’t expect anyone to deglaze their risotto pan with $400 Champagne like Jean-Baptiste Cristini. Cristini didn’t want me to mention this, probably because you’d think he’s some snooty rich dude. He’s not. He just happens to work for Salon and Delamotte Champagnes, and was lucky to taste some 1988 Salon that hadn’t aged well and got it as a side perk.

Such circumstance is emblematic of Cristini’s life. He’s like a younger version of the guy from Dos Equis’ “Most Interesting Man in the World” beer commercials, a cosmopolitan handsome 28-year-old dude who drinks Grand Cru Champagne like tap water. He hangs out in Paris on weekends with his girlfriend, a veteran chef of Michelin-starred kitchens, throws parties for friends larded with Iberico ham and trophy wines, and works as the globetrotting export director for one of the best bubbly makers in the world.

The luster of Cristini’s employer Salon/Delamotte shines even brighter. Located in the French commune of Le Mesnil sur Oger in the Côte des Blancs, Salon/Delamotte produces some of the world’s most prestigious Champagne. If you haven’t heard of Salon, you’ve likely heard of its cohorts Cristal and upstart cousin Dom Perignon which produce 300,000 and 5 million or so bottles a year respectively. If this trio of sparklers were baseball cards, Salon Champagne, which produces no more than 60,000 bottles in a vintage year, would be its Honus Wagner. Read the rest of this entry »

The Boozehound Strikes Back: Why Drinks Over Dearborn needs to be saved

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By Michael NagrantBeer_Wall-200x149

“Second floor retail is murder,” says Kyle McHugh, aka “The Boozehound” and owner of boutique wine, beer and spirits retailer Drinks Over Dearborn (DOD). Though McHugh learned this truism in business school, he opened DOD on the second floor of an old office building called The Raleigh on Dearborn between Erie and Ontario anyway.

It wasn’t that he was the Evil Knievel of liquor retailers interested in spitting on MBA textbook theories. Rather, a greater truism trumped all: rent prices in the Gold Coast (an area he preferred for its affluent traffic) were a straight-up serial killing. McHugh figured he could better avoid the death of his business by executing his business plan the right way: get a bigger space to conduct classes, tastings and host a wide variety of interesting stock instead of compromising and blowing his life’s savings and small-business loan on a dinky little box on the first floor.

And in a business climate where faux anonymity and cloak and dagger is the new version of the Vegas-style blinking neon sign, who could discount McHugh’s decision? After all, the Lincoln Park restaurant Alinea doesn’t even have a sign and the popular Wicker Park cocktail lounge The Violet Hour looks like a graffiti-covered abandoned building.

If you build it, they will come, right? Read the rest of this entry »

411: Woke Up This Morning…

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Sopranos1.SchiantiA piece of “The Sopranos” has come to the Midwest with the Chicago-area launch of The Sopranos Wines. Sopranos Wines was originally launched in November 2008 in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut mainly for the large Italian population and wine-drinking market, managing partner Mark Gonsalves says. Over the past few months, after getting their key markets up to speed, Sopranos entered into conversations and contracts with Franklin Park distributor Stoller Wholesale to bring the wine to Chicago. “We’re always attracted to family-run trades,” Gonsalves says. “The Sopranos is a family  business. We liked what [Stoller] had done with other products.” Gonsalves says Chicago is a great market because of the high concentration of Italian-American families. Prior to coming to Chicago, the brand was launched in Arizona and California. They plan to take their wine to Vegas next then to the northwest United States and eventually throughout the rest of the Midwest. The Sopranos Wines has three main tiers of pricing per bottle—$9.99, $14.99 and $24.99. “In today’s market, people are looking for value, a brand they can trust and that they can enjoy with their meal,” Gonsalves says. “The Sopranos fits the bill. We want to communicate that our wine is serious wine, family made and Italian-bottled. It’s value.”

Grapes of Mirth: In search of the ultimate value wine

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trufferBy Michael Nagrant

There may be no better time in our history to hit the bottle. Certainly we are not lacking for motivation, what with all the layoffs, pay reductions, bankruptcies and mortgage adjustments. But, more importantly, even with thinner wallets, because of the over-production of wine, the growth in negociants (folks who often capitalize on that over-production by buying great wines for a song and selling them for a comparably low price at retail), and increases in manufacturing efficiencies, we’ve never had greater opportunity to buy relatively low-priced wine.

Of course, many wineries have capitalized on this idea not by offering great wines, but by saturating the market with a ridiculous amount of swill that forces us to sift through an ever-growing supply of junk to find anything good. I don’t know about you, but my track record for finding really good wines at a discount retailers has been a very hit-or-miss proposition, with a lot more misses.

I know, I know. You’re ready to smack me in the back of a head with a case of Two Buck Chuck. I’m not saying there’s not a lot of drinkable stuff out there, but I’m talking about the grapes that really stand out, the kind of pour you dream about and rush back to buy a case of. Read the rest of this entry »

No More Rules: Wine Aficionado Gary Vaynerchuk and his 101 Wines

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Picture a wine critic, and what do you see? A middle-aged Englishman with glasses wearing a suit and sitting with his legs crossed? A room full of bearded baby-boomers standing in a circle with their pinkies stuck out, speaking in droll tones? It probably isn’t Gary Vaynerchuk, the Belarus-born wine aficionado who has blown up in popularity over the last few years. In a picture on the home page of his Web site, Vaynerchuk sits on a leather couch with a sneer on his face, pointing his finger at the camera. Your father’s wine critic he is not.

“All rules out there are crap,” Vaynerchuk says, when asked what to keep in mind when selecting a wine to go with your dinner. “You should explore a bit more because they’ve killed creativity.”

His honesty is refreshing, and plenty of other people think so. Vaynerchuk’s daily video blog in which he reviews wines draws over 80,000 viewers with each new installment. That Vaynerchuk has been able to achieve such popularity in a niche market is impressive, especially given how unorthodox of a critic he is. All of his videos are filmed in his office, he speaks a mile-a-minute in his New Jersey accent and he spits each sip of wine into a New York Jets trashcan.

Vaynerchuk recently did a signing in Chicago to promote his new book, “101 Wines Guaranteed to Inspire, Delight, and Bring Thunder to Your World,” drawing plenty of fans. In our conversation, he dished on what wines he thought worked best with traditional Chicago-style pizza and hot dogs, staples of city summer cuisine.

“Rich wines like Syrah would go great with those kinds of pizza. You can go with something with a really bright fruit, like a Super Tuscan,” he says. “With [the hot dogs], I’d be more interested in different varieties. I’ve actually been very fond of having Zinfadel with that. Also, I think that Pinot Noir from the central Otago of New Zealand goes extremely well as well.”

As a retailer in the wine industry for fifteen years before he became a critic, Vaynerchuk’s built up a lot of credibility in the industry and is proud to represent it. It’s hard to imagine a wine critic becoming a celebrity, but if there was one who would fit in on the red carpet, it’s Vaynerchuk. “I kind of felt I was the perfect character, based on my personality and my credibility,” he says of his job. “I felt like I could do it.” (Jeremy Gordon)

From Brazil, With Love: Brazilian Wineries finally come of age

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chow_11By Ernest Barteldes

Not too long ago, the words “Brazilian” and “wine” would hardly be put together without a stern warning against a horrible hangover. Such a notion stemmed from the fact that many wines from that country—which has also brought us caipirinhas and rodizio churrascarias—were mostly inexpensively priced, mass-produced table wines that could only be found around ethnic communities for the consumption of homesick Brazilians.

Not that decent wine did not exist there—it simply had not been made available for the general public (after all, Brazilians are not exactly known for their preference for fermented grapes), and much less for export. Carefully made wines have existed in Brazil’s southern region for over a century, where Italian and Portuguese immigrants began creating their own vintages in small, family-based businesses. However, the resulting product was mostly available to restaurants or to a small niche of consumers in boutique wine shops, and almost none of that production was sold abroad.

That began to change about ten years ago, when Brazilian winemakers—well aware of the success their competitors in Argentina and Chile were having abroad—began heavily investing in equipment and personnel specifically with these previously untapped (at least for them) markets in mind. Read the rest of this entry »

Taking on Theise: The wine connoisseur holds a tasting

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By Michael Nagrant

Terry Theise is a man of a thousand faces. Well, at last five or six. In the introduction to his 2007 German wine catalog, the legendary importer’s Fu Manchu-ed visage and hands are engaged in a range of poses including rapture, self-strangulation, a Humbert Humbert-style leer, mock-contemplation and a potential gang sign (Austrian Riesling represent.)

Theise’s pictorial is accompanied by a “War and Peace”-length manifesto punctuated with quotes from poets and philosophers. Some of his personal tenets: “Harmony is more important than intensity”; “The whole of any wine must always be more than the sum of its parts”; “Soul is more important than anything, and soul is expressed as a trinity of family, soil and artisanality.” Read the rest of this entry »

Grace in Bubbles: A seasonal guide to sparkling wine

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taittinger-grace-kellyBy Michael Nagrant

While most men of my generation rocked Kurt Cobain and “Pulp Fiction” posters in their college dorm rooms, I had a vintage poster of a Grace Kelly Taittinger champagne ad mounted above my bed at the University of Michigan. At that time, my cinematic interests were mostly of the “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” genre, but on the advice of a stoner/aspiring screenwriter I worked with, I started checking out the Hitchcock canon in my free time.

When I got to “Rear Window,” I spent the first ten minutes of the movie bored, watching the cantankerous, wheelchair-bound, pajama-clad Jimmy Stewart stare through binoculars at his neighbors. But when Grace Kelly glided through the door of Stewart’s apartment, I was smitten. My boredom shifted to wonder about a twisted world in which the bumbling, old, funny-talking dude from “It’s A Wonderful Life” would score a siren like Kelly as his girlfriend.

After that I pursued everything Grace, eventually settling on the champagne ad as a proper adolescent shrine. I’d lull my self to sleep by staring up at her form hugged by a black mermaid-cut evening dress, her generous décolletage breached by a line of shimmery golden bubbles flowing through a v-shaped Taittinger-filled flute. The propaganda worked, as this ritual eventually had me bribing my buddy from New Jersey, who had the best fake ID in Alice Lloyd Hall, to get me a bottle. Read the rest of this entry »

The Mediterranean Way: Sicilian wine in Chicago

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feudo-arancio-pinot-grigioLucio Matricardi wants you to know that there’s more to Sicily than Mafiosi, mountains and red-sauced pastas. “Everyone knows Sicily, but no one knows about Sicilian wine,” says Matricardi, winemaker for Feudo Arancio, in the Sicilian province of Agrigento.

Despite a centuries-old winemaking tradition and an impressive amount of land under vine, much of the island’s production stays in Italy. Quality is also an issue: Less than ten percent is certified DOC (short for Denominazione Origine Controllata), a designation earned by adhering to specific production standards.

But that’s been changing thanks in part to new investors in the region who are bringing new takes on wine-making and wine-marketing—including the six-year-old Feudo Arancio. Belinda Chang, a former Charlie Trotter sommelier who now directs wine and spirits for Cenitare Group, says that most of the Sicilian wines she sees are the products of these recent investments, “so there is definitely a very clean, modern winemaking approach in this region.” It is, she says, like “a New World sensibility in an Old World wine-producing country.”

Yet efforts to win the hearts and wallets of the everyday American wine drinker remain underway. In May the energetic and easy-on-the-eyes Matricardi brought his Italian élan stateside as part of a good old-fashioned promotional tour to meet with distributors, merchants and, yes, members of the press.
Read the rest of this entry »

Indie Wine: The Waco Brothers’ Dean Schlabowske talks his tastes

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When Dean Schlabowske isn’t rockin’ a honky tonk with the Waco Brothers or belting out a line from “Scrap Truck,” a track off the new CD from his other band, Dollar Store, the guitar-playing singer-songwriter can be found at the front counter of a wine store—his wine store.

Located in a downstairs space in a little shopping strip on North Avenue in Bucktown, he opened Cellar Rat Wine Shop at the end of April. He named it after an old slang term given to a candle stand of spiraled metal that wine-cellar workers in Burgundy once used to illuminate their subterranean surroundings. (To see what a cellar rat looks like, check out Schlabowske’s latest tat—he had the candle stand indelibly inked on his left forearm a few months ago.) Read the rest of this entry »