Chicago’s restaurant scene has been punctuated in recent years by creative restaurants that, often successfully, are the anti-steak house. The music isn’t crooned by Frank Sinatra, the vibe is sharp and edgy, and items like pork belly and charcuterie have almost become de rigueur.
But, some eateries that push the envelope get a little too creative. No one has blended mango and celery root with a topping of canned chocolate sauce yet – thankfully – but it gets a little funky out there.
That’s where River North’s Epic heroically finds the happy medium. Sure, it has the aforementioned pork belly (fabulous), but Mark Pollard’s menu ranges from adventuresome – lobster claws with grapefruit, fennel and pumpkin oil – to a great, cold weather favorite: short ribs.
The same can be said about Epic’s wine list. Wine Director/Manager Jason Finn has assembled equilibrium between well-known producers that resonate in the market, and boutique offerings that aren’t top-of-mind, but allow more adventuresome wine drinkers to indulge in some ownership of something unique.
Jason sat down with Chicago Budget Wine Examiner recently to discuss the wine industry and the value sector, too:
Chicago Budget Wine Examiner: What is the philosophy behind your wine list? Is it food driven or more about finding niche wines, or a blend of those two precepts?
Jason Finn: The wine list is assembled based on both food pairings and wines that stand out. When buying a wine, the primary concern is how it will work with the menu. But, our clientele is also one that leans significantly – about 70-80 percent – toward domestic wines. Fruit forward wines from California are the ones that move more quickly. I do like having a less regionally focused list, which allows me to hit sweet spots for a broader guest base. Still, I’ve structured the list so that it’s anchored by names that command respect. This way, I can be in the middle ground between recognizable, quality brands and boutique wines. Many times, the smaller-production wines provide the guest with a feeling that they’re getting something exclusive. I firmly believe that when you ask people to step outside their comfort zone – say a guest who tends to prefer Spanish wines – you have to provide them with some options from California that will have a similar flavor profile. I have conversations with people, and I’ll read their reactions to things. One has to be very careful to have enough options so that a wine-friendly guest who likes familiarity doesn’t feel alienated. It’s imperative to have frank conversations with guests and provide multiple options if need be.
CBWE: Do you collaborate with your chef on wines, or do you choose most of them yourself?
JF: We do have a good dialogue back and forth. I’m happy when our schedules overlap so I can involve chef on the decision. I like to involve chef for a variety of reasons, not the least of which includes his menu creations, to show him the respect that he’s due. He’s very wine savvy. He offers great input when we taste together. At the same time, I don’t (preclude) wines that I think are great if he’s not in at the same time that I’m here. I also bring in allocated wines – such as two Merry Edwards single-vineyard Pinot Noirs this year. These kinds of items pop up throughout the year.
CBWE: How do you feel consumer views of wine have changed since the recession? Are people still valuing quality, but experimenting a bit, to get more “bang for the buck”?
JF: Yes, very much so. And where I see that primarily is in the realm of Spanish wine. There are really some great values in Spain, and South America, too. There are also some great values from Italy, especially in the IGT-level wines. But, Spanish wine is what I recommend when I get the impression from a guest that they’re looking for value. I think what’s happened with Spanish wine over the last 10-20 years is that there is a focus among some Spanish winemakers – and I think it’s a growing segment among Spain’s winemaking community – that is catering to an American palate. By that I mean more forward fruit, cleaner-tasting wines that are less earthy and dusty. The fruit is easier to identify. In South America, of course, the great examples are Malbec and Bonarda from Argentina, plus the Carmenère from Chile. Malbec is a varietal starting to see the prices actually increase, because higher-end Malbecs are available now. It used to be used only as a blending grape, and then it was made as a single-varietal wine. Now, the market has single-vineyard Malbecs. But, for the most part, Malbec remains a great value wine; many truly overperform for the price point.
CBWE: Say the economy rebounds over the next few years. Will the “Cult Cabs” rebound again? Or, will people just be looking for more expensive versions of obscure/boutique wines?
JF: I think both will be true. Because of the recession, many lesser known regions and producers have been itching to get into the game, and have been able to offer wines with the American consumer in mind. By doing that, they’ve gained huge market share. I don’t think that’s going to go away just because the economy might start to hum along again. What I believe will happen is, you’ll see some return to the very expensive Napa Cab again – at least an interest level. People who have disposable funds will buy what they want. But, a number of people who have been drinking entry-level Malbec – they might move up to single-vineyard Malbec, which might be twice as much. They’ll still be within the realm of something that got them interested in wine in the first place.
CBWE: What are your favorite white and red wines, for less than $17 at retail, and what would you pair with each?
JF: One white varietal I recommend at good value is German Riesling, and I really like the Hexamer Spätlese. What makes a Riesling stand out is its fruit, but the Hexamer has good acidity. I’d recommend the poached lobster with it. The sweetness of the lobster meat complements the wine, but the acidity also cuts into that sweetness of the lobster, and provides balance.
For a red, I’d recommend a Spanish Rioja, a 2005 Reserva from Marques de Caceres. I’ve never had a guest not like it, and it’s phenomenal at its price point. It’s outstanding with our short rib entrée. But, it’s versatile enough to pair with poultry, too.