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Introducing A New Series: Off The Clock

By Erin Drain in Food on Jan 31, 2013 7:05PM


The business of selling booze is dynamic and entertaining but not necessarily easy, even in this city of great restaurants (and great drinkers). It's no small task to write a wine list for a restaurant, particularly for one that's subject to the whims of nature in the Midwest, where summer can happen in June, in September, or the odd day in January. Just like broccoli, wine is an agricultural product, albeit bearing a less obvious expiration date. Time, light, temperature, and many other factors conspire to make wine morph in the bottle and one never knows what will happen until the moment cork is popped. Wine, in sum, is basically one huge, vastly pleasurable gamble.

For diners looking to imbibe in restaurants, sommeliers and beverage directors play a crucial role. In order to make your night better, they grapple with frequently-changing menus and a range of novice to expert wine drinkers at their tables, not to mention the vending of a product that can vary in flavor (sometimes dramatically) thanks to influences like lunar cycles, cork vs. screwcap, barometric pressure, and even tiny amounts of other ingredients: sulfites, acetic acid, and the drinker's own perceptions and expectations. Add to that list a ticking clock of any given wine's ideal window of drinkability, and there you go: A logistical nightmare of vinous proportions resting squarely on the shoulders of that guy or gal in a suit opening your bottle.

A wine list is written around the aesthetics of a restaurant. People come to restaurants to eat the food cooked therein. Wine frames the occasion, enhances it, complicates it. But wine in the general sense does not exist in a vacuum, let alone within the general microcosm of one restaurant in a city of many greats. With this series, we'll look at some foods that real people - bloggers, chefs at home with their families, bartenders after work, and everyone else - eat outside of the hushed dining floor. We'll ask Chicago's best sommeliers to select the perfect wine from their carefully constructed lists to pair with challenging-yet-ordinary off-menu dishes; salty, fatty, vegetal. The dish should be widely available but otherwise temperamental, as far as wine pairing is concerned. (Sour Patch Kids, anyone? Oatmeal?)

We'll call the series Off The Clock. With hope, we'll get a glimpse of what exactly it is that sommeliers do, but also how the magical alchemy of wine pairing works, whether you're out on the town or in for the night. The first installation? A chat on comfort food with Arthur Hon of Sepia Restaurant. Look for it this weekend.