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Here Are 5 Exciting Wine Lists In Chicago

By John Lenart in Food on Sep 5, 2014 6:00PM

Over the past few weeks I've heard a lot of people in the Chicago wine industry exclaiming that there are so many exciting things happening here with wine. I thought to myself “Gee that’s funny, I don’t hear about anything going on at all that really excites me as a wine consumer.” So I reached out to some friends who are passionate about wine and they had pretty much the same response that I had. So I started to think about what excites me in wine here in Chicago. After some thought I realized that there are in fact, a few wine lists that I find pretty exciting in Chicago.

One thing I noticed while compiling this list is that it features three Italian restaurants. Now, that may be largely dependent on the trend of Italian restaurant openings in Chicago. But, I think it’s also due to the fact that when I look at a list of Italian wines I don’t see the same old, sometimes boring, list of chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and pinot noir. Not that there’s anything wrong with those grape varieties, some of the best wines in the world are made from them. But often a list that only contains those wines doesn’t challenge me and I get bored. Italian wine does challenge me and I find that intriguing. I also feel the need to point out that, while I was researching this piece the extraordinarily knowledgeable Shebnem Ince of Perman Wine Selections posted this blog, which contains almost all of the wine lists I was planning on writing about. (She scooped me on this one and her blog is one you should read.) While her blog takes a rather technical look at these wine lists, mine contains a broader look at them. I'd also be remiss if I didn't admit that, while discussing this topic with friends my wine buddy Wendy, reminded me that she wrote this blog on the same topic a year ago.

Now, I’m not saying that these lists are necessarily the best, or the biggest, or offer the best values (although there are some great values on these lists), but simply that these are wine lists that I find exciting. Check them out, I think you will too. I’m presenting them in alphabetical order.

(Full disclosure, I am well acquainted, friendly even, with a number of owners of the restaurants contained on the list below, particularly Balena and Vera.)

Balena - 1633 N. Halsted
When you open this list you might think you’re opening the text book to a master class on Italian wines. Because Italian wines can be confusing the list starts with a map of Italy that notates the wine regions of the country. The next page lists predominant grape varieties and the regions where they are grown. The list itself isn’t broken down into white, red, and sparkling like you might usually find. According to partner Phillip Walters “Balena's list is broken out under each Italian region starting from the North to the South of Italy. Each region is subdivided with sparklers (if they exist), whites, roses, and reds. Italians are feverishly regional in their views of Italy, and this list reflects that regional focus.”

List Focus: 95 percent of the list is Italian, 4 percent is from Greece, Lebanon, and Israel, and the rest is select domestic offerings.

Size of bottle list: 350 Labels, ranging in price from $35 to $650. 90% of the list is under $100.

Glass pour offerings: 25 Glass pours ranging from $8 to $19.

Vintage Range: 1990 to current vintages.

Hidden Gems: Pala, Cannonau di Sardinia (Grenache - tastes very much like Chateauneuf du Pape) $44.


Ceres’ Table - 3124 N. Broadway
Here’s another Italian restaurant with a wine list that intrigues me. Partner and beverage director Scott Manlin has assembled a wine list that he plans on changing with the seasons. Instead of listing wines by the grape variety or region, the list at Ceres’ Table presents the wines by style. Manlin explains “The list is organized by style and feel of the wine as opposed to by grape variety. This was done in order to make the lesser known grape varieties more accessible and approachable to our customers as well as to facilitate staff familiarity with more obscure grapes and wine growing areas. Our goal is to have a broad and approachable list rather than great depth in any one area.”

List Focus: 100 percent Italian featuring 18 of the 22 principal growing regions of Italy.

Size of bottle list: 145 labels ranging in price from $34 to $180 per bottle.

Glass pour offerings: This is one of the more interesting glass programs lists in the city. Offering both by the glass (150 ml pour) and by the carafe (375 ml pour.) This includes 2 Proseccos, 6 whites, 6 reds and three dessert wines. Glass pours range from $9 to $15 and carafes range from $18 to $30. On the weekends they also do a selection of higher end wines from the list, sometimes poured from large format bottles. These wines range from $13 to as much as $22. While 22 bucks might seem like a lot for a glass of wine, that’ll get you a 2006 Barolo!

Vintage Range: 2004 to Current vintages

Hidden Gems: 2012 Danilo Thomain Enfer d'Arvier Petite Rouge Val d'Aoste $84


Osteria Langhe - 2824 W. Armitage
If I had to pick only one wine growing region of Italy to drink from for the rest of my life it would be Piemonte. Whether it’s Grignolino, Brachetto, Dolcetto, Barbera, Barolo, or Barbaresco, I love the wines from this northern part of Italy. Focusing on just one region of Italy helps introduce the sometimes complex subject of Italian wines to the consumer in a manageable way. Owner Aldo Zaninotto explains, “It is important for the sommelier to not make it hard for their customers. What I have seen a lot traveling around the country is that buyers get carried away to showcase themselves more than to¬†showcase the restaurant or the cooking. We know well that a great dining experience is great service, food and wine all together to be able to guide the customer through the wines.”

List Focus: Piemonte, Piemonte, Piemonte (and a few nice Champagnes).

Size of bottle list: Over 80 labels ranging from $32 to $165.

Glass pour offerings: 8 whites, 8 reds, and 3 sparkling wines ranging from $8.25 to $16 per glass. Also, you can try the very fun Vino alla Cecia, or blind wine. It’s sort of a dealer’s choice of wine. For $13 you are poured a wine blind. It’s a fun way to think about wine. Aldo says, “I simply tell them to think and to wonder, it is a good way for customers or professionals to think deeper into the wine and wonder the sense of place, varietal, and style. Please note that it is not always from Italy, but could come from anywhere around the world, mostly indigenous and in a perfect climate for that varietal.”

Vintage Range: 2005 to current vintages.

Hidden Gems: Sheb points this one out in her blog: the 2010 Vietti Barolo Castiglione for $72 is a must have.

Parachute - 3500 N. Elston Ave.
Parachute beverage director Matty Colston grew up in Cincinnati with his skateboarding buddy Parachute chef/partner Johnny Clark and told me that he couldn't wait to work with him. Colston comes to Parachute from a stint at the now-closed Telegraph. His experience there, dealing with wines that could be described as esoteric, shines through in the very interesting wine list that he has assembled to pair with the Korean inspired fare of chefs Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark. Colston has designed a wine list which he calls “approachable and creative” that puts wines into sections by price. There are 3 sections. Wines that are priced $35 per bottle, $8 per glass and $20 per carafe; the next section prices wines at $45 per bottle, $10 per glass and $25 per carafe; and finally a section that prices wines at $55 per bottle, $12 per glass and $30 per carafe. There is also a small list of fortified and sparkling wines. Aside from the unique layout of the wine list, Colston has selected wines that are out of the ordinary and stylistically intriguing.

List Focus: Familiar yet esoteric wines from small producers.

Size of bottle list: 23 labels ranging from $35 to $55

Glass pour offerings: 8 wines by the glass or carafe. $8 to $12 per glass or $20 to $30 per carafe.

Vintage Range: 2009 to current vintages

Hidden Gems: 2012 Canarelli, Bianco Gentile, Corsica France

Vera - 1023 W. Lake Street
If you love wine and are from Chicago you know that Vera is known for sherry. Elizabeth Mendez has put together what is arguably the finest sherry list in the city. But there’s a whole lot more to Vera’s wine list than sherry. I love the wines that Elizabeth pours at Vera. She explains that, while not all wines are from the old world, she feel she serves, “wines with an old world mentality from around the globe.” So while the label may say California, the style of the wine reminds the drinker of something from Europe. Vera’s wine list is comprised of thoughtful and delicious selections.

List Focus: Old world style wines from around the globe. And of course sherry!

Size of bottle list: About 150 labels ranging from $30 to $250 per bottle, with a majority of the list in the $45 to $65 range.

Glass pour offerings: 20 unfortified wines and 30 sherries between $9 and $25 per glass.

Vintage Range: 1977 to current releases.

Hidden Gems: Cesar Florido Pena del Aguila Palo Cortado.