One Of Chicago's Best Wine Lists Is Where You'd Least Expect It
By John Lenart in Food on Apr 7, 2015 2:40PM
If you love wine and live in Chicago you know where to get a good glass or bottle when you head out. There are all the usual suspects, whether it's the un-steakhouse list by Richard Hanauer at RPM Steak, the tome-like list of Steve Morgan at Formento's, the spectacular wine list curated by Liz Mendez at Vera (And of course her famous sherries!) or the off-beat little known gems of the tight list at Parachute by Matty Colston. There's no shortage of places that have good wine lists in Chicago. I'm sure you're rattling off a number of other wine lists you could add to this group. But I'm about to let you in on an amazing secret. There's a great wine list, with outstanding values, in a place you'd least expect.
“I'm only marginally less passionate about wine as I am about beer,” says Michael Roper, owner of Hopleaf, arguably Chicago's best beer bar. I discovered the wine list at Hopleaf quite by accident while researching another story and was intrigued as to why a beer bar would have such a nice wine list. “Why would I go through all of this effort to have great beers that we offer, that we vet very carefully, having jug wine just wouldn't make sense,” says Roper.
“Why would someone who is so proud of everything they offer then offer a pedestrian wine list?” I agree. Often what happens at beer or cocktail bars is that the owner may not know enough about wine, or not feel comfortable enough with their own wine knowledge, so they go to one of their bigger distributors and have them put together a wine list. This almost always results in a mundane, even a bad selection of wines.
That's not the case here. The wine list at Hopleaf, assembled by Roper, is mainly European, focusing on the wines of Italy, France and Spain. That's not to say there aren't any new world wines. “But, many of the new world wines we carry are wines with an old world sensibility.”
Hopleaf has eight wines on tap— three reds, three whites, a rosé and a sparkling wine, and 70 wines by the bottle. The list doesn't focus on any one area and rarely duplicates bottlings of a particular style or region. The wines here are primarily from smaller, boutique producers that may only make a few thousand cases of wine per year.
While the selection of wines here is solid, what's even more exciting is pricing. Wine obviously isn't a significant part of the revenue stream at Hopleaf, “I can throw profit out the window and carry what I really want to carry. I don't make much money on a lot of the wine we carry. It only makes sense to me to sell these wines at a low cost because I make all of my money elsewhere,” says Roper.
Roper developed an interesting pricing strategy for his wine list. “No one is coming to Hopleaf and spending $90 on a bottle of wine. So what I did is, I developed a two price program. White, rosé and sparkling wine are priced at $35 and reds are $45 a bottle.” According to Roper “By taking price off the table, you're choosing the wine you really want, instead of choosing the wine that costs what you want to pay.”
The Hopleaf wine list also does not list wines by country or style in order to encourage you to look at all of the wines on the list. “When they do that, they'll see some things that will make their eyes pop out, because I'm not trying to get three or four times cost. I really would like to get two times cost but I can't even do that at $45 per bottle.”
Of the 70 bottles on the list, Roper tells me that on 20 to 25 of the wines he only makes four dollars to seven dollars per bottle. And it goes further. “There's one wine that I actually lose money on, there's a few wines that I only make $2 per bottle on. But those are wines that I just want to carry because I love them,” says Roper. He can price wines at these incredibly low markups because it's not a significant profit center, in many instances he only sells a case of each per year.
Perusing the wine list, I spotted some amazing deals that are at retail level price points, like the 2007 Guigal Châteauneuf-du-Pape, or the 2001 R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia or the 2006 Tenuta Vitanza Brunello. $45 for these wines in a restaurant? These are insane values.
Now, you might be thinking, “Hmm, beer bar, low prices? Gotta be bad wine service.” That's not the case at all. Admittedly, there's no somm working the floor here, but Roper conducts staff training and tastings of wine to keep his servers sharp on wine service. Also, as with its beer glass program, Hopleaf has a good wine glass program. They serve in Schott Zwiesel stemware and have a number of varietal specific stems. Many restaurants selling wine at $100 a bottle and more can't even manage that.
It's been said that the best restaurants to eat at are where chefs go to eat. Well, the same could be said about wine drinking and wine industry professionals. According to Roper, “Some of the biggest customers of my wine by the bottle program are wine sales people. They drink probably a third of what we sell by the bottle. Because they like wine and they can come here and drink some great wine from other distributors at prices they can't find anywhere.”