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Chicago's Hottest New Wine Programs

By John Lenart in Food on Dec 9, 2015 5:15PM

The wine lists in Chicago restaurants lag behind cities like New York and San Francisco, but the city has been making huge strides in catching up.

One reason Chicago lags behind is that restaurants here are not allowed to consign from private collectors. This is one way New York restaurants have been able to assemble and maintain some of the best wine lists in the world (though New York is considering changing its law). This may be one of the reasons local wine lists lag behind cities like New York and San Francisco. But that isn't the only reason, and Chicago restaurants are finding ways of bridging the gap.

I covered a few of these last year, and since then even more great wine lists have been introduced. In fact, within the past month, three different, but equally intriguing wine lists have entered the scene. Each is doing its own part to help our wine scene make up distance on the quality of offerings in other cities around the country.

Let's take a look.

Wine at Maple & Ash (Instagram)

Maple & Ash 8 W Maple St, Chicago,

Size: 600 growing to 800

Overview: After eight years in NYC, Belinda Chang returns to Chicago as Director of Wine and Spirits at this posh new gold coast steakhouse. If you're expecting just another steak house wine list, loaded with the same old tired labels, and not much beyond cabernet sauvignon, guess again. Maple & Ash's list digs deep. Looking for a great selection of rieslings to start off? This list has it, and a whole lot more. One thing that you'll need if you're going to explore this list fully is a bankroll. Not that the wines are marked up too high—they're not—but wines of this quality just cost more. That's not to say you can't get a nice wine on a budget here, bottles start at just $28, but you could easily spend several hundred on some very interesting high quality choices. To help with this, Chang has created a 50 under $50 selection. But what's really cool about this list is that it's for ballers. Close that big business deal, or want to impress your guest with a special wine? This list has it.

Highlights: A very nice Champagne list featuring the big houses as well as growers including mature vintages. Killer selections of riesling, Burgundy, and of course Napa cabs. Maple and Ash also has a fantastic Coravin program too. If you see a bottle (still wine only) on the list, they will pour you a single glass through a Coravin for one sixth of the bottle price. So if for some reason you want just one glass of that 1999 Meo-Camuzet Corton, for $152 it's yours. Like I said, baller. The price also gets you killer wine service, including Riedel Sommelier Series stemware.

Hidden gems: RACK & RIDDLE Blanc de Blancs North Coast, California NV, $45
Fritz Haag Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr Spatlese 2004, $58
Meo-Camuzet Corton-Perrieres 2011, $133
Chateau Montelena cabernet sauvignon 1985, $325

Photo Credit Anthony Tahllier

Swift and Sons 1000 W Fulton Market, Chicago, IL 60607 (312) 733-9420

Size: 300 growing to 450

Overview: Wine Director Marcello Cancelli tells us—much like the name of the restaurant being an homage to things of the past—he wanted his list to “highlight certain traditional producers that have been forgotten in this new wave of superstar winemakers.” So you'll find producers like Grgich, Caymus and Chateau Montelena. For those who geek out a bit, the list is organized by AVA. So, you can see if your Napa cabernet sauvignon comes from Rutherford, Oakville, Stag's Leap etc. To keep it from becoming a boring old steakhouse wine list, “What we did is infused it with my own philosophy of what a wine list should be,” says Cancelli. You'll find quite a bit of Burgundy on this list sprinkled with a presence of some great U.S. pinot noir producers. Swift and Sons offers a small selection of wines poured from Coravin in three and six ounce pours.

Highlights: A very nice 1/2 bottle selection that has a good range in both price and wines offered. A Burgundy selection that may not be deep or old, but has good range from quality producers like Roumier and Leroy. Of course, you'll find a great selection of cabernet sauvignons to meet any style you prefer, all are young though. However, “We will be expanding our mature vintages because there's a demand for it,” says Cancelli.

Hidden Gems: By the glass, Copain, syrah, Tous Ensemble, Mendocino County 2012, $17
Neely, Hidden Block, pinot noir, Santa Cruz Mountains 2011, $94
Georges Roumier Chambolle-Musigny 2012, $196
Quilceda Creek, cabernet sauvignon, Columbia Valley 2012, $154

Appellation Wine Bar & Restaurant (Facebook)

Appellation Wine Bar & Restaurant 5212 N. Clark St. Chicago

Size: About 200 selections

Overview: When Pastoral opened a location in Andersonville. 2015 Buzz Worthy Somm Mark Wrobel was not only responsible for putting together the retail selection for the shop, but also for the wine program at Appellation Wine Bar, housed within the same space. The selections here aren't vastly different from other Pastoral locations. “There's a lot of carry over between the other locations and nearly every wine offered at the Broadway location can be found up in Andersonville. We continue to source wines from family run wineries who are producing responsibly and are excited for the opportunity to share more winemaker's stories with our guests,” says Wrobel. And with his list here, he's done exactly that. Pastoral and Appellation in Andersonville feature a wine for just about anybody. Typically lists like this can be watered down to mundane choices. But not here. Looking for a classic chardonnay? Try the Stony Hill Napa Valley chardonnay. Cabernet? Try the Matthiasson. Esoteric and geeky? Try the Massican Annia, a ribolla gialla blend. With the breadth of this list you're sure to find something you'll love. One of the coolest features of this wine list is that, if you're spending time at Appellation, you pay only a $20 markup over the retail cost of the bottle. This makes Appellation one of the most customer-friendly wine pricing structures in town. “The $20 corkage fee came about as a way to bridge the gap between the retail and restaurant sides of the business. The retail wine selections double as the restaurant's wine list which, had we gone with the traditional restaurant markup formula, would have caused a lot of 'sticker shock' to our guests. They would see firsthand how much more a bottle of wine costs to drink it on premise as opposed to taking it home,” says Wrobel.

Highlights: This list runs the gamut, but focuses primarily on small family producers who make wines of character and quality. And you don't have to spend big bucks either, there are a good number of wines here that are in the $40 price range ($20 retail). As prices rise, guests at Appellation actually get a better deal for their wine as that markup remains just $20 per bottle. The list is organized by, well, appellation, beginning with a nice sparkling selection followed by whites and then finally reds.

Hidden Gems: Marie Noelle Ledru ‘Extra Brut’ NV Champagne, $85
Littorai ‘Charles Heintz Vineyard’ chardonnay 2013, $110
Cruse Wine Co. St. Laurent 2014, $53
Turley ‘Rattlesnake Ridge Vineyard' zinfandel 2013, $73