There is no better food city in the United States than Chicago. Each year I have the opportunity to reconnect with friends in this great town and I am consistently amazed at the incredible diversity of cuisine and matching wine programs. No need to go if you like soulless food paired with mass produced wines; simply head to any population center within 200 miles of Chicago to get your fix there!
Selling wine in Chicago is a great pleasure because you are playing in the big leagues. You darken the doors and taste with the sommeliers of some of the America’s finest establishments. Whether you are presenting to Pane Caldo, Charlie Trotter’s, Alinea, Nomi, Naha, or Harry Caray’s; appointments are kept, glassware is spotless, comments are direct, and sales are bountiful, provided your juice is fine.
There are so many lesser markets where wine programs are run by people who are short-timers with preferences determined completely by press scores. They “forget” appointments, taste adjacent to the mop bucket out of rolled lip glassware, and are present to take notes for “the owner who is too busy to taste”. Often the owner is only interested in who is going to pay for their menu jackets with “free” product smuggled in the back door from a large liquor wholesaler.
In Chicago, you taste with people who truly have a passion for food and wine, and they are, nearly to a person, PROFESSIONAL at it. Somehow the WBAQ (wine-buyer-asshole-quotient) is at a nationwide low of less than ten percent in the greater Chicago area. There should be an award.
So, quit your boring job in the Midwest, move to Chicago, and begin buying or selling wine there. We are distributed by Pure Wine Company in Hinsdale, IL where Troy Clements and his family do some of the finest work of any wine distributor in the country. If you are thrilled enough, give them a ring, but only A Players need apply.
While you're at it, try a couple of great dining spots that will give you a sense of Chicago's culinary prowess – and they're supporters of The Craig as well.
NAHA in Downtown Chicago: Many times in my experience, a chef has concentrated so hard on the presentation that the taste of the food on the plate is left wanting. Not so with Carrie Nahabedian’s seasonal, New American cuisine. Carrie’s food is beautifully prepared from the best local and seasonal ingredients, and the flavors are intense but balanced. I have been eating there for the last eight or nine years, and I have never been disappointed. Michael Nahabedian, (formerly of Green Dolphin Street), Carrie’s cousin, runs the wine program and manages the front of the house. Michael has put together a wine list that is focused, well priced, imaginative, and tempting. Forget about just a glass at lunch and simply break down and order that bottle!
Of all the places I go in the country, NAHA (www.naha-chicago.com) is one place that I refuse to miss when I am in town. You can see that they have one of the most beautiful daytime dining rooms in the country, and Michael was nice enough to supply me with a little treat to celebrate my birthday. Ahhh, 30 again!
Pane Caldo in Downtown Chicago (www.pane-caldo.com): This is a Northern Italian oasis on East Walton Street in the Gold Coast neighborhood. Chef Maurice Bonhomme arrived in Chicago via Montreal and presents astounding, carefully prepared vignettes of Northern Italy on the fine china. Sommelier Richard Mikhail has been with the restaurant for years as the wine director, and he has assembled one of the most interesting and dynamic lists anywhere in the country. Although my point-and-shoot Nikon is challenged in low light, I refused to use the flash on this winter evening in order to catch the warmth of the room as the servers arrived for work and prepped the tables while Richard assessed our latest vintages. The images are slightly fuzzy, but they convey the inviting atmosphere perfectly. No cheese on the fish, no flash for interior shots!
Pane Caldo dining room warms up a cold winter's eve (at left) while Richard Mikhail gives The Craig Cabs the once over.
That's it for now. Back out for another round of road adventures in February/March.