Let’s face it: we all want to be considered urbane, cultured city dwellers. We do not want to be the one who doesn’t know which fork to use for the first course, or the one admitting we don’t “get” the meaning of that abstract painting hanging in front of us at a First Friday gallery show. But few things can be more intimidating than being presented with a wine list at a restaurant. We know there is more to wine than the way it looks in the glass, but how do we make sense of the nuances to figure out what we actually like to drink? To that end, FW:Chicago has enlisted the help of Lisa Fosler Kelly, co-owner and wine manager at Bread & Wine, one of the city’s buzziest and most creative new restaurants. FYI, Bread & Wine also has a market, which features their own private label wines.
Lisa Fosler Kelly of Bread & Wine
Working at her father’s wine shop and traveling to vineyards, both here and abroad, opened Fosler Kelly’s eyes to the expansive world of wine beyond the Chenin blanc she favored in her late 20s. Here, she gives wine newbies a few tips to help them navigate the wine universe.
- Do not hate or be married to a single varietal such as Chardonnay, Cabernet, or Sauvignon blanc. Of course we all have our preferences, but there are literally countless expressions of each varietal, based on the location, climate, winemaker preferences, and growing methods, among others. A New Zealand Sauvignon blanc is almost a different animal than a Sauvignon blanc from another region, such as California’s Central Coast. So, to ask for just “a Chardonnay” or “a Sauvignon blanc” or “a Cabernet” in a restaurant is, in many ways, giving your server almost no direction at all. It is better to provide elements of what you like (I tend to like a drier, medium-bodied white with less grass notes than orchard fruit notes and with medium acidity). I realize this is not entirely reasonable, but to get a wine you really like is to analyze what it is you like in a wine so you can order accordingly.
- Try to avoid extremes such as “I hate all oaked Chardonnays,” or “I hate Merlot," or “I only like Napa Cab”—this could go on forever. I hear these generalities every day from people who think they know exactly what they like or don’t like. But that decision is so limiting. You think you know what this means, but you are giving up on a HUGE amount of really well-made wines.
- The over-used phrase, “The only rule is to drink wine that you like,” limits one’s ability to grow their wine attitudes and preferences. Trying new varietals, vintages, winemakers, and regions will widely expand your wine preferences, if you are open to that opportunity.
- Don’t drink the same wine at every occasion, with every dish. Zinfandel does not tend to do well with shrimp scampi. You end up liking neither. Consider expanded pairing options, regardless of your go-to favorite grape varietal.
- Hard liquor dulls the palette. If you are having a super refined dinner party, start the night with a sparkling wine rather than a round of Manhattans, regardless of the pressure from your guests. They can have their Angel’s Envy on the rocks after the experience of your amazing dinner has been optimized.
- If nothing else, drink and serve wine at the correct temperature. This is probably the worst mistake, other than the aforementioned misguided alliance to a singular varietal. Whites are served too cold; reds too warm, missing the nuances of both. Reds, like Pinot noir and Grenache, are often served too warm, while whites, like higher oaked Chardonnays, are often served too cold. Even Cabernet Sauvignon is typically served too warm. Sparkling wines are almost always well served at colder temperatures. And, as an aside, lower-quality wines—such as a glass of white you are meant to enjoy at a wedding—should be served much colder than a more nuanced wine.
- As a GENERAL rule, in order to truly enjoy “good wines,” start with sparkling, move on to light whites, then rich whites, then to light reds, to high tannin/richer reds, then to dessert wines or spirits.
- Just like a book, a wine cannot be judged by its label. For example, in the U.S., the following terms are unregulated and really have no definitive meaning (although they do in other countries): “old vine,” “reserve”, “estate grown,” among others.
- Be open to options, try new varietals, try new regions, and try new combinations. It can only get better and the risk is minimal.
There are many wine shops in the city that have an incredibly knowledgeable staff whose job it is to answer every single question you have about wine. Here are some favorites we turn to for settling our pre-dinner party nerves:
Lush Wine and Spirits, 2232 West Roscoe, 773-281-8888.
Stellar Wine Company, 820 West Belmont, 773-394-4516.
wineHouse, 3164 North Broadway, 872-802-3766.
Bread & Wine, 3732-34 West Irving Park Road, 773-866-5266.