ISO Thoughtful, Interesting Mid-Priced Wine Lists In Chicago

I feel like wine lists have taken a hit lately as many restaurants shift their focus to cocktails and craft beer. Not that there’s anything wrong with those things, but after many years of drinking and eating, I firmly believe that (some foods excepted) nothing pairs with food as well as wine does. There. I’ve said it.

Now that I’ve either dated myself, made myself seem like a fancy-pants dilettante, or enraged a whole class of ardent beer and cocktail drinkers, hear me out. High-end tasting menus still seem to keep wine in good stead, but even that’s diminishing, as beer and cocktails are creeping into beverage pairings at restaurants like Next. Wine bars like Bar Pastoral, Rootstock and Webster’s certainly have interesting wine lists but they’re wine bars — they should.

In a mid-range context, wine lists at many restaurants that have opened in the past five years or so read like afterthoughts — a repetition of common or uninteresting bottles that appear almost everywhere else including on drugstore shelves and in grocery stores. I’m sure there are other factors that play into this phenomenon, but I can’t help believing that those concerns would be minimized if more diners appreciated a variety of wines as enjoyable, interesting beverage pairings or restaurateurs viewed wine lists as less a potential profit center and more of a unique expression of the soul of the restaurant. (A separate discussion: Wine lists that appear to be written for a narrow, dwindling sector of the population. I digress.)

Some restaurants seem to have broken with the trend, and that seems to be the result of the individual will of certain people involved in the restaurants — not to mention perhaps their deeply personal connection with wine.

6 Restaurant Wine Lists I’m Enjoying Right Now

(Omitting wine bars, and in no particular order):

  1. Telegraph. This almost goes without saying. Jeremy Quinn (sommelier at Webster’s Wine Bar) created this eclectic list. (He also offers his own private-label selections distributed by Cream Wine Company.) It’s interesting and fun, even if your palate is stretched to the bounds by some of the wines. Telegraph occasionally offers half-carafes of older vintage wines for the people who aren’t so committed to springing for a bottle. Also, their selection of beautiful and sexy stemware from Schott Zweisel shows a certain love of the drink.
  2. Vera.  Sommelier Liz Mendez is so enthusiastic about wine that the offerings are always changing. Although there is a distinct emphasis on Spanish wines, Liz ultimately goes with what she likes, so an offered rosé might be a beloved Peuch-Haut from France. Casual wine drinking is acknowledged in the form of on-tap bulk wines. Vera is a favorite place for a good wine-by-the-glass although every time I peruse the bottle list, there’s almost always something tempting that doesn’t approximate a mortgage payment.
  3. Nightwood. Go and check out their rosé-by-the-glass list right now before it leaves for the summer. Enough said.
  4. Fat Rice. The stemware might be too deliberately casual for my tastes, but I can’t think of another casual Asian restaurant at this price point that even comes close to their wine offerings. This is due at least in part to the input of Craig Perman who owns Perman Wine Selections in the West Loop. For many years, Perman collaborated with Fat Rice owners, Adrienne & Abe, on food-and-wine events when they were doing their underground dinners as X-Marx.
  5. Balena. Although aperitivos and bitter drinks are (rightfully) front-and-center on Balena’s menu, the Italian-focused wine list doesn’t read — like you’d expect — as a roll-call of nebbiolo and sangiovese. Instead, it travels to the far corners of Italy, and even includes brethren from Slovenia and distant cousins in other Mediterranean ports-of-call. Through their extensive by-the-glass list, I’ve been enjoying the overlooked refoscos and underappreciated nerello mascaleses. It’s a list that invites you to taste around.
  6. Farmhouse. It’s not the wine list per se, but Farmhouse’s approach to wine that I appreciate. Farmhouse is one of the few restaurants that approaches the “farm-to-table” trend by giving it more than lip service, and applying it in almost every available format beyond just sourcing from local farmers — they have a rooftop garden, they serve a panoply of local microbeers, and in a bold step, their wine offering is mostly fulfilled by tapping kegs of local wine from Domaine Berrien in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Is it the best wine you’ll have? Should you be comparing the style to the French masters? Probably not, but it is perfectly enjoyable and more interesting than the ubiquitous bottles of New Zealand sauvignon blanc served elsewhere. By turning wine back into the casual format it is enjoyed in many countrysides across the world, Farmhouse seems to understand the spiritual need to sip a locally produced table wine with locally produced food.

Lists are meant to be debated, and I’m sure I’ve omitted some very worthy contenders. If you like wine, though, these places deserve your support.

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