Canal Park Brewing Co in Duluth

If you're up this far north you have to stop in Canal Park Brewing Company.  It's a big space right on the shore of Lake Superior with an outrageous outdoor patio and some awesome brew.  The menu isn't bad either with typical bar fare along with their own touches like Pickled Herring and Beer Can Chicken.

I went for their 40 Acre Saison right away, served in a tulip.  It's light and refreshing like a Farmhouse Ale should be, but watch the kick- it's 7.6% abv.  I also went for the Nut Hatchet, which is a World Beer Cup Winner.  It had aroma of roasted nuts and 7 grain bread and a smooth taste of brown sugar with toffee- I'd have liked it with a Black & Bleu Cheeseburger.

The bar crowd was pretty lively and I actually started up a conversation about sports with a local Minnesotan and a guy from LA.  If I visit again, I'll be sure to take the tour.  This is another place to mark on your list to visit in Duluth.

Northern Waters Smokehaus in Duluth


While visiting Duluth, I had to venture to the Northern Waters Smokehaus in Canal Park for one of their delicious sandwiches.  They're basically a small deli featuring smoked fish and house cured meat and pate, which you can take to go or grab a sammy.  

First visit I took Lily and we grabbed lunch for the whole family: got a Slamming Gordon for the kids which his smoked salmon pate on pita with cucumber & tomato, a Sitka Sushi for the wife which is Sockeye gravlax (dry cured) with wasabi mayo, ginger & veggies, and a Cajun Finn for myself- smoked Cajun spiced salmon with green onion cream cheese and peppers.

We sat on our patio and popped open some Ferrari Rose, a Metodo Classico dry sparkling wine from the Veneto made from Pinot Nero (60%) and Chardonnay (40%).  It was perfect with my sandwich: the acidity melded with the fat of the salmon and cream cheese, dry charred oak spice matched the smokiness of the fish, light berry flavor cooled the Cajun spice while bready toasty aroma went well with the ciabatta bun.

It's funny how something perceived as a classy or celebratory beverage can go so well with the casual encounter of a sandwich, so it just goes to show- don't pigeonhole a sparkling wine!

I stopped back to grab some smoked fish and pate to take home and it was outrageously delicious too.  The Smokehaus is a must-stop if you're in Duluth.

Windy City Wine Guy Hits Lake Superior

Lily & I on Lake Superior

After I hit the big "40" combined with my mother's recent passing, I realized you can't take time for granted.  I've always had wanderlust and now is always the time to continue traveling.  I always enjoy travel because it involves new experiences, culture (especially food!), scenery and people.

Lately I've been trying more local travel for a number of reasons: 

- Cost of travel and all involved has recently gone way up  

- Ground travel is far more economical in comparison to air 

- Everyone in this country has great spots to hit in an 8 hour or less driving radius

And that brings me to my latest travel: Duluth, Minnesota.  The city has a storied history of trains, ships and Lake Superior.  I'll be checking out all of this and local food & breweries to let you know about this great Northern town and help you put it on your travel list.

Kick Off Your Summer Grill

I've been cooking for almost 30 years and have learned a lot from mom, grandma, chefs, television, books and internet.  I've tried many new things in the past number of years and I have to say, I get the most enjoyment out of grilling outdoors.  You can cook almost any meal outdoors and more than you can cook in, and the enjoyment you get on your deck or in your backyard is priceless.  

I still love a juicy steak or pork chops on the grill, but after 40 you learn to add more fish and seafood to the menu.  And recently we've instituted "Taco Tuesdays" in our house and I've been having loads of fun with it.  Cornmeal crusted tofu, chili lime rum shrimp, tequila cilantro fish, etc has been the most delicious creations of the week.

If you'd like a great way to enjoy the weather, open a bottle of white (I normally use Riesling because of its limey, mineral properties) and get to work:

  • Marinate.  Today I bought Wild Caught Walleye (if you live in Minnesota, you'll come to LOVE this fish) and prepped it with garlic, oregano, cilantro, lime, olive oil, salt & pepper and tequila.  Let it sit covered in the fridge for at least an hour before bringing it back up to temperature.
  • Drink.  Pop open a refreshing bottle to enjoy (today was Charles Smith "Kung Fu Girl" Riesling) and cool off.  Enjoy the day while the kids play in the yard.
  • Grill.  Doesn't matter whether you're using a gas or charcoal grill: cover the grates with foil.  All flaky fish will disintegrate if you don't.  And use an extra large spatula to get under that filet.
  • Additions.  You may be drinking a bit, but try to multitask.  Make sure to chop your toppings like tomato, avocado, peppers, greens, etc.  
  • Tortillas.  Always use corn- it's the original, less calories and tastes better.  And make it easy on yourself and grill them up!  Brush both sides with olive oil, place them on the grill and have your tongs ready because they cook quickly.  Have a towel or covered plate ready to keep them warm.

Now you're ready.  If you're going spicy (which I always do), you may want to stick with something that is refreshing and has a tiny bit of sweetness like a Washington State Riesling, a homemade margarita or mojito.  After your bev is ready, it's time to construct some tacos with the family and buon appetito!

Get Your Passport to Vinho Verde

Vinho Verde  

Vinho Verde


With Spring in full swing, you're going to want to bust out of those Winter doldrums and grab some light and refreshing wine.  One of my favorites to start with is Vinho Verde, made in northern Portugal and meaning "green wine" or "young wine".  It is mainly made white, though rosé and red are made, and meant to be drunk within the first year after bottling.  Certain producers will also purposely make them slightly effervescent by injecting a small amount of CO2.  And it is made of local Portuguese grape varietals like Loureiro, Alvarinho, Arinto, Trajadura, Avesso and Azal.

Fortunately for Chicagoans (and folks in DC and New York) there is a chance to taste some of these refreshing wines around town through the Passport to Vinho Verde along with a chance to win a free trip to Portugal!  Here's a list of some places you can hit:

Gold Coast Sushi at Jellyfish

I always hear people mention in a bored way "another sushi place opened up" but that cannot be said about Jellyfish.  It's a new sushi place.  It's authentic.  And good.  You'll find it on Rush Street with an entrance leading to the second floor (accessible by elevator or stairs) across from Hugo's.  The look is very contemporary with a vibrantly lit bar and amazing views of the bustling neighborhood.

Spicy Crab Mini Tacos

Spicy Crab Mini Tacos

I was invited to stop in to try Chef Jason Im's menu and was seated in a very comfortable booth while I enjoyed a Kumquat Manhattan from the bar- if you like your whiskey like I do, you'll like this citrusy sweet twist on the classic cocktail.  The food started to roll in with Spicy Crab Mini Tacos which are loaded with fresh lump crab, flavored with lime, cilantro and candied lemon.  They also have a light kick with red tobiko and jalapeno.  This dish is a winner.  I also liked their Seafood Ceviche, a mix of scallops and shrimp with a touch of hot sauce and citrus.  Another tasty and refreshing way to start off.  Another starter followed- the Siam Shrimp.  Jumbo black tiger shrimp with pineapple and mixed vegetables in coconut curry.  The shrimp are enormous, but I would've liked more curry spice in this though.

The rolls are definitely a must as they have some really inventive creations like the Fire & Sol (salmon, spicy ponzu, snow crab), Cherry Blossom (tempura lobster tail) and Summer Rush (tuna, salmon, crab, shrimp wrapped in cucumber) along with classics like California and Spider. 


The main dishes sound great with selections of Yakitori Chicken and Wagyu Beef Burger, but we tried the Roasted Sea Bass.  This dish is just succulent with buttery bass cooked medium and melting in your mouth and salty crisp skin.  It was cooked perfectly. 

Throughout dinner I had my chance to sample the beverage list and tried JC Pichot Vouvray Chenin Blanc and Decoy Cabernet Sauvignon.  The choices aren't numerous but they have a good bit of variety like Graham Beck Sparkling Rose, Do Ferreiro Albarino and Ceretto Barolo, along with some heavy hitters like '03 Dom Perignon, Far Niente Chardonnay, and Opus One.  Plus the Japanese Whisky and Sake lists are quite solid.

Finishing it off, dessert worth the trip as we tried the strawberry panna cotta.  It's presented in a mason jar with layers of crunchiness, smoothness, creaminess and fruitiness.  Just stick the fork down to the bottom, pull it out and enjoy.  And they have an espresso machine, which always makes me happy and is a must for every restaurant in my opinion.   

If you're up this way shopping and living it up, put this fresh place on your list. 


A Night at City Winery Chicago

I was excited to see another wine bar hit the Chicago wine scene.  I've been to City Winery for drinks and tastings, but never had the opportunity to have dinner. I'm kicking myself for not being on Twitter fast enough to learn that Prince was performing a late night show at City Winery a few weeks back.  That's an interesting perk of the space - City Winery has a solid performance space, making for a fun night out of dinner and a show.

City Winery is a large, airy two-story building with brick walls, wooden tables and a large wine storage room full of wine barrels- excellent design for the concept.  I sat and looked at the menu: full of small plate options like bacalao fritters (salt cod), duck tacos and daily crudo, my first choice. 

Raw Scallops and Stone Fruit

The daily crudo was comprised of thinly sliced scallops with stone fruit and tobiko- a very tasty dish with the velvety scallops enveloping the sweet peaches and salty fish eggs.  Round two brought the wild mushroom flatbread, which was good, aside from being  70% bread and little goat cheese.  Next, the seared scallops were very good- seared on the outside making them sweet with the pillowy inside. Solid dish.

There are some things on a menu that catch your eye and Street Corn was one of them.  I had visions of elote, Mexican Street Corn, with cheesy, buttery, spicy, salty, creamy, citrusy sweet corn.  I was disappointed to see that this particular Street Corn included simple sweet corn, with bell pepper and lime juice. If you are accustom to the street corn you may sample from Maxwell Street Market on Sundays, City Winery puts on their own modern twist.  

Since it is a wine bar, I decided to try their house wines.  On the whole, I was unimpressed.  For one, I thought that they were a bit pricey at $12 a glass, considering they bypassed overhead costs like bottling and middlemen.  Second, they did not have the quality for the price tag, as the Riesling and Pinot Noir I tasted just had no length or intensity.  I suggest you go with wines by the glass or bottle selections as there are plenty of great options like Domaine Sigalas Santorini Assyrtiko, Littorai Pinot Noir and something special like the 1978 Silver Oak Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (by the glass!) I was treated to.

Dessert was hard to choose from, as the selections looked so good.  I went with the cheesecake and it was tasty, but the consistency was odd, almost gelatin-like. 

On the whole, I think City Winery may want to refine their menu and either adjust their house glass prices or work on the quality.  

However, the space is amazing for groups, concerts or just hanging though and I would put it on 'must-do' list for Randolph Street.   Check it out.


   * my dinner was provided by City Winery Chicago

Maison Champy at Oceanique

Chef Mark Grosz, myself and Philippe Andre at Oceanique

Chef Mark Grosz, myself and Philippe Andre at Oceanique

I'm not sure if any of you have ventured up to Evanston, but if you're in the mood for an upscale adventure into French seafood, Oceanique is worth the trip.  This amazing restaurant has been operating since 1989 under Chef/Owner Mark Grosz and is a local institution, creating dishes from the best organic produce and seafood from sustainable eco-friendly sources.  The wine list might be even more impressive than the food, comprised of grower Champagne, white and red Burgundy (including a full page of Domaine Romanee-Conti!) and a very nice collection of Grands Crus Bordeaux dating back to 1961.  The program is run adeptly by Chef Mark's son, Wine Director Philippe Andre.  Not only has he compiled quite a collection, but has also made great relationships with many a producer.

Myself and Dimitri Bazas

Myself and Dimitri Bazas


This leads me to the wine dinner of which I was invited to meet Maison Champy winemaker, Dimitri Bazas.  Champy was established as a negociant (a wine merchant who purchases produce of smaller growers and winemakers) in 1720 with holdings in Morey St. Denis and Montrachet.  They were purchased by Maison Louis Jadot in 1990 but Pierre Meurgey purchased the name and final holdings (10%) of Champy.  They acquired more land and began to create Savigny, Corton-Charlemagne, Mazis-Chambertin, Pommard and others.  Dimitri came from Greece to Burgundy in 1991 and consulted for many wineries before settling at Champy in 2003.  He wishes for his wines to taste as the terrior does instead of to taste like "Champy".

Wild Maine Lobster & Day Boat Scallop

Wild Maine Lobster & Day Boat Scallop

Now onto the pairings.  First we tried 2005 Corton-Charlemagne (always 100% Chardonnay) which was full and powerful with oak spice and tropical fruit.  This was a wine everyone should experience at least once.  It paired with Wild Maine Lobster, Day Boat Scallop and English Peas.  A rich seafood is always great with this wine as they play off each other well, accentuating fruit, freshness and full flavor.  

Organic Spanish Turbot

Organic Spanish Turbot

Next we tried the 2006 Corton-Charlemagne, which was a totally different wine than the '05.  It had more fresh fruit and acidity, but less power.  They were like amazing fraternal twins- fantastic for their differences.  It was paired with Organic Spanish Turbot, Favas, Green Garlic and Saffron-Yuzu sauce.  The dish needed fruit and acidity and the Corton-Charlemagne was up for the task.

Wild Maine Skate

Wild Maine Skate

Moving onto red, we tried the 2007 Mazis-Chambertin, a very cool and racy wine with plenty notes of fresh berries and game.  The pairing was Wild Maine Skatefish with Asparagus.  I'm not crazy about Pinot Noir and asparagus, but the fish went well as it is mild with slight nuttiness.

Hudson Valley Duck Confit

Hudson Valley Duck Confit

I clearly loved the last wine- a 2009 Mazis-Chambertin.  It had grippy tannins, loud and ripe fruit, bold acidity, it was a complete wine.  But, it was quite young also- a pleasure to enjoy now, but one to cellar.  It was paired with Hudson Valley Duck Confit, Spaetzle, Belgian Endive and Kumquat.  The wine definitely stood up to the rich duck and the acidity and tannins stood hard against it.  Buy this wine if you have the opportunity.

Chef made an amazing Berry Sorbet with Creme de Cassis which left everyone satisfied.  I would do this again, but remember, Oceanique will be closed in July for renovation and will reopen with a brand new look, which I cannot wait to see.  Another 24 years to you Chef Mark and Philippe!

Maison Champy Lineup

Maison Champy Lineup

Franco Bernabei wines of Sartori di Verona at Spiaggia

Last week I had the pleasure to have dinner with Andrea Sartori of Sartori di Verona, and his winemaker, Franco Bernabei at one of my favorite Italian restaurants in Chicago, Spiaggia.  The marriage of a Tuscan winemaker with Veneto wines and this amazing Tony Mantuano restaurant was too big to miss!  

The Sartori family has been making wine for over 110 years, and started very small with just 37 acres as of 2002.  This quickly grew when they secured over 5000 acres from a partnership with Cantina Colognona di Colli of Soave and Valpolicella.  Later, the family secured the services of Franco Bernabei, a well known winemaker known all over "the boot" as a master,  Needless to say, I was anxious to try the food and wine.

Pinot Grigio

Pinot Grigio

We started with the Ferdi Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir (under $15), both of which were light, acidic and dry, exactly how I enjoy my typical Pinots from the region.  This went well with our Foie Gras, a salty, fatty goose liver, typically served with a sweet fruity sauce (or wine) to counter the saltiness and fat content.  Excellent.

Next we moved onto the Valpolicella reds, starting with a Valpolicella, a light drinking wine blend normally comprised of Corvina and Rondinella varietals.  Quite good, light and fruity with a touch of minerality.  This was followed by Sartori Veronese "Regolo" ($20) 100% Corvina varietal.  This wine goes through an interesting process as it is cold soaked with the grape skins for 15-18 days.  This allows the juice to soak in color, flavor and tannins before fermentation begins.  Later in the year, the wine goes through the Veneto "ripasso" process of passing through the "lees" (fallen yeast) and grape skins of Amarone wine, which still contains much sugar, resulting in a secondary fermentation.  This adds body and complexity.  The wine is named for Regolo, the Patriarch of the Sartori famiglia.  The wine melded well with our mushroom risotto, as the earthiness and minerality mixed with the shrooms, creamy rice and pancetta.

Spiaggia Lamb Chop

Spiaggia Lamb Chop

We then leapt to the Amarone ($43), which is one of Italy's largest wines.  This one is made up Corvina, Rondinella and Oselta varietals which have been laid out on straw mats after harvest to raisinate.  This leaves behind concentrated fruit and sugar, more for the yeast to feast on and create more complexity, body and alcohol.  Always a great treat and fabulous with food, like the lamb chops we had.  Gamey flavors mixed with minerality, herbs, bitterness and fruity body.  A delicious combo.

Franco wanted us to try his Garganega, a white wine he described as having body and complexity, so much so that we could drink after any hearty red, such as an Amarone.  While I do not agree I want to end my night with this (or any) white, I do agree the complexity was there to fully enjoy.  The juice went through an interesting process, as the grapes were hand-picked and dried for over 30 days to reduce water and concentrate sugar and color, then they're cold soaked and macerated on the white skins.  Some of the wine is aged in used barrels and aged "sur lie", then aged 3 months in bottle for great stabilizing.  

A great way to end an amazing evening with amazing people like Franco, Andrea and the rest of the Sartori, Banfi and Spiaggia crew.  Thanks again!

Franco, Me, Lars and Andrea

Franco, Me, Lars and Andrea

2012 Francis Ford Coppola Director's Cut Sauvignon Blanc

Director's Cut Sauvignon Blanc

Director's Cut Sauvignon Blanc

Francis Ford Coppola has a new line of wines available, his "Director's Cut", a limited production, appellation-designated brand sourced from Sonoma fruit.  I recently received a sample of their Alexander Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($21).  The 2012 vintage in most parts of California was amazing, like many US growing regions, with even seasonal temperatures throughout.  I like my Sauvignon Blancs fermented and aged in stainless steel, as this help maintain mouth-puckering acidity, minerality and clean citrus fruit.  This Director's Cut has a decent amount of acidity with more tropical fruit like mango and pineapple which had a candied quality.  If you like a wine with sweeter fruit, then this would be your type, but not mine, though it is a well-made wine.  (WG 85)

The Director's Cut lineup also includes a Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Meritage "Cinema", a blend of Zin, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petite Sirah.  If you're looking to adventure into Sonoma's appellations, try them all!

Wines from Greg Norman, Ernie Els and Luke Donald for Spring


Everyone knows spring is around the corner (even if it doesn't feel like it!) and one of the great things about that is golf.  Hitting the links on a warm sunny day with all the greenery and sand traps can be fun and relaxing, just like drinking a nice glass of wine.  Now combining those two, I have a nice selection of wines for you from three great golfers.

Most of the time I see wines with celebrity names on them usually means they slapped the name on the label and the celeb barely bothered to try the juice.  That is not the case here, as each golfer is personally involved with selecting grape varietals and vineyards- that says a lot about the product.

Greg Norman

Greg Norman

The first golfer is Greg Norman and "The Great White Shark" has appreciated wine since he started golfing in the 70s.  He brought that love back home to Australia and opened a winery in the early 90s and now makes wine in California and Argentina.  You can get a huge inexpensive lineup of varietals with his label including Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Malbec, Zinfandel, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon.  I've tried a few of his Limestone Coast wines and they were all terrific, especially for the price ($12-19).

Ernie Els

Ernie Els

The next golfer is Ernie Els of South Africa.  He decided to settle down the efforts in Stellenbosch and has been producing rich reds since 2000.  He makes wines from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc, plus his more affordable line, Big Easy,  The Big Easy wines come in white (Chenin Blanc) and red (blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Rhone varietals) are really amazing wines and taste more than their worth ($20).

Bill Terlato and Luke Donald

Bill Terlato and Luke Donald

And finally, we come to Luke Donald Collection wines from Napa Valley, a joint venture between the golfer and Terlato Wines International.  Luke is from England, but went to school at Northwestern where he met both his wife and Bill Terlato.  This connection led to a partnership which created small batch Chardonnay from Carneros and a claret from Stags Leap and Rutherford.  With less than 3000 cases total made per year, the wines are in high demand and rightfully so- you can expect to pay around $30-40 for these premium wines.

All in all, I had a blast tasting these wines and featuring them on my site.  I hope one day you get to enjoy them.  Hit the links this spring and make sure to let me know what you think!

Apothic Rosé at Graham Elliot Bistro


Just last week I had the chance to spend time with Apothic winemaker, Boyd Morrison, and other local writers & bloggers at GEB (Graham Elliot Bistro).  I was really excited, as it was my first time at GEB, and I'd heard some great things, but was also here to try the newly released Apothic Rosé.

Boyd & I at GEB

Boyd & I at GEB

Now Apothic is a wine which has taken Chicago by storm- I've seen it everywhere: in CostCo, Mariano's and everyone's kitchen!  The winery is based in Sonoma and owned by E. & J. Gallo Winery with a purpose of blending likeable, epic wines.  When I approached the bar, the GEB staff kindly poured me a glass of rosé and I was taken in by the sweet watermelon aroma.  When I took a sip, I noticed the syrupy weightiness of the wine, along with loads of sweet fruit.  This, like their white & red, was very likeable, especially for the price ($8-12).  For an old palate like mine, I found it too sweet, but I also immediately recognized they aren't trying to reach me as a demographic.  Boyd, formerly of Alexander Valley Vineyards, Jekel and Simi, informed me they'd been making a rosé for several years, but only for staff consumption.  And, just like their recent release of red, is a blend of Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec.  On to dinner.

Apothic Rosé

Apothic Rosé

First course I had the Caesar which was simple, uncut and lightly slathered with a very garlicky dressing with awesome anchovy flavor.  It was paired with the rosé, which is a popular pairing, though I prefer Sauvignon Blanc.  It even works with the creamy dressing, because the acidity cuts into the mayo and egg, and the green tart citrus & berry matches most vegetables.

Second course I had a lemon risotto which was tart and creamy, an awesome combo if done correctly (it was!).  It was paired with the Apothic White, a blend of Chardonnay, Riesling and Moscato.  The body and citrus was there for this pairing, and the two worked well.

Third course was totally amazing- a tender, juicy, slow cooked veal breast with lightly macerated cannellini beans and pancetta vinaigrette.  The beans crazily glued the entire dish together.  Apothic Red was the pairing, and though I think it was a bit sweet, the body and smooth tannins proved a match.

Dessert did not let down, as I had a mini banana split with salted pretzel and caramelized nuts at the bottom.  Save room for this or the gianduja stuffed beignets!

The Dreaming Tree

I was recently sent wine samples from The Dreaming Tree, a new wine collaboration between winemaker Steve Reeder and musician Dave Matthews.  Steve has been involved with wine and beer making his whole life, having worked for Kendall Jackson, Alexander Valley Vineyards, Chateau St. Jean and Simi.  Now, I'm normally weary of wines made with celebrities, as they can be cheesy and uninspiring, but these wines are worth more than a second glance.  Also, Dave also owns a winery in Virginia (Blenheim Winery), and actively participates with his wines.


I tried two of their wines: the first was the 2012 "Everyday".  It's a Central Coast Monterey County white blend of 42% Gewurztraminer, 33% Riesling, 14% Albariño, 11% Viognier.  Looking at the varietals, one might think it's sweet, but it is actually a dry wine with loads of sweet fruit flavor like cantelope and honeyed peaches, and great citrusy meyer lemon.  It paired well with my spicy Thai noodles.  It's a good wine to try, but wouldn't be my everyday white.  (WG 84)


Next I tried the 2010 "Crush".  It's a North Coast red blend of 78% Merlot, 13% Syrah, 6% Zinfandel, 2% Petite Sirah, 1% Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Full of fresh concentrated berry fruit, plums, light tannins and easy drinking.  I thoroughly enjoyed this red and highly recommend it (WG 89).

Both wines are at a great price point ($15) and another great feature of these wines, especially for a Green guy like me, are the practices involved: sustainable farming, no pesticides, recycled paper labels, lightweight bottles, sustainably grown corks.  Take a chance: Don't drink the water and Crash into these wines!

Windy City Wine Guy on the Steve Harvey Show!

It's an exciting day for the Windy City Wine Guy - today is my big Steve Harvey Show appearance.


On the show, we discuss a series of topics and are drinking a Castle Rock Syrah wine. This value wine is a terrific way to get your palette used to red wine - and a nice alternative to Trader Joe's popular Two Buck Chuck.

In addition, here are some extra wine tips we recorded after the show  - enjoy.

And to Steve Harvey and his team, it was an incredible experience. Thank you for having me!

'08 Saladini Pilastri Pregio del Cont'e

Saladini Pilastri is a winery in the Le Marche region of central Italy, just off the coast of the Adriatic. Their Pregio del Cont'e is a blend of Aglianico & Montepulciano grape varietals. It's a good value buy which I've seen available online for around $10.

It is deep and dark in color and fruit flavor, along with crushed mineral and hints of balsalmic. The acidity and tannins are definitely there, making it a good food wine (my wife made meatballs and the combo was great). The alcohol is a bit out of balance (13.5%) but overall a good value. Enjoy!

Wine Guy at The Tasting Room

As many of you know, I am not just a wine writer, but a Sommelier and Wine Consultant.  I am happy to announce that recently I signed The Tasting Room as a client!  I'll be working on their wine and beverage menus, along with training the staff to offer you the best experience along with suggestions to fit your taste.

All the wines have been changed, and we're now offering eleven different Flight tastings along with over 35 wines by the glass.  This is a seasonal menu, meant to give you the best wines to fit with what looks to be an amazing Autumn!  We're also featuring small batch, craft and cult wines, some of which you'll have a hard time finding anywhere else.  The bottle list is currently under construction, though we do have some great wines like Bryant Family Cabernet Sauvignon and Kistler Chardonnay. 

Along with the bottle list, our beer, cocktail and liquor offerings are also in the process of change, and we plan on offering many local craft beers, artisanal cocktails and liquors/liqueurs.

Make sure to stop by to check out the list along with Chef Marc Kuckenbecker's nouveau-American cuisine and small plates.  It proves to be a great pairing!

Columbia Crest Wines at Urban Union

What's this? Another wine dinner, at another restaurant, with another winemaker and another winery- but not so fast!  Last Tuesday I dined with Juan Munoz Oca (check out the interview with Corey Nuffer of of Columbia Crest Winery, Washington state's largest producer of everyday affordable wines and handcrafted small-lot wines.  They may produce a lot of wines, but there's definitely a lot of care that goes into it- only having three winemakers since they first opened over 25 years ago means they have a great thing going!  I've tasted many of their wines in the past but I was really looking forward to seeing them work with chef Michael Shrader's Urban Union wood burning oven/small plate cuisine.  Here's the pairings: 

  • 2010 Columbia Crest Grand Estates Columbia Valley Chardonnay ($12) with Oysters "Casino" style.  The wine is fermented and aged in 1-3 year old American and French oak barrels and hand-stirred (battonage) every week for six months to allow the lees (expired yeast) to mix complexity into the wine.  Over 20% of the wine is fermented in stainless steel and mixed in to exude natural varietal character.  The wine is very nice for the pricetag, creamy with ripe pear and caramel apple flavor.  Being topped with creamy parmesan and salty pancetta, the oysters matched well with the wine's weight and texture and allowed the fresh fruit to come through on the aftertaste.
  • 2010 Horse Heaven Hills 'Les Chevaux' Red ($15) with BBQ Pulled Pork Shoulder.  Produced in a region with excellent sun exposure, well draining soil and arid conditions allows the grapes to gain full ripeness and maturity.  The blend of velvety Merlot (80%), strong & tannic Cabernet Sauvignon (13%) and peppery Syrah (7%) worked great with the rich pork and lightly chile spiced sauce.  The spices mingled in the mouth while the dark fruit lasted.
  • 2010 Horse Heaven Hills Cabernet Sauvignon ($15) with Flank Steak au Poivre.  Another well made red with new world earthiness, smokey meatiness, plum, red peppercorn and mocha flavors.  This all obviously worked well with grilled steak topped with rich peppery sauce that was accompanied by a deliciously sweet roasted shallot.  Great combo.
  • 2010 Columbia Crest Grand Estates Columbia Valley Moscato ($12) with S'mores and Cheescake.  A very nice American Moscato with more tropical flavor, light effervescence and a hint of exotic spice.  The dark chocolate of the s'mores clashed with this a bit, but it held well with the full cheesecake.  A nice dessert wine, especially in 750ml size.

If I were you I'd make my way to Urban Union for some small dishes soon and be sure to stock up on Columbia Crest wine on your next trip to the wine shop- there's no shortage, but have it onhand as your everyday wine!

The New Volare Experience

Volare Restaurant has been a Chicago institution since it opened in Streeterville in 1997.  If you've been there before you've probably experienced great Italian food, Italian-American staples, along with good service in a packed dining room.  Well, recently the place shut down and received a major facelift.  They expanded with more space- a second dining area with it's own bar and a more modern look.  They kept the open kitchen where you can see chefs slinging your favorite dishes and managed to add more items like Neapolitan style pizza, charcuterie and additional hot & cold antipasti.  Don't worry- their famous Insalata di Mare (seafood salad) is still there!

I had the chance to check out the place last week with my wife and here's my take:

The host staff greeted us promptly and we were seated by GM Marco Micheli, an old colleague and a great guy.  I never can wait to look at the wine and drink menus, so I grabbed them and dove in.  The cocktail list is fun with some simplistic and fresh concoctions, some made with Italian bitters like Amaro and Campari.  The wine by the glass list is a bit below par and I'd like to see better selections, but the bottle list is full of great picks and value.Lobster Ravioli 

We put in a drink order along with a couple of starters: Vongole al Forno (baked clams) and Ravioli d'Aragosta (lobster ravioli).  The clams were good as ever, topped with bread crumbs a white wine sauce, while the ravioli were fresh and topped with a cream sauce, peas and mushrooms.  The pastas all looked great with quite a few of them made fresh in house, but we decided on the Filet Mignon medium rare for me and the Halibut for my wife. 

Filet MignonEven with all the movement, music and talking we were able to converse and hear eachother without any problem- great atmosphere.  There wasn't a spot unoccupied in either dining room, the outdoor patio or the bars, but the kitchen was working hard and getting everything out timely.  Our dishes arrived and we were ready.  Everything was fantastic- my filet was cooked perfectly and melted in my mouth like butter.  It came with bordelaise sauce and potatoHalibut croquettes which makes it seem very French, but the grilled fennel made me feel Italian again.  My wife's halibut was extremely fresh and tasty, placed over parsnip puree and sauteed spinach.  I'd get those dishes again.  And again.

Coconut CheesecakeWe did our best to save room for dessert and I already know the Tiramisu is top tier in this city, so we went a different direction- coconut cheesecake and baked chocolate pudding.  I will start off by saying to steer clear of the chocolate pudding.  It's extremely dry and no where near chocolatey enough.  But dessert was redeemed by coconut goodness- the cheesecake was everything I thought it would be, on top of a graham cracker crust.  Can't miss.

If you haven't had time to make it to Volare yet, I'll say where've you been?  If you haven't been to the new Volare, I'll say what are you waiting for?  Whatsamatta u!

Wine Riot Weekend


Wine Riot is here- the casual way to enjoy wine, learn about different wine regions and talk to wine experts.  All you have to do is join in the fun and come to the Great Hall at Union Station for one of three tastings: Opening Night Friday, June 1 ($60) from 7-11pm, Saturday June 2 ($50) from 1-5pm or 7-11pm.  Pick which time suits you but don't miss this amazing tasting.  There'll be munchies for $5 a pop (Robinson's No. 1 Ribs, Cabot Cheese, The Tamale Spaceship, Taza Chocolate), a DJ, photo booth and 250 wines from 95 wineries (Trimbach, Peachy Canyon, Domane Wachau, Caldora, etc.).  See you there!

Grab a Burger with Wine

I know National Burger Day has passed but summer has just begun.  People will be firing up the grill to throw on America's favorite bite all season long.  Everyone has a favorite beverage, and wine has continued to trend towards casual and I know it has all the attributes to pair alongside delicious meat on a roll. 

Tannins in red wine (you can feel them as they grip at your gums while you drink) come from the grape skins, as does the rich red color, and meshes with any type of burger.  They can cut into the fattiness of an 80/20 meat or soften the chew through a leaner blend.  The complexity of fruit and secondary flavors (toast, cinnamon, pepper, tobacco, etc.) will enhance the meat and other favorite add-ons like ketchup, fried egg, bacon, cheese, aioli and mushrooms just to name a few.  I can still picture Miles from Sideways chowing down on a burger and onion rings with his 1961 Chateau Cheval Blanc.  You don't have to go out a buy a $2000 bottle to put in your plastic cup, but I've got some great wines for you to try with your favorite burgers:

  • 2010 d'Arenberg 'The Stump Jump' Shiraz ($10).  Peppery, fruity and mixed with cocoa- I couldn't ask for more out of a wine under $10.  The body will stand up to your grill and you might as well buy a case.
  • 2009 Maipe Malbec Reserve ($14).  I would love this varietal choice to go with most burgers and even a pulled pork sandwich.  The fruit, chocolate and espresso matches with grilling and BBQ.  Pick a rich cheddar and add some spicy peppers to go with this value choice.
  • 2008 La Maialina Chianti Classico ($16).  A Chianti with a burger?  An old world classic makes an amazing pairing.  Sangiovese grape is known for it's tannins and cherry flavor and La Maialina "The Little Pig" comes through with so much more.  Plus it's a bargain at the price.
  • 2009 Ridge Ponzo Vineyard Zinfandel ($27).  This grape always brings smoke and fruit which is perfect for a grilled meal.  Spice, licorice and pepper is the way to go along with a full body.
  • 2010 Tamarack Cellars Cabernet Franc ($27).  One of the varietals that Miles went with on his burger hunt (the other in the Cheval Blanc was Merlot) is a noble choice for the grill- tight tannins and dark fruit.

Now there are many other choices out there but that should get you started.  If you are on the hunt for a burger and want to relax while a chef makes it for you, try one of these favorite Chicago spots:

  • Burger Point (1900 S. State).  All natural meat from Rain Crow Ranch makes this a healthy and tasty spot.  The #1 is outstanding with pepperjack, bacon, roasted chiles and cage-free fried egg on pretzel.
  • Custom House (500 S. Dearborn). Burger with a top hat, getting all sophisticated- but outrageously delicious!  Short rib, sirloin & ground pork make up the blend and it's served on soft brioche with aged cheddar, onions, lettuce and tomato.
  • Kuma's Corner (2900 W. Belmont).  I love the variety- it could take all year to challenge the menu.  21 different burgers and all of them on pretzel.  I tried the YOB with smoked gouda, bacon, roasted red peppers and garlic mayo.  Yum.
  • Top Notch Beef Burgers (2116 W. 95th).  A family owned gem way on the southside which has been serving it up for decades.  Just like a 50's joint with cute service, onion rings and awesome milk shakes.
  • Portillo's (30+ locations).  A now-national powerhouse that started in the Chicago burbs makes THE best fast food burger you'll find.  Get the double cheeseburger with thick pickles and flame broil.
  • DMK Burger Bar (2934 N. Sheffield).  Grass-fed beef natural beef and insane Bison and Lamb burger with 6 different fry versions (I went for bleu cheese & bacon), mac n cheese and house-made sodas.

Chicago has so many other burger spots but these are just a few to wet the appetite.  Happy hunting and enjoy some wine with dem burgers!