I have had the idea of writing this post for about a year but other things came up, be it moving, a new job, an hour long commute each way, WSET tests, alas, many other things but writing a post on loving a wine list did not move to the top of the priority pile. Then this past week, I heard the sad news that Chicago sommelier Andrew Algren, 32 years old, the creator or one of the creators of this list at the Cherry Circle Room had passed away suddenly. This tragic event spurred me on to finally write this post, a post on wine lists but on not putting things off because life moves quickly and great things happen, but truly sad ones as well, like Andrew’s death.
Some places and things resonate with you instantly and the Cherry Circle’s wine list was one of those places for me. I have mentioned the Cherry Circle in this post on Alsace Rieslings and my most recent post on Thanksgiving wines. There are certainly other great wine lists in Chicago and in other places but seeing so many grower champagnes and rieslings on the menu captured my particular interest. Although this post is about the wine list, I have to mention, because it is such an important part, Chef Pete Coenen’s food and his menu are a perfect counterpart to the wine list which creates this harmonious whole, trite but true, that this is one of those cases where the food and wine, one plus one equals three.
Coincidentally, this past week I was fortunate to go to the “Tour de Force” that is the annual Perman Wine Grower Champagne night. This year he held 5 nights of 14 wines give or take. In addition, this same week I took an incredible Guildsomm Master Class on German wine given by Chris Tanghe, MS. German wine is not all riesling but Chris gave so much context to why the wines taste the way they do, history, soils, grapes and producers and we tasted through some classics and some younger producers. These 2 events that coincided this week were one more reminder of my love of high acid, northern white grapes and the delicacy and complexity of them.
One page of the grower champagne list, sorted by region, then producer. I took screen shots from their online menu. Writing this post brought up more questions to me, did they “buy” this list from someone else, did they inherit the list from a previous business entity, was the list put together sku by sku from purchase? During my days of business dinners, I took advantage of the large wine lists at restaurants in New York but even in NYC, there are not as many large wine lists as there used to be. The Cherry Circle wine list to my knowledge is approximately 1400 labels. You don’t find lists this large and deep at many restaurants these days in Chicago (yes, they do exist but are few and far between). It takes a ton of extensive wine knowledge to manage a list like this and then to teach servers about the wines and confidence from your investors on your ability to sell the wines and manage the inventory. It isn’t a list that reeks of wines from big brands or big distributors or a favorite distributor, it is a list that to me shows an appreciation and love of wines from specific places, soils, regions and significant producers of each area which on this list happen to skew towards grower champagnes and rieslings (the lists includes French burgundies and California wines as well). Putting together a wine list is craft but an art as well.
Starchefs has this to say about Andrew and his winelist at Cherry Circle .
What I loved about this list is that it was done by someone who had the knowledge and context and love for wines from these regions. It was done thoughtfully and carefully. Putting together a winelist like this is a whole other side of the wine business and I do not know the backstory behind it. Our question on the in-class essay test for WSET Diploma Unit 1 this past June was on restaurant wine lists but pertained to how the wine list was communicated to the restaurant guest, in print, blackboard or automated and the business issues and reasons behind each of the formats. Some large winelists are put together with the idea of investment and resale of the remaining inventory at some point in the future. I could imagine that was part of the idea of this list since many of the wines are ageworthy and have resale value. The fun part about noble grapes like riesling is that they are ageworthy and reflective of terroir. The grape has many sides and personalities and this list had so many notable producers and variety of terroir and region, including notable US region for riesling, New York and the Finger Lakes. For me, one of the biggest challenges of wine is keeping track of the producers and their wines, there are so many. This list was a treasure trove of cool producers, historical and new that you wanted to know and taste. To manage a list like this takes someone with a huge grasp of all these gizillion details. So for me, it was a list that I wished I had more free cash flow to take advantage of it. Andrew held his “100 Days of Riesling” during the summer when guest Chicago sommeliers, from what I could tell from social media, quite gleefully, would come in to pour their favorite rieslings by the glass and I wish I had attended one of those.
I will make a point to visit Cherry Circle in the near future. Although I didn’t know him, because of my appreciation of his work and his list, I attended a memorial service held for Andrew at Webster’s Wine Bar. I was sad like everyone else there of the tragedy of the death of such a talented person at a young age. It reminded me to not put things off, not to say that means being rashfully bold. But it reminded me to be appreciative of talented people and to let them know it. If you visit Chicago take advantage of places like the CCR. If you are planning a trip and hemming or hawing about the time and money, if you can manage it, DO IT!