Jason Carlen of Chicago’s Spiaggia on grower Champagne and Barolo - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Jason Carlen of Chicago’s Spiaggia on grower Champagne and Barolo

You’re recommending the Pierre Peters with a wood roasted scallop dish. Is grower Champagne something on diners’ radars?

Our entire white truffle menu this year was conceived around grower Champagne. The servers got a great understanding of the Champagnes and how they work with food. Also, our level of diners are eating out so much and have their own collections. They’re asking questions instead of just buying a label based on their familiarity with it. They’re digging deeper.

I’ve always loved Champagne and its flexibility with food. With grower Champagnes, every bottle is different—you can get a sense of the vintage, of the terroir and see the change through the different disgorgement dates. It’s great for a wine geek. It’s also fun to share that knowledge with the guests and get them excited about what we’re excited about. Hopefully, they go somewhere else and ask those same questions.

The Chartogne-Taillet Cuvée Ste-Anne has also done well. Is that the same story?
It’s because of the flavor profile. It’s a little richer, fatter, with more structure and a more indulgent edge to it. That’s appealing when you’re thinking about certain foods. It lends itself to leaner fish, like fluke. It has also done well with us by the glass.

We’ve seen a bump in Tuscan sales through the poll this year. You list a couple in your top-selling. But they’re mostly the international variety wines. Are people less interested in the classical wines?
As a wine professional in an Italian restaurant, you have to ask a series of questions to find out what people really like. Sometimes they just open their arms and say, “I want something truly Italian.” Then there are those that say, “I like an Australian shiraz or a California cab.” So I have to interpret their needs. Those wines bridge the gap. We do the same thing with Barolo as well – there are very international styles and very traditional styles. We’ll find whatever is most similar to what a guest is looking for, whether it’s Oregon pinot noir or Burgundy—even down to the specific commune in Burgundy. Really find out what they like and bring the closest Italian equivalent.

Within Piedmont, do you see diners leaning toward more modern or traditional wines?
It’s about 50-50. It’s that relationship that we create with the guests, where we can ask a series of questions. One isn’t more popular than the other; it’s about what they like. I also think there’s a movement in Piedmont away from being either one way or the other; there’s more common ground. When the style evens out, there’s more evidence of terroir. You can really explore the differences between Serralunga d’Alba and Monforte d’Alba—the most masculine, longest living style.

You note that wine sales increased this year as a percentage of your restaurant’s total sales? Are people more comfortable spending more than they were last year?
It seems like people are freer to spend more money on wine, but I haven’t really thought that through. I personally feel it’s based on knowledge. My main prerogative is to put forward the knowledge I have to the staff. Then they have the foundation and the ability to speak to guests. Wines like Sassicaia and Ornellaia sell themselves; but to sell crazy Barolo and Barbaresco, it takes a different level of skill. I would attribute the growth in sales to training.

We do a formal training with the staff is here on weekends, where we open Brunellos and things that we want to sell. We talk about the soils and the style of winemaking. The staff will sign up for presentations. We assign wines. There are employees who have worked here as long as the restaurant has been open. They know Italian wine very well. And then there are newcomers who are excited and passionate about learning.

Quintarelli Bianco by the glass is a cool pour—how are you selling that?
The staff really likes it. We’ll give guests a taste of it side-by-side with a chardonnay and people gravitate towards it. It’s aromatic and delicious. People are willing to spend the money on it as well. When the servers tell them what a rarity it is and tell them the story of Giuseppe Quintarelli, people get interested. I just tasted it again a couple of minutes ago!

You’ve listed several vintage Ports as doing well. Is anybody ordering reciotos and other Italian sweet wines?
Something I’m trying to push right now is to pour though the Port selection. I’d much rather be selling the reciotos and the different dessert wines from Italy. Marsala could easily take the place of a tawny Port. It’s just as delicious and has that same hedonistic quality that you like. People aren’t ordering bottles, but we sell glasses constantly with cheese. We have nine to ten cheeses available every night. More often than not, we pair them.