Feature Story

Chicago Steak-Out
Six Windy City Wine Retailers and their Under $20 Reds for Summer Grilling

At the House of Glunz in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood, in a wood-paneled back room, rare classic wines like 1945 Château Lafite coexist with vintage crystal from Westphalia. But in the front room, memorabilia for Schlitz beer hangs from the walls and ceiling. That’s because, according to his granddaughter Barbara Glunz-Donovan, founder Louis Glunz, Sr., was the first merchant to sell Schlitz outside of Milwaukee. The House of Glunz is Chicago’s oldest wine store and it’s full of other relics from earlier times, from the American Medicinal Spirits Company’s Prohibition-era crate tops (their contents “for medicinal purposes only”) to beautiful old bottles of 1864 Blandy’s Madeira.

Compared to the House of Glunz, Red & White Wines in Wicker Park is positively futuristic with its polished concrete floors and circular cubbyholes for individual bottles. Owner Nathan Adams takes a natural slant. “We need to know the growers,” he says of the wines he stocks, “how they are treating the land, that they’re not adding yeast, or adding or subtracting anything.” Adams hasn’t wavered from his philosophy since opening in 2008 and has acquired a dedicated following. In fact, Chicago hosted its first natural wine fair in mid-March, and many producers leading the natural-wine charge were in attendance.

“In a steak pairing, with fat on the food side, you want the richness of the wine to pick up the steak, and acidity to clear your palate as well.” —Sandeep Ghaey
Then there’s Plum Market, an all-in-one grocerycum-wine-store just across the street and down the block from the House of Glunz. Anthony Minne oversees the wine department, and walking through his aisles is like walking through the Narnia of wine cellars. All those beasts you hear about but so rarely see are all in one place: Ceritas, Kongsgaard, Arena, Domaine Leflaive, Clape, Diamond Creek, Dujac, Barthod, Conterno, Dönnhoff, Grünhäuser… While the store offers a Who’s Who of Famous Growers, Minne maintains a steady eye on the everyday, with plenty of inexpensive options for grab-and-go shoppers, as well as lots of beer and cider.

We set out to learn more about the people behind Chicago’s dynamic wine scene, rounding up six buyers from the city’s top independent wine retailers and posing a challenge: Visit each other’s stores and pick out two ultimate under-$20 wines. We called on Nathan Adams of Red & White Wines, Mike Baker of Vin Chicago, Craig Perman of Perman Wine Selections, Sandeep Ghaey of Vinic Wine, Anthony Minne of Plum Market and Barbara Glunz-Donovan of the House of Glunz.

Given the historical importance of Chicago’s stockyards, which once supplied much of the nation with beef, we asked them to focus their selections on wines likely to be amazing with steak. On March 28, the retailers gathered at Chicago’s RPM Steak to taste through the 12 wines (blind), and test them against medium-rare, grass-fed New York strip sourced from Slagel Farms in Illinois.

“In Chicago, the side with our meat is meat,” said Craig Perman as we sat down to taste the wines over lunch. The retailers generally agreed that Chicago is a strong cabernet town. Yet, when it came to actually selecting wines, none of them picked a cabernet. That might be because cabernet isn’t usually cheap. But also, many felt that brighter wines actually pair better with steak.

“Acidity is the key. Regardless of flavor, the wine stimulates thepalate and you want to eat more.”
—Mike Baker
The conversation took Mike Baker back to an Oregon trip. “I went to Pinot Camp several years ago, drinking pinot noir day and night,” he said. “And the last night, we were with the Evenstads at Domaine Serene and he cooked some steak on the grill. He busted out some high-end Napa cabs to serve with the steak, and just for fun—you know, they’re pretty crafty the way they set up the tastings—they set up these cabs and he brought out some pinot noir and some Burgundy, and our palates were so tuned into pinot noir at that point, everyone’s preference ended up going to pinot. The cabs seemed very heavy, with the oak and the alcohol—none of those provided the partnership with this delicious meat the way that the pinot noirs did. Especially in Chicago, we think cabernet: steak. But when you do that comparative thing and have that acid it can be a real eye-opener.”

As to the 12 wines at hand, Baker said, his four personal favorites were all connected: “The theme being, the acidity is the key. Regardless of flavor, the wine stimulates the palate and you want to eat more food.” He pointed to one of the wines he thought was working well, which later turned out to be the 2014 Venica & Venica Merlot from Collio. “Because of the acidity, there’s some charming fruit, there’s a little chew, a little gravelly tannic grip to it that makes it a real nice partner for steak.”

Barbara Glunz-Donovan kept her eye on balance and drinkability: “Wine number four [the Pedro Parra y Familia 2015 Imaginador Itata] was my favorite, for its deliciousness of flavor. Easy drinking and full in the finish. It made me want to drink another sip.” Some of the wines, the panelists agreed, were too lean and red-fruited to work with the steak; this cinsault-based blend from southern Chile was just plush and ripe enough to make the steak taste better.

Sandeep Ghaey looked for balance and umami character, pointing to one of the group favorites, which turned out to be a Tuscan sangiovese: “Its savoriness brought out the savoriness in the steak as well. In a steak pairing, with fat on the food side, you want the richness of the wine to pick up the steak, and acidity to clear your palate as well.”

In the end, two Italian wines came out on top as consensus favorites: the Corte alla Flora 2013 Podere del Giuggiolo Toscana Rosso, purchased by Barbara Glunz-Donovan at Vinic Wine, and the Cardedu Caladu 2012 Cannonau di Sardegna, bought by Sandeep Ghaey at Red & White Wines.

“With this bunch of wine nerds,” commented Craig Perman as the tasting wound down, “I’m surprised nobody bought a white wine.” Anthony Minne agreed: “One of my favorite pairings is white Burgundy with steak. I think a white wine like a richer style Puligny or Meursault is a great pairing for meat. It has the richness and the acid to work. Rich, dry riesling, too, like a GG [Grosses Gewächs] from Germany is great, or rosé Champagne from a producer that makes a richer, more pinot-driven style is also very nice with red meat.”

No white wines or Champagne this time around. Instead, here are the 12 reds our Chicago retailers chose while envisioning steak-fueled summer cookouts.

Craig Perman of Perman Wine Selections shopped at Plum Market,1233 N. Wells St.
1. Domaine Sérol 2013 Côte Roannaise Les Millerands ($19)
2. Paolo Scavino 2013 Langhe Nebbiolo ($18)

“When I think of beef I think of Piedmont. The Scavino Nebbiolo is a wine intended for people to drink young. It’s not a ‘young Barolo,’ which would be too big. You have people’s perception of wanting extract and fruit. I wanted to go in a different direction.”

Sandeep Ghaey of Vinic Wine shopped at Red & White Wines, 1861 N. Milwaukee Ave.
3. Cardedu Caladu 2012 Sardegna Cannonau ($20)
4. Venica & Venica 2014 Collio Merlot ($15)

“Just going through the user experience of walking into a store, finding out how the layout works, figuring out where the $20 wines are, was really helpful for me in things for my store. It’s a good rule of thumb that value comes from little-known areas. I didn’t know the cannonau that I picked.”

Barbara Glunz-Donovan of The House of Glunz shopped at Vinic Wine, 1509 Chicago Ave. (Evanston)
5. Corte alla Flora 2013 Toscana Rosso ($14)
6. Zerran 2012 Montsant ($17)

“I thought: Everyone was going to choose California cabernet, so I’m going to go somewhere else. I think people look for something dense [for steak], but always, when you’re having dinner….some of [the bigger wines] are marked down because of bitterness and tartness at the end.”

Mike Baker of Vin Chicago shopped at the House of Glunz, 1206 N. Wells St.
7. Ramsay 2014 North Coast Petite Sirah ($17)
8. Kobal 2014 Slovenia Blaufränkisch ($19)

“When I went to House of Glunz, there was, in fact, a tasting going on, of Croatian, Slovenian and Bulgarian wines. There were some wines I was familiar with, including the Kobal blaufränkisch, that we have bought at our store on a couple of occasions. I remember someone telling me it reminded them of young, clean and simple Bordeaux. So I thought, let’s do the blaufränkisch.”

Anthony Minne of Plum Market shopped at Vin Chicago, 1826 N. Elston Ave.
9. G.D. Vajra 2015 Dolcetto d’Alba ($16)
10. Pedro Parra y Familia 2015 Itata Imaginador Cinsault ($18)

“I picked the dolcetto because it is dark and rich without being too tannic. I often find dolcetto works with all styles of food, because the texture is soft. I also like Vajra as a producer, and assumed the 2015 vintage would be great.”

Nathan Adams of Red & White Wines shopped at Perman Wine Selections, 802 W. Washington Blvd.
11. Lagar de Darei 2011 Dão Sem Abrigo Res. ($17)
12. Domaine des Champs Fleuris 2015 Saumur-Champigny Les Tufolies ($15)

“I really was, honestly, looking for white and things outside of red. The first bottle I saw was the Portuguese Dão. I wanted something with freshness and acidity and salty air. I stumbled on a cab franc, a Saumur. I said right away: I’m going to select that for this tasting. And I spotted an old-vine Chiroubles that I couldn’t pass up—that I took home for myself.”

photos by Beking Joassaint

This feature appears in the print edition of June 2017.
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