Rachel Lowe of Chicago’s Spiaggia on Italian Reference Points and Pairings Expected and Unexpected

Rachael Lowe began working in restaurants as an undergraduate student, and fell into an assistant sommelier position at NYC’s Café Gray while attending the graduate food studies program at NYU. She moved out west and worked for Thomas Keller before returning to her native Chicago in 2010. She took over as beverage director at Spiaggia in 2014, and now oversees a 700-bottle list focused on Italian wines.

Your top-selling bottles are overwhelmingly Italian. How do you manage to make that work for guests who might not have many Italian reference points?
Our list is 95 percent Italian, and our staff is very comfortable with selling Italian varieties. Lots of people come in specifically wanting Barolo, Barbaresco or Amarone. Our list also includes some cabernet-based Super Tuscans for people who gravitate to Napa-style wines; it’s a comfort zone for some people. For pinot noir fans, I love to sell Etna Rosso—something they would like, but might not know if they don’t know Italian wine. Sangiovese [which represents four of her top 10 bottles] can also be a comfort zone wine, and they’re at price points that sell readily. If a somm can’t get to a table, the captains might be more able to sell those sangiovese wines, which are more moderately priced than something like Barolo, and are drinking well now.

Your biggest success, though, was the 2013 Mastrojanni Brunello di Montalcino, at $130.
One reason this sold so well is that we had it on both sides of restaurant—the café and the dining room. The price point is accessible for Brunello, and it’s a crowd-pleasing style, between traditional and modern. It was also available consistently; I don’t think it has an enormous production, but enough to keep it on the list. Sangiovese works with a lot of our foods, in the café particularly, where we have a lot of pastas. Brunello with wild boar ragù is a match made in heaven. In the dining room, it pairs with a lot of our dishes, so it can extend across several courses.

Speaking of pairings, what’s your current favorite at Spiaggia?
Our chef put on a new risotto that is very different, with Robiola Due Latti, toasted black sesame, chia and sunflower seeds, chickpeas, pickled onion and red pepper—crazy flavors that you wouldn’t think would work together, but they do. The wine team works very collaboratively with the chef, and we found that what works best here is a fleshy nebbiolo. A Barolo from a juicy, riper vintage like 2011 or 2009 is great.

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