Vote for Chicago's Somm of the Year!
Now in its' 16th year, The Jean Banchet Awards seek to carry two missions. The first and most important is to bring more awareness and support to a fantastic cause - The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. The second is to recognize and applaud the efforts of some of Chicago's best culinary talents, including the award for Best Sommelier.
This year, a secret panel of Chicago diners and tastemakers got together and selected four rockstar nominees for their Best Sommelier category. Past winners include Arthur Hon (formerly of Sepia), Rachel Driver Speckan (City Winery) and Liz Mendez (Vera). Each year, 4 sommeliers are selected and then voted on by an open call to Chicago's culinary industry. It's not too late as today - December 11th - is the last day to vote. So if you are still deciding on who to cast your ballot, let's meet our 4 fantastic Second City Sommeliers!
This bearded-bottle slinger is putting together one of Chicago's coolest (and largest) wine lists, tucked into the still rockin' Chicago Athletic Association Hotel.
As wine director of Cherry Circle Room, Andrew has created a list that is strong in Champagne, The Rhone, Burgundy and California Reds. But how does he handle the classic "hotel clientele"? Andrew says, "Our hotel guests have actually proven to be some of our most savvy! We see a combination of business travelers for conferences, along with locals looking to just enjoy a stay downtown. Our in-house guests tend to explore Burgundy a bit more, and our Champagne and Riesling selections."
His past somm gigs have included grandiose tasting menus like Alinea, so when he got the opportunity to take on an a la carte type cuisine, Algren notes, "Coming off of such a pairing heaving environment in my last job, it has been a pleasure to tackle a more classic setting. While some guests want to hone in the right bottles for the order, many of our guests are much happier when guided to selections they can sit back and enjoy simply for the sake of good wine food and company." Check out Andrew at Cherry Circle Room at the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel on 12 S Michigan Avenue.
One of Chicago's most unique culinary experiences in the Second City comes from a little place in Avondale called Parachute. This Michelin-starred stop has a Korean influence to it, which makes what Matty is doing with the wine program even more impressive. Recognized by Wine Enthusiast as one of the Top 100 Wine Restaurants in America - Parachute is putting some bold flavors in your face with an unpretentious setting.
"We don’t box ourselves into a specific cuisine or genre/label so that allows me to take a “no rules” approach with wine there. The personality of the wine list took some time to become its own thing because I believe that we truly learn from being wrong." says Colston, who takes a risk/reward approach to every guest and every wine experience.
With such a unique menu, how does he make his guests comfortable? Matty tells us, "The ever-growing trust of our guests has been humbling but mostly I'm grateful for the opportunity to fine tune the selections and turn people on to the idea that wine is about a shared experience. Perhaps the impact comes from all of facets of Parachute working well together, not just the wine program itself." Go taste Matty's amazing pairing of BBQ tripe Bi Bim Bop with a spicy, fresh Austrian Zweigelt at Parachute in Avondale at 3500 N Elston.
Arguably one of the most difficult cuisines to pair wine with is the cuisine of Mexico. Powerful in flavor and spice with layers of ingredients and technique, it is no wonder that one of Chicago's most amazing sommeliers can take the wine world and match it to this unique food.
For the last 16 years, Jill Gubesch has been the wine guru for all of the kitchens of celebrity chef Rick Bayless. Running some of Chicago's top wine programs, Jill has been able to not only continue to put together exciting wine programs, but also introduce Chicago to fantastic wines from South of the Border! "People have become more and more trusting over the years and therefore more open-minded about trying new things. It makes it fun to feature varieties from places they wouldn’t necessarily seek out on their own, especially the Mexican wines."
Recognized by the Beard Foundation as Best Restaurant and a constant nominee for Best Service with Topolobampo, what are some of the pairings that surprise and delight her guests? "I think most people don’t expect to see so many red wines paired with our food...fruit forward Syrah with fish in green mole. The bright, red fruit of the wine matches the rich tangy fruit of the roasted tomatillo in the dish. Amarone with black mole or mole de Xico both of these moles have different types of dried fruit in them so they match really well with the dried fruit flavor profile in the wine." Awards like the Jean Banchet Award for Best Sommelier can certainly have a great effect on the guest's perception Jill points out, "People don’t necessarily think of wine as their first choice to pair with our food, they usually ask for beer or tequila first. I hope that the Banchet nomination will bring attention to the fact that wine pairs beautifully, and should be enjoyed with our cuisine.". Taste wines of Baja and more with one of Chicago's Best Sommeliers - Jill Gubesch - at Frontera Grill, Topolobampo and Leña Brava.
After spending years studying and working in high-end hotels in France and Canada, Advanced Sommelier Parag Lalit has made an immediate impact on the service and selection of 2-Michelin Star Sixteen Restaurant.
For the last 3 years, Parag has made a reputation for himself not only for his polished style, attention to service, but also his amazing command of French wines and vintages. So what is it like to transition to a Chicago state of mind? "For many years I felt a misbalance of knowledge as a professional, between the New and the Old World. Coming to Chicago and to Sixteen Restaurant have been a significant learning curve as I've had to overcome that weakness and adapt to a different reality, greatly because of the diversity of guests we host under one roof."
Hosting not only affluent hotel guests from around the world, Lalit also plays host to many locals, including those that live in the building. Balancing palates with some of the country's best food is a pairing delight for Parag. "One of the courses in our current tasting menu is a Bison Carpaccio seasoned with fish sauce and soy... Considering the overall pungency...some guests are directed to red wines, others, Riesling. Instead, we pour a vinous Japanese Ale brewed in Belgium called Kagua Rouge by the Far Yeast Brewing Company...the palate is delicately off dry and appeases the overall tension of flavors. Yuzu driven acidity, cleanses the fats and prepares us for the next bite. A show stopper!"
Nominated for a second time, Parag gleams "to be even remotely considered for a nomination by people of our industry at the Jean Banchet awards is an immense honor, but to be part of the finalists for a second year in a row, I couldn't be prouder. This accolade is a reminder for everyone in the industry that hard work never goes unnoticed. More than ever I believe in this craft and am determined to take it to the next level.". Go see Parag high on the Sixteenth Floor of Trump Tower right on the Chicago River.
No matter who you cast your ballot for today, you cannot go wrong with four of the Second City's most talented wine minds. It is a huge task to be able to not only put together an awards list that can encapsulate an entire city, but one that can also make strides towards promoting a fantastic cause in the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
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