Sommelier of the Month - Stephanie Brauer of Walton Street Kitchen + Bar
The pattern across the wine world over the last couple years is a mass exodus of sommeliers off the floor and into different distribution and supplier roles. Rarely do you see a distributor make the leap onto the restaurant floor; completely changing their life, their career. However, that is exactly what our Somm of the Month, Stephanie Brauer did! One of the top salespeople for Connoisseur Wines here in Chicago, Stephanie flipped her life from sales rep to Wine Director of the beautiful new Gold Coast restaurant - Walton Street Kitchen + Bar. We got a chance to speak with our January 2019 Sommelier of the Month, Stephanie Brauer about putting the wine director hat on and her new project in the Gold Coast!
Second City Soil - Tell us about your wine program at Walton Street, the thought process that went into writing it, how it fits into the concept of the restaurant?
Stephanie Brauer - Walton Street is an American Bistro as far as the food goes, but clearly an "American" bistro with many international influences on its dishes and as such I wanted an International wine list to reflect that and also offer the guest a range of wines to choose from. At the same time, the "wine wall" which was inspired by Press Restaurant in Napa is a showcase upon entering the restaurant, so I wanted it to house exceptional examples of international wines within that space. Lastly, the wine wall somewhat dictates the amount of storage space I had to work with and therefore the size of the list- listing wines by region or varietal didn't make much sense as there wouldn't be room for great depth in either and I detest the category of "other" as so many incredible wines get grouped together and largely passed over for being unfamiliar. Hence, the list evolved to be international, and broken down by flavor profile in order to make it more easily navigable by the guest- giving the guest the opportunity to try other varieties in the same category as ones with which they are familiar. Most importantly, I specifically chose to represent smaller production estate producers wherever possible, the most familiar regions of the world and the grapes that best represent those regions.
SCS - You have been open about 4 months now, what have been some of your biggest successes in the wine program, some surprises in your guests’ response and drinking habits?
Stephanie - The biggest "success" I would say is the response that guests have had to the list itself- they definitely do find it to be "user friendly" with both the familiar and the unfamiliar, and the price points being such that they are willing to take risks on producers or grapes that they do not know because the price is friendly. As it is the first list I have ever written, it was a surprise to have it so well received on so many levels. I left room for improvement as well so as not to overwhelm myself with the idea that the list had to be "perfect" from the start- I had several requests for New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, so I added a small producer from the North Island that I prefer for the mineral qualities they are able to coax out of their wine; Malbec was not nearly the star that it once was and when I dropped it I saw higher sales in Spanish and Italian reds which surprised me and impressed me that our guests went in that direction. Wines by the glass sell well as they should, but guests are also willing to delve into the bottles to be had and are more apt to be adventurous by the bottle rather than being very interested in expensive glass pours or a Corvavin program at this point- which quite honestly fits with the neighborhood concept of the restaurant itself- a good meal, good wine at a good price- nothing trendy or overly complicated.
SCS - You made the unusual jump of distributor to wine director - what made you want to get on the floor and run a program? How do you think your time as a distributor rep has helped your role as a buyer?
Stephanie - It definitely was an unusual jump in the opposite direction, but I entered the distributor side 22 years ago and so much has changed. So many more distributors out there, so many more wines looking for representation, so many more restaurant groups forming, so many independent restaurants closing... it was time for me to take my experience in another direction and see what I could do. I've said for years that the "craft" side of wine making goes relatively unnoticed. The "craft" beer movement and spirits movement is all the rage. But there are families out there, farmers in part, who have been tending to their vineyards for generations, overseeing their fruit from bud break to bottling and not really getting the attention they deserve. Branding and marketing dollars dominate the idea of wine for many American consumers and I wanted to create a list that represents the wineries out there, the families, who make wine for the love of it and bring the quality to their product; and connect these wineries with our guests. That is how being on the distribution side for so long has influenced me as a buyer- seeing the difference between mass production and small estates and the effort, commitment and love that goes in to every step of the process for the estate producers. I truly enjoy pulling the corks on these wines and presenting them to our guests. These wineries deserve the voice and the exposure for the effort they put into their work.
SCS - The restaurant is in the Gold Coast, in one of Chicago’s newest and most affluent buildings - what kind of clientele is coming into Walton Street, what is the neighborhood drinking most from your list?
Stephanie - The vast majority of our clientele is the neighborhood of the Gold Coast- those that live within the building but also the neighborhood that is the Gold Coast and we have been very well received as a "neighborhood" restaurant. We have so many regulars already - who know what they like or who trust us to turn them on to something new. We also have regulars from our other restaurants - Gemini and Coda di Volpe and many of the area hotels send guests as well. Also many local businesses are quite happy to have a "local" spot to hang out in. I would say everyone is looking for quality, value and comfort, and Walton Street Kitchen and Bar provides it. By the glass, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Cabernet dominate, not surprisingly as they do most everywhere in Chicago, but the less familiar grapes are holding their own as well- Gruner Veltliner may be somewhat unfamiliar to some but one taste and it becomes a new regularly ordered white. Cab Franc from the Loire held its own when we opened as did Gamay from Oregon which I brought in for November. I am able to offer the standbys but throw in some less familiar varieties for the neighborhood to get to know. Off of the list, Rioja Reserva, Barolo, and Oregon Pinot Noir, in particular, I am constantly reordering- which makes me laugh because Oregon Pinot Noir was not one of my easily sold wines on the distribution side- it was never in high demand for me with my buyers, but my guests are pulling it through, and I'm thrilled as Oregon is one of my favorite domestic regions and I love to see it push itself to new heights.
SCS - What can we expect from the wine program at Walton Street in 2019? What is that perfect pairing for you to showcase the menu and wine list?
Stephanie - We sell Domaine Wachau Gruner Veltliner by the glass and that wine paired with our most popular dish- the Cast Iron Trout Meuniere gets rave reviews every single time, hands down. Now that we are up and running and getting to know our guests better, for sure we will begin focusing on Wine Dinners. I've got the call out to winemakers coming to town once again now that the holidays are over and we will begin scheduling intimate dinners in our private dining room where our Chef pairs each course with a line up of wines from the wine maker. I have also had requests for wine education seminars and of course, as the menu evolves with the seasons, so will the by the glass offerings and the list as well. We also have our private dining room available to host any industry tasting events and are happy to have reps who need an offsite location to taste customers on their wines to come on in for lunch or dinner and we will set them up with glassware and anything else they need to showcase their wines.
You can find Stephanie Brauer at Walton Street Kitchen + Bar
in the Gold Coast neighborhood of Chicago at 912 N State Street!