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Behind the Bar

Michael Weyna's Flights of Fancy

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Michael Weyna was sipping wine at Weinhof Wieninger in Vienna when the idea of opening his own establishment kicked in. Weinhof Wieninger is one of Austria's many Heurigen, taverns devoted to serving young, locally produced wines and often located near the wineries themelves. "We were at a communal table enjoying great food and fabulous house-made wine, and you could tell the owner really cared," says Weyna. "I thought, why can't we have that feeling in the States? It's not like a wine bar hasn't been done before, but I knew how I wanted to do it. I wanted to be the theater in which wine makers can show their work."

The 37-year-old Evanston native honed his palate during the seven and a half years he spent selling small producers' wine for distributor Vin de Vino. Before that he'd worked for close to five years as an assistant wine buyer for the Wilmette specialty store Convito Italiano, where he developed a love for Italian wines. When he opened the 100-seat Stained Glass Wine Bar, Bistro, and Cellar in Evanston in 1998, the personal relationships he'd formed with some small vintners came in handy. In fact they "drive the wine list at my place," says Weyna, who will pick a bottle "because I like it, I think it's cool, not because I think I need a merlot or I think my sales will be down this week." He hand selects each of his 32 glass pours and 400 bottles. "I don't care where it's from and I don't care what it costs--it could be from Skokie. As long as it speaks to me and it's yummy, it belongs on my list."

At any given time, 30 of Weyna's wines by the glass are grouped into ten samplers of three varieties each, making his the most comprehensive wine-flight list in town--second only to the 12 flights served at Bin 36. Not only are the wines esoteric, but the groupings are distinctive. "I'm constantly playing wine Legos in my head," he says. "You wouldn't believe how many straight-on mediocre wines you have to go through to find one shining little gem. I'll buy wines that don't immediately fit into the program, then look for their brothers."

He seeks out what he calls "back-pocket wines--those that deserve to be tasted, but nobody has the guts to put them on their list because they're so odd." They include lesser-known varietals (like California Roussannes) and wines from lesser-known regions (like the Italian Ghemme). Weyna also looks for flavor profiles that wake up the taste buds; an Albarino from Rias Baixas, Spain, for example, is like drinking a bouquet of flowers. It has what he calls a high "wow" effect.

Weyna's searching pays off in flights like his "Gone Fishing" sampler, named for the wines' affinity to seafood. It includes the minerally and citrusy 2001 Jurtschitsch Gruner Veltliner from Langenlois, Austria; a 1999 Domaine Klipfel gewurztraminer "Freiberg," from Alsace, that has good acidity and a slightly petroleum nose; and a 2001 Garretson Roussanne from Santa Barbara, full of dried apricots and pears, with a touch of smoke and a small dose of residual sugar. "I work closely with my kitchen," says Weyna: all three wines complement chef Victor Hernandez's seared sugarcane-skewered ahi tuna with Moroccan spices and a green mango slaw.

Not surprisingly, Weyna is persnickety about the tasting sequence of his flights. Servers, who deliver groupings in a stainless steel carrier designed to hold the three glasses, instruct patrons to sample from left to right--or from more subtle to fuller bodied. "They're three completely different expressions, but I'm careful not to put together wines that combat each other," says Weyna. "I take you a step up in acidity and complexity with each wine in the sequence." Open bottles stay fresh for up to two weeks in a 32-bottle Winekeeper, a forced-gas preservation system that replaces oxygen, the culprit in wine spoilage, with nitrogen. And for the ultimate smelling and tasting experience, wine is served in elegant Schott-Zwiesel crystal with a flared rim.

Like many of the family-operated Heurigen that inspired Weyna, the Stained Glass has a familial component. Weyna's business partner is his wife, Victoria Fonseca, and his father Jack came up with the name, referring to that last drop of red wine that stubbornly clings to the bottom of the glass. "He said it and it just stuck," says Weyna. Even the decor has a family touch: his father's wife, artist Kathy Weyna, painted the geometric murals on the walls and floors of the former bookstore.

"I'm very serious about what I do, but you've got to remember that wine is fun," says Weyna. "It's only smashed grapes, OK, so how serious can you be?"

The Stained Glass Wine Bar, Bistro, and Cellar is at 1735 Benson, Evanston, 847-864-8600.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Stephen J. Serio.

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