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Two of my favorite people to talk to about the restaurant business are Liz and Mark Mendez, co-owners of the West Loop Spanish wine bar Vera. They are thoughtful, unafraid to be frank about the ups and downs—plus they run a place small enough that they can more easily put their ideas into practice. The Mendezes' current object of much thought and debate can be read on the chalkboard over the pass in their kitchen—terroir, the French concept of wine (usually) being an expression of the place, climate, and soil that it's grown in, which can be undeniable (you really can taste chalk in wines grown in limestone) or marketing-speak designed to justify a high price.
Using terroir to organize a wine list in Chicago might seem quixotic, but Liz will debut one built on exactly that principle later this month. She noted having read here that Next, located a couple of blocks away, was planning a menu in late 2015 entirely built around the concept of terroir—"That's super cool, but how do you get people to wrap their head around that if they don’t have any kind of road map on how to get there?" she wondered. I met with her at the restaurant one morning (over coffee and doughnuts) to talk about the list, but our conversation ranged all over the wine and media worlds. It all started, it turns out, with a husband-and-wife conversation.
Liz Mendez: Last year, Mark was like, "Are you having fun?" And I'm like, what do you mean? One of the things we both love is working with a farmer for him or a farmer for me, someone who grows and makes wine. And he said, "But are you having fun with it?" And I said, I don't know.
And he said, "I think that you should really think about having fun, about challenging yourself. Think about when I get a leg of jamon iberico in or when Mick Klug brings us asparagus, and we're so excited. How can you incorporate that into your wine list and have fun with that?"
That summer I traveled to Charleston and Portugal. I went to Portugal first, and tried to really think about what he said. And then in Charleston, I went to Husk, and I opened up the wine list and it was organized by terroir. And I was like, this is awesome. This dude is organizing wine by dirt, and that sounds like a lot of fun.
So I told Mark, and he said that sounds cool, and it was right at the time that we were conceptualizing coffee and tea. And we had this conversation about how, everything we do is centered around this sense of place. Everyone says that—you hear that all the time in the wine world, "it has a sense of place." Well, if everything has a sense of place, why aren't we presenting that anywhere on the pages of our wine list?
I'm guilty of it too—as many wine lists as I’ve written, I've had sections like Argentina and Spain, but not all red wine from Spain tastes the same. Or, I have friends who'll say, "I don't like Italian wine." That's a really big statement! Or, "I don’t like chardonnay." Well, you're not drinking the right chardonnay.
It's been an undertaking, I'm not going to lie. Because a lot of times it's mixing of soils, and what does that entail. But the wine list is all but done, I just want a couple of people to proof it, and I'm going to give it to a couple of my regulars to make sure it's easy to navigate, because it could easily be confusing.
Michael Gebert: So what's the benefit of it for me, sitting there, trying to decide what wine goes with what I ordered?
One thing that doesn't change is that you still have descriptions of all of the wines. I think that that's very user friendly for someone who doesn't want to talk to a sommelier.
Basically the way the wine list is mapped out is that in the heading of each section, there are three main soil types. So in "Volcanic," you'll have basalt and you'll have tuffeau. In "Metamorphic" you'll have schist and slate and stuff like that. The benefit to that is that it gives you a road map to find something you really like. It’s sort of like the way people have the wine lists with the cheesy names like "rich" and "lush" and "floral" or whatever. In this way, it's not only telling you what you're getting, but why you're getting it.
Part of this also came from—I have a guest, he loves this place, but for forever, he was a New World wine drinker. He'd say, "We have to get you more Napa Valley cabernets, we have to get you more Argentinian malbec on the wine list." So I'd tease him, "But you keep coming back! Surely we can find you something that you like." So he went to Spain, and when he came back he said, "I realized that I don't hate European wines." And that's part of where this comes from too, in that nowhere in Europe [more than Spain] do you see a greater divide between traditional and modern winemaking and styles. And why is that? Whether it's the climate, the soil, or what's happening in the vineyard, that comes through in the wine. It's not just the region—my customer comes back and says, “I found Spanish wines in Priorat and Montsant that I'm in love with," and I say, of course you did, they're high alcohol wines like you like.
To me those wines are too heavy for the food, though.
One thing is that you don't have a lot of chefs necessarily cooking for wine. Mark is still cooking for wine, and we have that conversation every day; I'm putting wines on that don't overpower his food, but he's also having me taste it. And then everybody comes in and they're like, "Spanish restaurant—patatas bravas—where's the patatas bravas?" I can't tell you how many times we've talked about patatas bravas, and the bravas sauce [a spicy tomato sauce] is not wine friendly. There are other restaurants that are known for their wine program, and then they'll do a classic dish that completely overpowers the wine, it doesn't go with wine.
But coming back to terroir, we don't have a lot of those super-alcohol-heavy wines, and if we do, we make sure it's coming from an elevation or a climate where it does have that high acid, so it'll balance with the food. The funny thing about California wines being so high alcohol is—think about the food you have access to almost year-round in California, it's very delicate. But there are some interesting things happening in California. There's this whole "new California" movement where you have this group of winemakers that are saying, let's make wines that do have a sense of place in California, that are a little more delicate, like Matthiasson Vineyard, or Dirty and Rowdy.
People say, sommeliers don't like New World wine anymore. No, we do—we just want it to convey where it's coming from and not be an overmanipulated kind of wine. I'm fortunate in that—I only have forty seats. And any given night there's a sommelier on staff. So there's always someone you can have a conversation with. Not everybody has that situation. And also—we will open pretty much any bottle in the place. If you don't like it, we'll train my staff with it at the end of the night.
There's been a lot of discussion lately about reviewers not paying enough attention to wine, which comes out of the fact that it's hard to know so much about wine that you can look at a list and have an instant opinion. But coming back to guests, how do you educate them and lead them to a good choice for them?
I definitely have a few soapboxes about the wine business, but let's back up to 2008. The economy crashes, and there were basically only four sommelier jobs to have then anyway, and they all went away, [then] there were two, Everest and Charlie Trotter's. So all these people who were sommeliers and wine directors on the floor, now they're also managers. If I'm a good business person, I'm going to maximize that person and now they're the floor manager, writing schedules in addition to managing beverages.
And all of these restaurateurs figure out, I don't need a sommelier. I can have a server, who makes $5 an hour and they make all their money on tips, come in early and do inventory and they taste some wine and they push the wine. We don't have as big an international clientele as New York or San Francisco. So in this progression, wine in restaurants just becomes a transaction. I'm walking in the door to buy a glass of wine, and I know what I like from the grocery store, and so I'm going to have this transaction. It's not an experience, there's no one telling you a story about how the girl who makes this amazing pinot noir used to be a sommelier in Chicago and found her way to Oregon. And that she's one of the few people who's holding her wines back and not releasing them until they're ready, which is unheard of in the United States.
We don't make wine special unless you're paying $300 for a tasting menu. And I believe that is specific to Chicago and the midwest. You go to New York and you can go to almost any old place and have a great experience. They also have access to stuff that we will never ever have, because it's New York. Same thing with San Francisco, they have wines that have been made forever that we'll never see.
And that affects attitudes in the media. Why are we going to write about wine, it's a transaction, it's not an experience I can't get anywhere else, and I don't have the space for it. I think those things coexisting is why you stopped seeing wine in reviews. The whole foundation of changing the wine list and making it from the perspective of region and soil type is to have this conversation be relevant to the wines that you're drinking, but also to push forward the conversation about wine in Chicago.
Let's get back to the terroir-focused wine list. So someone comes into the restaurant, how does this new list help them get what they want?
It's a book, so it's literally turn the pages. You'll have a little information and a table of contents. Then the first two pages are sherry, because that's still a big part of what we do. You still will have the big categories of sparkling, rosé, white wine, and red wine. Within the red wine you have four categories, and they're broken down into the three main soil types, like sedimentary rock. The wines are underneath, with their descriptions and lightest to fullest in each category.
As a sommelier and as a business owner, it's your job to make sure people feel comfortable. If you come in, and you look at the wines by the glass, you're either going to see a chardonnay or a sauvignon blanc. But then, when you get into the nuts and bolts of it, you're going to see that these wines are organized by what they come from, in terms of soil, not just "Spain."
There are a lot of people who don't like pinot noir from Oregon, because it's volcanic soil, and they get kind of ashy. It's the same thing with wines from Mount Etna [in Sicily]. And that makes sense, but that doesn't mean they don't like pinot noir. They might like pinot noir from Burgundy or from California, and terroir is why. It's interesting to get people to talk about something that’s so unfamiliar that we don't have a word for it. I mean, we have five words to describe this one word in French.