Hugo's Frog Bar & Fish House

The Library Wine collection at Hugo's Frog Bar & Fish House features vintages that have been cellared as far back as the mid-1980s.

Reading into a Rare Wine Collection

Years of wine aging can offer new and developed flavors not present in the contemporary labels.

For years, Chicago-based Gibsons Restaurant Group has been lauded for its portfolio of concepts, serving everything from high-caliber steaks and seafood to Neapolitan-style pizza. So when Lawrence Kobesky joined the team to head its beverage program about a year ago, he looked for opportunities that would complement an already winning formula.

“I noticed our clientele and their excellent standing and interest in wine. We are, by far, one of the largest wine accounts in Chicago,” says Kobesky, a classically trained chef whose career includes stints at Girl & the Goat, as well as wine wholesaler Fine Vines. Hugo’s Frog Bar & Fish House, which features fresh-daily fish as well as Gibsons Prime Angus steak, quickly became his main focus. “I felt that there was a component missing for the caliber of client we have. When I say ‘iconic Chicago,’ [I mean] we’re really cool and old school.”

With help from friends in the auction business, Kobesky uncovered wines—primarily reds—dating as far back as the mid-1980s. Many of these older vintages would pair well with Hugo’s food menu, and thus the so-called Library Wines were added to its already extensive wine menu.

Ranging in price from about $225 to $6,000 per bottle, the Library Wines are older vintages of many contemporary labels. The wines are cellared for decades, allowing the flavors to evolve over time. Kobesky adds that the collection presents a rare opportunity to taste the past.

“If I put on a 2014 or 2015 big Napa Valley Cab like a Harlan or something, in all honesty, that wine’s not ready to be drunk,” he says. “That’s why this library list exists; it allows people to dive back in time to show what these wines do when they’re properly aged. … You can buy them and drink them fresh if you want, but you’re cheating yourself on the beauty of what that wine really has to offer.”

Just as the Library Wines are more seasoned than the typical collection, they are also less dependable in terms of supply.

Kobesky says it helps to have the right connections for procuring older vintages, but even then there’s no guarantee that more will be coming down the pipeline. 

“There’s a finite amount of these beautiful wines, and it’s exciting when they’re dug up and brought to the public eye,” he says. “Some of the wines I only have one or two bottles of, because that’s all I could get my hands on and that’s all there is. That’s what makes it more special in a day and age when mass production seems to [apply to] everything.”

As of now, Library Wines are only available by the bottle because, as Kobesky says, “one glass just wouldn’t be enough.” But that doesn’t necessarily preclude such an option in the future. 

He’s also open to the idea of stocking even older varietals that might be 40 to 50 years old, but those wines can be trickier to pair as they are in a completely different flavor portfolio.

But whatever the age of a wine, Kobesky hopes Hugo’s guests will approach their selections with a sense of adventure and fun—whether it’s a $50 contemporary or a $5,000 Library Wine.

“I like for people not to take wine too seriously. At the end of the day we’re talking about grape juice here,” Kobesky says. “The important thing to impress upon people when I’m talking about [the] wine menu is not to get caught up in the price, and to get caught up in the wine.”