After 35 years, one of Chicago’s most iconic fine-dining, Michelin-starred restaurants continues to remain as strong as ever. That means Spiaggia’s exceptional, 800-bottle wine list, along with four on-site sommeliers and highly trained staff, have to as well.
This is where award-winning sommelier Rachael Lowe, beverage director for the Spiaggia, comes into the spotlight. Lowe started out five years ago with a focus specifically on Spiaggia’s main
dining room, but her role has since expanded to overseeing the wine and beverage program, as well as staff training for private dining one floor above Café Spiaggia, the more casual, yet still sophisticated, outpost in the same building. For Lowe, the key to a successful program lies in a constant state of change.
“It’s all about breaking down silos, keeping things fresh, and keeping everyone constantly in front of product,” she says. “We have regularly changing tasting menus with wine pairings and will often have wines by the glass on the main list for a month or longer, so it’s my job to constantly revisit pours, establish new applications, and engage the staff. I can’t expect them to do all this themselves.
Certainly, a huge piece of the beverage training puzzle is regular collaboration between departments. Any time a new menu or tasting menu comes out, Lowe will meet with chef/partner Tony Mantuano and executive chef Joe Flamm—a past “Top Chef” winner—to taste new wines alongside dishes for the pairing menu so she can better explain to her staff why those wines were chosen. She also works with bartender Patrick Brennan to understand the cocktail (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic) program and set up tastings for the staff. These hands-on tastings empower them to make suggestions for cocktails, as well as for the non-alcoholic pairings for the tasting menus.
“Spiaggia is the best kitchen team I have ever worked with in terms of the willingness to collaborate and a culture of wanting to put the time into trying multiple wines,” Lowe says. “That’s very helpful and not always the case in every restaurant.”
Still, what works for Spiaggia’s main dining room varies slightly from what works for the private dining room and Café Spiaggia in terms of not only wine selection, but also the training. Here’s a breakdown of how Lowe approaches beverage training at the fine-dining restaurant, private event space, and Café Spiaggia.
The main attraction
Spiaggia is unique in that as one of the last-standing, super-successful fine-dining restaurants in Chicago, it still retains two full-time sommeliers on staff who don’t have the added duty of management. It’s a role—which Lowe describes as a dying breed, in Chicago at least—that gives them the time necessary to study consistently.
And even though Spiaggia’s servers are not expected to be well-versed in each of the 800 bottles spanning the 40-page wine list, Lowe still wants them to have complete working knowledge of the rotating glass pours and pairing options for the five- and eight-course tasting menus; it’s even more important following the introduction of more global wines to round out the once all-Italian list. Lowe also suggests shift captains and front servers familiarize themselves with one or two bottles in each of the various categories for some go-to recommendations if a sommelier can’t immediately get to the table.
Lowe holds quick tastings at line-up when new glasses are introduced, and she schedules more formal tasting sessions two weeks prior to a new menu introduction to talk about the tasting, pairings, and back story of the new wines. Though this session is a requirement for captains, the entire Spiaggia staff is welcome.
“We’re not blind-tasting the wines, but I do want the staff to be able to explain why these five white [varietals] differ from each and to teach them how to read the guests and figure out what they might want without coming across as condescending or overbearing,” Lowe says. “If a guest asks for Sauvignon Blanc and says it’s too sweet, you have to figure out that Sauvignon Blanc is not sweet, but it is fruit-driven and very aromatic, so maybe they want something more neutral, like a Pinot Grigio. If a guest likes Pinot Noir, that means they might prefer wines with dark fruit flavor and high acidity, so they might also enjoy a Nebbiolo.”
Lowe also explains why certain glasses are used for certain wines versus others. During each new menu and wine list roll-out, she develops a staff tasting booklet on the various wines with information about the varietal, the history of the winery, and tasting notes. “We really just want to give our staff the recipe for success so they can feel confident explaining everything tableside and enhance the guest experience, regardless if a sommelier is present or not,” she says.
An exclusive affair
With a capacity of 300 guests, Spiaggia’s private dining program truly is its own animal, complete with an upgraded cellar list, as well as multiple white and red wines by the glass.
Though the wines change infrequently and more on a quarterly basis, Lowe says the challenge with training in private dining is the seasonal, often-rotating staff of somewhat younger servers compared to the veteran, career servers in the main dining room.
As such, Lowe hosts regular, informal tasting sessions to help staff develop their knowledge on the flavor profile of each wine and be able to summarize the main fruits, as well as any earth component and oak regimen (see sidebar).
While Spiaggia has long been known for its all-Italian wine list, Lowe champions a larger focus on global wines for Café Spiaggia. Rotating the glass pours also helps give the sister restaurant its own identity and keep things fresh overall, while offering regular customers new options each time they dine.
That said, with the constant rotations and lack of floor sommeliers at Café Spiaggia, Lowe has to do regular tastings every Friday with her servers on the glass pours, as well as on the 70-bottle wine list. The lessons, however, are parsed out.
“Rather than overwhelm them with all the 70 bottles at once, I will open a new bottle each week, and we will talk about the flavor and the backstory of the vintner or the winery so they can build their education over time,” she says. “It’s fun for me to arm the servers with this information so they can feel engaged and special and not second fiddle to the main restaurant servers.”
The Court of Master Sommeliers uses a trademarked Deductive Tasting Method to educate sommeliers on how to blind-taste wine and determine the origins of the wine. The three main taste elements are Fruit, Earth, and Wood (FEW).
“Is there a taste of light fruit or a dark or black fruit like blackberry? Is there a fruit taste at all?” Spiaggia’s Rachael Lowe says. “For the secondary flavors, is there an earthy mushroom truffle or smoke taste?” Lastly, the type of barrel used to age the wine will impact the oak or no-oak flavors in the wine.
To properly taste wine, the Court of Master Sommeliers notes these steps:
Look: Hold the glass up to light and note the colors, amount of “legs” when swirled, and heaviness, which indicates a higher alcohol content.
Smell: Place your nose close enough to the wine in the glass to take a full sniff and pick up any fruit-forward or other aromas.
Taste: Sip a bit of wine at the same time as you slurp a bit of air. Swirl in your mouth to allow taste buds to work before spitting or swallowing.