Marcello Cancelli is like a kid in a candy store. With an animated voice, sparkling eyes, and expressive gestures, he shares the tale of how he recently acquired a very rare wine. In fact, it’s the first thing he announces after greeting me: “I found the ’61 Chateau Gruaud-Larose! One bottle, and I jumped on it,” he says, bursting into a smile.
This is just one joy within the wine director’s ambitious goal to create a wine list at Swift & Sons in Chicago that features vintages for those who are celebrating their birthday. Since the steakhouse opened in October, he’s added 18 wines—spanning 1964 to 1991—to “The Birthday List” page within the 23-page wine book. Prices per bottle range from $370 to $3,100. “It’s an homage to the great pioneers of the wine industry everywhere,” Cancelli says.
Just before 5 o’clock on a Monday evening in February, Swift & Sons—Boka Restaurant Group’s latest concept—is quiet, a departure from the hum of chatter and clinking plates on a Saturday night. Gustavus Franklin Swift, a meatpacking magnate in the Midwest during the late 19th century, inspired the steakhouse’s name. Customers enter on the street level, walk past walls of subway tile into a wood-paneled bar with octagon-tile flooring and brown-leather bar stools, and then summit a flight of stairs into the high-ceilinged dining room with Jean Prouvé dining chairs. Snow falls outside the tall windows, and rush hour is cranking into action, with cars zipping past. Fulton Market—which was the main drag in Chicago’s meatpacking district during the late 1800s and early 1900s—is the city’s hottest new dining destination, with Grant Achatz’s Next and The Aviary across the street, and Chef Stephanie Izard’s Duck Duck Goat on the same street.
But despite the neighborhood’s upward trending (Google’s office is here, too), the building that houses Swift & Sons is rooted in history. The building is a former meat locker (Fulton Market Cold Storage), the backbone for the neighborhood’s now-shuttered meatpacking businesses. It’s that history of innovation that drives Cancelli to think outside the box. His approach to building the wine list requires not only deep knowledge about what wines are best expressed for each vintage but also the wherewithal to hunt them down. Hart Davis Hart Wine Co., a Chicago-based wine auctioneer and retailer, is his right hand. “I know the owner well,” Cancelli explains. And in an era when wine-fraud scandals are news headlines, “if I don’t trust the provenance, I don’t buy it.”
“Almost every day I turn on the computer, checking to see what’s coming in,” he says. “With Domaine Dujac, you see it one day; the next day it’s gone.” What’s upped Cancelli’s game is that there are more people buying the earlier vintages than ever before, and then reselling to make a profit. This means Cancelli must act quickly when he spots a wine he wants.
He’s also overseeing the entire wine list’s 430 selections, which include Coravin wines in 3- or 6-ounce pours. And he hates for Swift & Sons to be known as “just a steakhouse,” conjuring up images of slabs of red meat, baked potatoes, and Magnums of oaky Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. Instead, the menu features dishes like foie-gras torchon with quince and poached pear, and A5 Japanese Wagyu Strip Loin. “We’ve been described as a ‘new breed’ steakhouse: chef-driven with a wine list that encompasses more than just a few selections,” Cancelli says. “We are a wine list that pays respect to the pioneers—and to benchmark producers from all over the world—and we fill it out, then complete it with the new kids on the block.”
For example, in the Cabernet Sauvignon section of the wine list, a 2010 Flora Springs Trilogy, which Cancelli recently added because it was popular “way before all these ‘new kids’ came along,” bumps up against 2013 Cultivar, a newer Napa Valley label that one wine critic has dubbed an “affordable cult wine.”
But back to The Birthday List: Boka Restaurant Group co-founder Kevin Boehm tossed the idea in Cancelli’s direction two weeks before the restaurant’s opening day. Eager to sink his teeth into a project that differed from anything he’d ever done in Chicago before, Cancelli embraced it. “It’s fun for me because I come from Chicago, and a time when we had fine dining. I dealt with a lot of these wines in earlier vintages,” Cancelli notes.
“It’s not just, ‘Oh, let’s get a bottle of wine from 1976.’ There was a lot of bad wine in 1976. We want to get the best expression of that particular vintage,” he says.
The 1975 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, SLV Lot 3, Napa Valley, California ($420 on the list) is the best example. In the historic 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting, a bottle of the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars SLV placed third on most judges’ sheets in a tasting of red wines that pitted French Bordeaux against California Cabs—and was the winner when scores were averaged. “And Chäteau Mouton Rothschild [$3,100 on the list] is probably the best ’82 ever made,” Cancelli adds.
“Every time I look at the vintage, I do what I can to find the best wine possible—but it has to be the best wine available,” he says. The highest quantity he’s ever acquired of any wine on The Birthday List is three bottles, making the selection, at most, a limited offering. For 1978, he nabbed a bottle of Antinori’s Solaia, a proprietary red wine with mostly Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from Tuscany, Italy. “That’s the first year of Solaia,” he explains.
The first wine to sell off The Birthday List was a 1984 Heitz Cellars Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, California. Cancelli remembers the night clearly: “A gentleman bought one to drink here, and one to take home.” On another night, Cancelli was tickled to decant the 1975 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars SLV—with the original $17.79 price tag still on the bottle.
To help spread the word, social media has been key to extend the reach, and go viral. Each time a new wine is added to the Birthday List, a photo of the bottle is taken along with a shot of the wine list. When a picture of the 1982 Chateau Mouton Rothschild hit the restaurant’s Instagram page, likes piled up and so did comments between Instagram users about future birthday outings.
Each year, Cancelli hopes to add one more vintage. Eventually he’d like to have 34 vintages, from 1961 to 1995. This is a process that takes time, after all, because the wines are in such limited quantities.