Hyper-focused wine lists encourage conversation with guests, eliminate the confusion created by lengthy choices, and effectively complement a specific cuisine.
When Aldo Zaninotto was developing his wine list at Osteria Langhe, which he opened in Chicago’s Logan Square in 2014 after selling wine on behalf of a distributor for esteemed restaurants like Charlie Trotter’s, he looked to one region only. Italy’s Piedmont region called out to him like a siren. After all, it was the place whose wines had converted him into a wine expert years ago, made him thirst for more Barolo, and turned him on to the nuances of wines—even from within a particular region.
The result is a wine list that’s nearly 100 percent Piedmontese, and not only dances from Barbaresco to Barolo to Brachetto but also ties in with the food. All of the dishes stem from the Piedmont region of Italy as well, including antipasti like Cocotte (baked sunny duck egg, with winter black truffle, cream, and Parmesan and Fontina cheeses) and Tajarin, a classic Piedmontese pasta that’s long, thin, and ribbon-like, served with meat ragù.
A side trip to Piedmont while attending Vinitaly quite a few years ago got him further hooked on the region’s wines. “That’s what really captivated me—the region, the wines, the people,” Zaninotto says. It’s a story he now eagerly passes along to diners, sharing his emotional reactions from his twice-yearly travels to Piedmont. “It is a region that should be known by people,” he says. “In 1996 or 1997, Piedmont [wineries were just] trying to find their way in the market in the U.S. Most of these guys are very passionate about their wines. They’re not just winemakers; they’re farmers.”
The check average for wine, he’s found, is between $45 and $49, which he knows is in response to his passion in building such a curated list. Italian wine can also feel complicated and confusing to diners, with so many regions and varietals, but by narrowing in on one region Zaninotto feels he’s demystifying the process. By partnering with Chicago chef Cameron Grant—whom he met while Grant was cooking at the former InterContinental Chicago O’Hare—the restaurant was born. An added perk: Chef Grant is skilled in cooking Piedmontese fare.
Zaninotto was also adamant about operating a restaurant that would attract a local, regular clientele who would enjoy dining at the same place several nights each week—just like in a small Italian village. Logan Square was the perfect spot, not downtown Chicago. He works at Osteria Langhe almost daily and enjoys greeting diners at the door. Nightly specials, like a three-course prix fixe menu on Tuesday and grill night on Wednesday, when the weather is warm enough to use the back patio, encourage diners to come back for a slightly different experience each time.
From Diversified Selection to Specialization
It used to be that the more diverse the wine list, the more it was acclaimed. These days, a hyper-focused wine list garners raves. At The Carneros Inn in Napa Valley’s esteemed Carneros region—known for putting out high-scoring Pinot Noir and Chardonnay—wine director Brian Penly looks no further than the land on which he grew up. “I’ve lived in Sonoma my whole life. It’s an agrarian society. It’s a lot of farmers and a lot of ranchers.” He feels a calling to represent local wineries that source grapes grown organically or biodynamically, a nod to not just the region, but also to a segment of the world’s wines that adopt either of these two methods. “Most of the best wineries in the world use biodynamic methods, including Chäteau Latour and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti,” he says. While it’s not 100 percent of the wine list, these wines are a large focus. “It’s gotten easier to source these wines,” he says, adding that more local grape farmers are lessening their use of pesticides. “Benziger was the first to get certified in California. The proof is in the pudding. You can’t argue with the results. When I first started doing this, you heard organic and you assumed low quality.” Thankfully, this is no longer the case.