Swift & Sons has curated an impressive Birthday List with coveted wine selections for diners celebrating birth years from 1964 to 1991.
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.”