Richard Hanauer of Chicago’s L20 on wine pairings as competitive sport
What’s been the biggest change you’ve noticed over the past year?
I think a great trend we’ve been experiencing over past years is a huge increase in pairings. Five years ago our guests ordered pairings with a degustation menu perhaps 20 percent of the time; now it’s 50-70 percent. On the floor, sommeliers used to recommend a good Burgundy with dinner, now it’s down to the course. That means the pairing part of our job permeates through entire operation.
How has that played out?
I spend so much more time with the food and the wines. I used to taste a dish once and have it locked in my memory. Now I taste with my chef daily, sometimes more than once a day during service, or I have to taste the stock to gauge minute changes in the dish. I have so much more input when it comes to the pairings now, in fact I’m not really writing in pairings anymore, I’m truly writing the menu.
And these wines are getting more expensive and rare, I’m pouring Bordeaux back to the eighties, rieslings back to the nineties, wines drawn from a single barrel of California chardonnay that can only be found at my restaurant in this metropolitan area.
We’ve talked to a lot of sommeliers who are promoting esoteric wines on their tasting menus.
It’s become very competitive. We’re finding that the restaurants that don’t cater to their guests like this don’t have as many diners.
I would love to take credit for [selling more pairings on the tasting menu], but we’re responding to a need. It’s being driven 100 percent by our guests. Guests are so much more open, especially young diners, who want to try something new. They’re more educated when they walk through the door, they want an interesting, new experience, they want to try new flavors and maximize their wine experience with their food. No matter how good a bottle of Burgundy is, it’s going to work better at some pairings than others.
Where are you looking for some of those pairings now?
We’re just now realizing that the world’s best wines aren’t necessarily the world’s best food wines. At TRU I fell in love with the world’s classic wines, with Bordeaux, Champagne, Burgundy, Rioja. But classic wines aren’t always the best pairing for a dish. Muscadet on its own isn’t the most interesting wine on the planet but when you combine it with our langoustine ‘zephyr’ the fireworks go off. Rueda, Txakolina, Fiano, I mean these wines have been catering to the best seafood possible for centuries.
Have you noted any interest in dessert wines?
One trend I’ve been seeing this year is that younger diners are starting to explore sweet and fortified wines with more passion than I’ve ever seen before. They come to the meal knowing about Sauternes and Tokaji and an appreciation for Port, and they’re finishing their meals the way they used in Europe, or 30 years ago.
What about more affordable offerings?
When I hear from a guest, ‘We’re on a budget and can only spend fifty dollars on a wine,’ I grin from ear to ear. I make sure they’re getting a great wine experience for that fifty dollars, whether it’s from Rueda, Rías Baixas…Txakolinas offer everything that food needs, citrus tones, acidity, a little frizzante. Sancerre is a four letter word for some sommeliers but it’s always been an excellent value for the role it plays in the meal.