Chicago's Luxbar is a neighborhood bar with an excellent wine list

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By: Carl Tiedemann
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Carl Tiedemann/Tiedemann On Wines

One of the many things I enjoy about Chicago is the vibrant restaurant scene. Mrs. Tiedemann and I are always on the lookout for a new place to go for dinner or brunch and are constantly building lists of places to try.

Several years ago Mrs. Tiedemann and I brought son Ben and grandson Noah to Chicago for a weekend of sightseeing and just hanging out.

Grandson Noah wasn’t very enthusiastic about going to any “fancy restaurants,” as he put it, and was quick to inform me he only liked and ate certain foods such as grilled cheese sandwiches, pizza, burgers, etc. I was given the challenge of figuring out what restaurants we could go each night that met all of our expectations.

On the list of restaurants was the Luxbar. Since that first visit, we have been back many times and it has become one of our favorite brunch spots on Saturdays and Sundays.

Over time we have gotten to know General Manager Michael Avella and his staff. He has been a great source of information on the Chicago wine scene. He even helped us get our current Chicago-based wine distributor, Wein-Bauer Wines.

After many wine discussions I asked if I might do a wine blog article on Michael and the Luxbar’s wine list.

What makes a great wine list?

“A really good wine list must first and foremost complement the chef’s food and be a good representation of the style and cuisine of the restaurant. It should have options for many different types of wine drinkers, both in terms of price point and style. It must be presented clearly and so it is easy to navigate for the customer. It must feature wines that are craft products and are not made industrially.”

Mike says the Luxbar wine list is designed in response to its customers. His theory is that the list must be a “zero wine intimidating wine program.”

“We want our customers to come in and explore, to enjoy something new and have fun. Our wine list is made up of smaller, great quality producers who are true to their land and with the importance being placed on the quality of the wine and not on the name of the producer or if it is trendy at the moment.”

I asked Mike for his thoughts on the design of the Luxbar wine program. When you examine the wine list, you can see how he has implemented his theories.

How is the Luxbar wine list designed?

“What you find on the label of most quality wine sold in restaurants is the name of the grape variety used to make it. Wines identified by the grape are called varietal wines. They are most common in the United States, in southern hemisphere wine countries (such as Australia and Chile), and in the south of France. The more popular ones include chardonnay, merlot, cabernet, etc.

“There are hundreds of wine grapes, but I like to focus on just six of them: the three white and three red that we refer to as the ‘Big Six.’ The white grapes are Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. The reds are Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

What’s so big about the Big Six?

“They are the guts, literally, of about 90 percent of the quality wine sold in this country. The Big Six are everywhere because they can be grown successfully in almost every winemaking country in the world. They are consistently great and they offer something for everyone in terms of style.

“Tasting the Big Six grapes has two purposes. First, you get to know what the wines made from these important grapes taste like. When you taste the Big Six grapes side by side, you will see they are quite distinctive from one another, just as a pear tastes different from an apple.

“Second, you get to experience body, whether light, medium or full. ‘Body’ is a textural sensation, the feeling of weight, richness and thickness in the mouth. I ask every waiter I teach to learn about wine and to talk about wine in terms of body, whether light, medium or full. People quickly grasp differences in body, weight and intensity in reference to wine, because they have experience in those differences.”

How does body factor in to your Big Six tasting?

“This simple chart is the bottom line when it comes to teaching waiters. We use this structure and navigate the customer through our wine list:

There are two wine lists utilized at the restaurant: a by-the-bottle list and the very popular by-the-glass list. The by-the-bottle list contains six sparkling wines, 10 white wines and 16 red wines. The by-the-glass list contains a total of 21 wines: three sparkling, nine whites and nine reds.

I sampled several of the wines on the list and would recommend these wines:

2011 Grayson Cellars Sonoma County Chardonnay

On the nose there were hints of pineapple and apricot while on the palate flavors of green apple and vanilla. The finish was crisp with good acidity and minerality with a nice length and good after taste. I paired this wine with the week’s featured appetizer: a Brandade de Morue and the jumbo lump crab cake. The chardonnay was a perfect pairing.

2011 Hunt & Harvest Cabernet Sauvignon

This wine is a cabernet blend of 85 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 10 percent Petit Verdot and 5 percent Merlot. On the nose there were hints of red fruit and herbs. On the palate there were flavors of cranberries and raspberries. The mouth feel was textured and slightly dry. The finish was balanced and of good length.

2013 The Prisoner Red Wine

This is a blended red wine comprised of 44 percent Zinfandel, 20 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 16 percent Petit Sirah, with the remaining 20 percent being Syrah, Grenache and Chardonnay. There is a lot going on with this wine. On the nose there were aromas of red fruit, vanilla and oak. On the palate there were hints of blueberry, espresso and spice. This was a full-bodied red wine with tight tannins, a little spice and a lingering finish with a textured mouth feel.

Luxbar offers a well thought-out wine list that is a direct result of customer desire and the neighborhood’s wine tastes. The staff is knowledgeable on the wines available and eager to assist.

I highly recommend Luxbar for its good food and creative wine list. On your next trip to Chicago, be sure and try the restaurant for yourself. You’ll want to call ahead for a reservation (312-642-3400) or visit luxbar.com.

As a side note, Mrs. Tiedemann and I always enjoy the Luxbar mimosas when we are there for brunch.

For more wine adventures and recommendations from Carl Tiedemann, visit TiedemannOnWines.com and sign up for the Tiedemann On Wines email newsletter.
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