Naming a restaurant with a single word would seem concise at the outset. But, with Premise, it encourages thinking beyond the simplistic. No wonder the restaurant supplants the concept of “speakeasy” with the more thought-provoking “speak-freely” in its introductory, online salvo.
But concise ideas are coursing through the philosophy of Premise’s wine selections, under the watchful eye of Wine Director Mark Wrobel. He calls his diverse list “concisely accessible,” and makes a pretty good argument for that interesting description. And, though there’s a distinct homage to Burgundy, Wrobel has added plenty of obscure wines – plus a Pinot Grigio, under the term “Orange” – for good value and conversation-starting levity. Speak freely, indeed.
Chicago Budget Wine Examiner sat down with Mark Wrobel recently, and he had plenty to say – albeit with a soft-spoken zeal, if that’s possible – about the Premise’s wine list and the industry in general:
Chicago Budget Wine Examiner: How did the wine bug bite you?
Mark Wrobel: I was taking some video editing classes out in Boston, and I walked by a place with a help wanted sign. I interviewed that morning and worked that night. When I got back to Chicago, I went to work at Fox & Obel. I worked my way up from "Chief Bottle Duster" and "Case Stacker." On my third day, a customer asked me about the region, Condrieu, and I was stumped. It turns out, the customer was actor Michael Caine, who was in town filming a movie. So, my boss had to answer this dignified British actor. From then on, I said, “I don’t care whether it’s Michael Caine or anyone else – I want to have the answer for every customer.” So, I bought a lot of wine, tasted it, and read a lot of books.
CBWE: Now, the wine list at Premise, this is your original creation, based on your experiences? What’s the basic philosophy behind it?
MW: Yes, this is my first “from scratch” wine list. The Premise list is what I call “concisely accessible.” It focuses on dynamic producers who emphasize small-scale production, are responsibly farmed. The goal is to find the wines that are food-friendly in a way that pair well with Chef Brian Runge’s menu. There is also a focus on those up-and-coming producers, sort of the next generation of vintners. This could be a family-owned winery, one that’s been around for hundreds of years, and the new generation has plans to take it to the next phase. This means someone who’s been trained under the masters, but does things a bit differently. For example, Maxine Magnon – one of the first wines I chose for the wine list – was born in Burgundy, but not to famous last name, so he didn’t inherit any vineyards. He went down and trained with the masters in Beaujolais, and eventually, he started making wines on his own. Although his wine is a Corbieres, it has the taste and sensibility of Beaujolais, even with totally different grapes. And, this wine, is very versatile, and pairs with almost everything on the menu.
CBWE: Your list has a number of off-the-beaten-path varietals and producers you don’t see many places, but there are also five Chardonnays. That can be a popular, yet polarizing varietal. Could you elaborate on this?
MW: The thing that’s behind those Chardonnays is that I have two different price points. For example, the Diatom Chardonnay – on the high end – is one of the coolest wines coming out of California, with no oak and no malolactic fermentation. It’s very mineral-driven, but that’s not what’s typically coming from the Central Coast of California. And, I also have the Scherrer, which is just your classic oaky, buttery Chardonnay. It’s the more accessible brand. And I believe no list is complete without paying homage to Burgundy (Premise has two Chardonnays from there). Basically, the list does have a small (but significant) emphasis on Burgundian varietals, if you want to throw Gamay in there, too.
CBWE: You have the Gamay varietal represented, without it necessarily being a Beaujolais…
MW: Well, we do have a Beaujolais by the glass, but there are also two Gamay-based wines: the Charly Thévenet, Régnié and the Jean Folliard, Morgon, which are really unique.
CBWE: What do you think is toughest thing about selling indulgences such as fine wine in such a down economy? Has there been enough of an influx of value in the industry to give people a sense of indulgence, at least?
MW: Yes, and I think the list at Premise reflects that, and is suitable for that (mindset), because there aren’t a lot of wines that are over $100. My goal was to make it accessible, and to find some of the best wines that will be between $50 and $90 on a fine-dining wine list. That’s the range where people will feel more comfortable in spending their money.
CBWE: One thing about the recession is that has given obscure varietals – Torrontés, Albariño, etc. – more wind in their sails. Do you agree?
MW: I’d have to agree with that. People are more willing to try new things that are at a price point which, at least at retail, are in that $10-$15 range. When the economy recovers a bit more, people will probably still be on the lookout for these unique things, but be willing to move up to the higher-end price points within the varietals.
CBWE: Any oddball varietals have your attention lately – things that you might consider putting on the list in the near future?
MW: I plan to add an Aligote, which has a high acidity that’s very food friendly. It’s an old grape from Burgundy, obviously not as well known as Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. It’s similar, weight-wise, to Chardonnay, but has a lot more acidity, which makes it really vibrant and refreshing. Also, I have the Mastri Vinai Bressan Pinot Grigio. First of all, it’s 2006, and it’s listed under the heading “Orange,” which gets people’s attention and really opens up a dialogue with the server or with me if I’m on the floor.
CBWE: Please recommend your favorite wines – both a white and a red – that are available at retail for less than $18, and what you would pair with each.
MW: I’d say for a white, go with a Pavao Vinho Verde. It’s an $8 wine that’s perfect for a hot sultry day. Another one that’s a standout for food pairings is the Badenhurst Secauters, which is a South African Chenin Blanc. It’s responsibly farmed, has a lot of honeysuckle and great acidity. I’d pair with a melon salad and a lot of our fish entrées.
For a red, I’d go with the Domaine Dupeuble Gamay. Put a slight chill on it, it’s just nice and fresh, and although a lot of people like heavier wines with barbecue, I think this one’s an even better choice.