A little over a decade ago, Betsy Simson took one look at the tree-lined Chestnut Court in north suburban Winnetka and was charmed. The serene, English Tudor architecture of the village square inspired Simson to “create a beautiful place on a beautiful street where something beautiful will be made every day.” Her groundbreaking Corner Cooks became a destination on the North Shore – a perfect spot for aspiring chefs to perfect their art of cookery.
Then, around 2008, the recession was about to unleash its fearsome fury. Almost in defiance, Simson opened Jerry’s Restaurant that same year. It’s an attractive, friendly place – yet confidently aware of its tony clientele – that has embraced the “new normal” of value wines and their conversation-starting excitement and interest.
Adjacent to Corner Cooks through a pair of French doors, Jerry’s features an eclectic menu and a wine list that – while it spans the world – doesn’t accost customers with lengthy, oenophilic ostentation.
Recently, Betsy Simson took a break from her busy schedule to discuss her wine list, which oddball grapes have captivated her and her customers, plus her take on the wine industry overall:
Chicago Budget Wine Examiner: What made you build a wine list with such variety and outside-the-box thinking? This is the North Shore; many wine drinkers are pretty set in their ways. How do you market the more obscure wines?
Betsy Simson: Obviously, the economy has had a lot to do with our assembly of the list. We simply want to have a lot of customers to come out and enjoy themselves – and affordable/approachable wines help influence that. At the outset, we wanted to find high-quality wines that were reasonably priced. We recognize that people want the big wines, the expensive wines. But most of the list is dedicated to wines that can be enjoyed every day – they make people feel comfortable. We’ve noticed that people here are really open to finding more unique wines that have some value.
CBWE: There’s a huge difference between value wines and wines that are simply affordable, right?
Betsy Simson: Absolutely. Now, for a while, my wine list was stuck with Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio; the reds were Cabernet, Merlot and Pinot Noir. We felt that our food could complement so many other more interesting wines – and many of the more unique offerings weren’t all that pricey. The restaurant is now in its 5th year of operation, and it took us some time, but now we have more of that diversity in our list that we always wanted.
CBWE: Tell me about how you discover these more obscure wines that end up on your list. Do you always taste with food? How do the purveyors and distributors approach you with new products?
Betsy Simson: The people we work with, they try to bring the winemakers here to do tastings with us. The salespeople we know often represent smaller producers and portfolios. We did this a lot with the Malbecs we’ve tasted over the past year. We had the winemakers here from Argentina. It ended up that we added one of the lower-priced wines from [a particular] portfolio; we loved it. It works best when we can taste the whole line, and I really prefer to do blind tastings. Or, maybe I’ll have a wine sample, and be able to take it home and pair it with something on my own. We also don’t want wines that are in the grocery stores or big retailers. We’re not after the big labels; it’s the niche wines we really want to develop. It’s really fun to feature wines like Carmenère or Picpoul – wines that might not have a lot of name recognition. But I really like them. And, as a white wine drinker, I really like the Picpoul, because I’m very particular about what I like in a white wine – no oak, not sweet – just crisp and dry. So we put it on our list and started recommending it as a sipping wine.
CBWE: How often do you change out the wines on the list? Is this designed to accommodate menu changes, or is it a seasonal transition?
Betsy Simson: Well, you never know who might walk in the door with a winemaker; sometimes they don’t call ahead. But, we’re open to that approach. Typically, though, we change the list on a seasonal basis. What was tough was, when I started remaking the list, there were 49 wines on it, and that was too much for a small, intimate place like Jerry’s. Finally, I said, “The wine list needs to be one page.” Once we did that, the more interesting wines, the less familiar wines were being ordered more often. At first, people were hesitant about the Picpoul, but when we insisted how great it was, many customers agreed, and it’s done very well.
CBWE: In many ways, it’s been said that the recession has changed the way people order wine. Perhaps one good thing is that many minds have been opened to products once overlooked. Do you agree? Will any recession-era habits remain with us?
Betsy Simson: I hope so, because in many ways, it’s made [the wine lifestyle] more fun. We do see some who have very specific ideas of what vintage they want, and are hesitant about venturing away [from the tried-and-true]. But when people want to throw a party for 25 or more people, there can be a lot of wine served, and the price does become a consideration. And yet, these guests want good quality and value. The habits of recent years will probably continue, but this is a good thing, an exciting thing. This [is a phenomenon that’s occurring] at many retail wine shops, where they are very excited to show you moderately priced wines that offer something exciting, or aren’t the same old brands.
CBWE: Any personal recommendations for a white and a red that retail for $18 or less per bottle? What would you pair with each?
Betsy Simson: For a white, I really love the Friulano Ronco Blanchis. It pairs wonderfully with Ahi Tuna, which we prepare sashimi style, with a bit of soy and jalapeno wasabi. It’s very dry, with a nice bit of pear on the palate, but not overly fruity.
For a red, I really like the Terra d’Oro Zinfandel. This one is more like a Pinot Noir – lighter and less jammy than many Zinfandels. I would recommend serving it with pasta, mostly with a rich Bolognese sauce.