When a steakhouse restaurant that started elsewhere raises the “open for business” sign here, Chicagoans might raise an eyebrow. Not only have local, independent steakhouses been established in the city for decades, but Chicago and its legendary stockyards have also made the city a carnivore capital of sorts.
But III Forks, a modern steakhouse in the glistening Lakeshore East community, has roots in Texas – not exactly a place where sumptuous steer is in short supply. And, when the 16-year-old restaurant group decided to expand out of Dallas and Austin, Chicago represented an enticing, big market north of the Lone Star State.
Proprietor Danny Payne brought his trusted colleague, Lance Gresak, to be the wine director at Chicago’s III Forks property. Gresak wasted no time assembling a list fit for USDA prime – and some primetime values, too. Chicago Budget Wine Examiner had a chance to discuss the industry with Gresak recently – and how the value sector intersects with such a high-end restaurant concept:
Chicago Budget Wine Examiner: Do you have to adhere to a core, corporate list, or do you have autonomy? How did you come up with the wines on your list?
Lance Gresak: I have a beverage director in Dallas who is in charge of the entire company. She handles the corporate accounts, with a number of the by-the-glass selections. But III Forks values her ability to foster relationships [with her history at the original location in Dallas]. But, here in Chicago, I’ve created about 97 percent of the wine list. My boss, Danny, has been a great influence – we’ve worked together since 2005, when we were at the III Forks in Austin, and he was the sommelier there. His thoughts are the same as mine, organically speaking. Having come from a small market, I arrived here in Chicago with 11 wine portfolios, from which to put together a list. I sat in an office for 12 hours straight, putting together a simple, base list from all those portfolios.
CBWE: From there, how often do you do significant updates to the list – quarterly, monthly?
LG: There are no pre-determined times, really – it’s just when I have a desire to add some new items. But, I do like to keep a list intact for about 4-6 weeks at least. The wines I chose for the list were classic, approachable and easy for the staff to understand, and convey their knowledge to the guest. So to add and add quickly would get the staff away from the classic [tenets] and be unfair to guests.
CBWE: There’s been a lot of turmoil in the wine industry – an unsteadiness that’s dovetailed with the recession. The luxury sector was obviously hit hard, but the value sector seemed to benefit. What do you see happening during the next several years, regardless of the economy?
LG: If you go back to when the economy really tanked, our company re-examined the wine list and made a big change: The prices of 25 cult or high-priced wines were priced at $99 – that was the established sweet spot for the high-end bottles. We didn’t get bogged down with all the percentages; it just kept things simple, and it was profitable because it ensured that people kept coming back. That’s when my philosophy changed, to give value more than just trying to put it in your pocket. If you give value, it’ll be in your pocket, regardless. But, I had to really dig in and find those value wines. I started to really venture out, and it was chance to expand my horizons. Ultimately, discovered what I care about in this business: Finding what people really want.
CBWE: What “wines of interest” or sleepers have caught your attention? Have customers been gravitating toward any varietals or regions that are different?
LG: I just love wines of Bandol, because even though some can get expensive, many are approachable and have tremendous character. Plus, the Pinot Noir craze got a bit out of hand, and they became unnecessarily expensive. So, I turned to the Southern Rhône and I discovered a lot of Grenache-based wines that were well made and approachable. For the comparatively low price, you can’t believe the value that’s out there with regard to Grenache. There’s also a 100 percent Cinsault – a random blending grape – from Turley (Lodi, Calif.), and it is only $18. Lodi and Paso Robles represent great values because their real estate is so much less expensive than Napa. Paul Hobbs has expanded into Argentina, so he’s also committed to value and communicating knowledge.
CBWE: What do you observe consumers drinking more of lately, when you go around the tables? Have there been any surprises?
LG: The Rosso di Montalcino from Il Poggione has been really popular – not really a surprise, because it’s great. Another is called Enamore from Renacer in Argentina. They teamed up with the Allegrini family from Italy, and they decided to make a Malbec/Cab/Cab Franc/Bonarda blend, and do it the same way they make Amarone in Veneto. The character is what drives the wine; the grapes are dried in the same method as Amarone. The Malbec is what gets people’s attention, because that’s a popular, familiar varietal.
CBWE: Tell me, in your own words, the difference between value wine, and cheap wine. Some people think “value” is a euphemism for cheap…
LG: I look at quality, and how low a price can one go to still obtain something that’s well made. I ask almost every guest what they want to spend. I can always find the best value for your dollar. We have conversation about what kind of wine fits one’s flavor profile, and from there, I’ll recommend something – which will represent the price-to-quality ratio.
CBWE: What are your personal favorites – both a white and a red – that are priced below $18 per bottle at retail?
LG: For a white, I love Dr. Loosen Riesling from Germany. Everyone thinks Riesling is super sweet. But this one is drier. It’s so good with our cheese appetizer. It has great acidity and depth, with flavors of lemon and a stony element. Although it’s drier than what many expect from Riesling, it’s not bone dry.
A red that I really like is the Folie a Deux 2008. It’s a Cabernet Sauvignon that’s been sourced from both Napa and Sonoma. This wine is a proper representation at a great price. It’s has great mouthfeel, nice acids, structure and tannin. I’d pair it with our bone-in rib-eye steak.