Two common misconceptions continue to prevail: Chicago Pizza is always thick as a brick, and value wine is a euphemism made up by nuanced cheapskates.
To be sure, there are plenty of restaurants around town with deep-dish pies that are pizza’s equivalent to Mark McGwire, circa 1998. And, obstinate penny pinchers take heart: spare change might still fetch a bottle of Thunderbird.
But thin-crust pizza has made a triumphant return (note: it really never left). And the aspects of value and authenticity in wine continue to achieve oenophilic legitimacy – corporate juice’s efforts notwithstanding.
Lakeview’s Frasca Pizzeria and Wine Bar has made headway in both areas of dining enjoyment. Italian for “branch,” Frasca’s wood-fired pies stand out among this popular genre of pizza. And its wine list is an opportunity to travel the world’s distinctive vineyards from the city’s North Side.
Chicago Budget Wine Examiner sat down with Frasca’s co-owner Doug Dunlay to discuss the importance of wine approachability and value:
Chicago Budget Wine Examiner: How do you distinguish between value wine and wine that’s simply inexpensive? How has that influenced your wine list?
Doug Dunlay: First, it’s extremely important that I, as a restaurateur, consistently deliver value. And I can undoubtedly say that you can find fantastic value wines at the $10 price point. This is especially true if you look at wines from emerging markets, or from regions where the vineyard has been in the family for 800 years and they’re not paying a huge mortgage anymore – they’re making wine with passion and distinction. These winemakers can get the wine to market at a better value because the Napa or Bordeaux name isn’t attached. In Italy, some emerging markets that are producing great wines include Abruzzi, Puglia and Sicily.
Regarding our wine list: This is a neighborhood restaurant; we’re not downtown. The people who eat here typically aren’t tourists. So it’s even more important that we deliver value to the guest. We empower our staff to know about some of the more off-the-beaten path wines on the list. They can talk to the customer in an informed but conversational way about perhaps a Falanghina (southern Italian white) or an interesting blend. Our staff can say, “If this is the style of wine you like, let me take you ‘here’ because I’m going to over-deliver in quality and value, even if it’s something you might not have tried before.”
CBWE: How long have you had the early-week wine discounts and conducted tastings? Were these in response to the recession?
DD: No, we’ve always featured the half-priced bottles on Mondays, and half-priced, by-the-glass wines on Tuesdays. (The next major tasting is Italy vs. France, on March 23.) We have tastings every month. This is a way for us to give back to the neighborhood and provide even more value. It not only drives traffic into the restaurant, but guests have an opportunity to “move up” and try a more expensive bottle that they might not buy on a Friday or Saturday night. These are the nights when people might be inclined to be more adventurous.
CBWE: Have any obscure Italian varietals caught your attention recently while pairing wines with pizza?
DD: Lately, we’ve been pouring a Pecorino, which is a varietal that’s indigenous to Italy. It’s a medium-bodied white that has wonderful limestone and mineral qualities, and has some roundness, too. We recommend this wine with a pizza that has fingerling potatoes, onion and some bacon, and it’s offered with an egg on top, if desired. The acidity of the wine balances out the herbs and the cheese.
As for a red, we’ve been pouring a Cessanese. It’s a lighter-style red, but with acidity that can break through heavier foods. Yet, it won’t overpower a Pizza Margherita, either.
CBWE: Any trends you see developing? Everybody mentions Malbec…
DD: (Laughs) Well, Malbec is the #1 selling glass of wine, and it’s one of our top-selling bottles! We did start out with a wine list that was 100% Italian, but Argentine Malbec is a great value. I would also point out that Spanish Garnacha (Grenache) has a great opportunity. Not only does it offer value, but Spain is a place where they’re making really great wine overall. And I think Spain has the better potential for promoting this grape than southern France, because the Spanish wines a little more single-varietal focused. They’re easier to understand for many American buyers.
Also, a lot of the places in say, South America, Spain or parts of France and Italy – that’s where you can find products that have been sustainably farmed, or biodynamic. These practices are what many family-owned wineries have always had in place for hundreds of years. It’s the same (concept) as the local restaurants buying more and more locally farmed, organic produce.
CBWE: What are your personal favorites priced under $15 per bottle?
DD: There are two reds I really like. One is the Crios Susana Balbo Bonarda-Syrah 2007. It’s a rich, round and full wine that retails for $12-$13. It’s great with any meat that’s grilled or braised. I also like the Hedges CMS blend (Cab, Merlot Shiraz) 2008, which comes from Washington’s Columbia Valley. This is a great wine for the American wine drinker, as it’s big and juicy – plus it has a lot of length and complexity. It’s $10-$12, and over-delivers on real value.
A white wine that I’ve really enjoyed is the Paco & Lola Albariño 2008. It’s great with any seafood, and it’s round enough to stand up to chicken. It’s very floral in the nose and has great, crisp acidity. But, it has a little more body – a medium body, really – than most Albariños. It’s priced between $12-$14. It’s versatile and fun – great during the summer, but it has enough body to carry over into late fall or be enjoyed in early spring.