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Wine & Cheese

Chicago is no Napa Valley, but Chicagoans tend to be classic, though daring in taste buds.

By AMELIA LEVIN

Bread and butter. Peanut butter and jelly. Wine and cheese. Classic and timeless, the wine bar/cheese plate concept may not be so new anymore, but with trendy wine bars popping up nationwide in the last couple years, it's still hot. Chicago is no Napa Valley, but Chicagoans tend to be classic, though daring in taste buds, and much to Paul Giamatti's Sideways character's dismay, gasp, we do occasionally drink merlotand like it. Meritage Caf & Wine Bar Wine Director Mike Willison says the point of tasting wines and cheeses is to just have fun. While there are a few hard and fast rules for wine and cheese, those rules are meant to be loosely followed or even broken.

"It's a limitless exploration," Willison says. These friendly wine bars listed below know just how to cater to wine and food lovers, whether you're a novice or experienced aficionado. Snobs? You won't find any of them here.

Tasting Room at Randolph Wine Cellars 1415 W. Randolph, 312-942-1313

A Restaurant Row mainstay, this is your classic wine barmood lighting, candlelit tables and plush couches. Downstairs it's a party scene, but upstairs it's quieter and large windows offer great views of the skyline. A diverse selection of more than 100 wines might intimidate, but knowledgeable servers put you at ease. Cheese arrives in pre-selected flights, or pick three for $15. Don't pass up the Drunken Goat, a nutty, buttery, semi-soft cheese with a wine-washed edible rind that pairs nicely with a sweeter wine such as the 2004 Kruger Rumpf Scheurebe Spatlase, a German Riesling and Sylvaner blend with hints of mango, blackberry and even jalapeno. Or pair the manchego, a rustic and salty, firm, Spanish cheese that goes well with accompanying dried cranberries with a glass of rose. The 2005 Les Vignes Retrouvees from France is dry at first, but ends with strawberry. Prices can be steep, with many single glasses around $12, but reasonable tasting portions let you try several, and seasonal flights are a good deal from $12 to $24. Bottles range from $30 to $100.

D.O.C. 2602 N. Clark, 773-883-5101

Wine Director Greg Sorrell calls this Lincoln Park hangout a "solid resource for learning about wine," thanks to the friendly, approachable servers who know their wines and will answer any and all questions. A long mahogany bar with contemporary light fixtures and banquettes with candlelit tables create a modern, sleek atmosphere that attracts many hip, young regulars and locals from the neighborhood. A must-try cheese is the Memoire, truffle-flavored gouda from Holland that is a semi-soft slice of creamy heaven spiked with mushroom pieces. Sorrell recommends pairing the earthy cheese with the 2002 Sella & Mosca Cannonau, a "jammy," ruby red-colored wine with sweet cherry notes. Other big hits are the delicate, grapefruit-flavored Drylands Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand or the subtly-sweet, 2003 Marc Kreydenweiss Pinot Blanc from Alsace, France with pear and apricot undertones. Both pair nicely with the boucherolle, a deliciously-rich goat cheese aged one year, which makes a great spread for the bread in that comes in a basket with your platter for $12. In addition to a lengthy list of wines by the glass ($8 to $10) and bottles ($28 and up), there will be a new offering of pre-selected wine flights this fall.

Meritage Caf & Wine Bar 2118 N. Damen, 773-235-6434

This Bucktown haven really stands apart from other Chicago wine bars because it only serves domestic wines. There are 250 of them, and they are delicious, with origins of Oregon, Washington, California and Colorado. The cheese platter, which changes frequently, also showcases domestic cheeses that come from a co-op of farms with the intention of supporting American dairy farms. Look for goat cheese from Humboldt Fog in California, which has an earthy, mushroom flavor that pairs nicely with an Oregon pinot noir. Or, Mike Willison recommends trying the J. Bookwalter Chenin Blanc from Columbia Valley in Washington, which gives off creamy hints of banana peel and vanilla and pairs well with just about any cheese, especially an American-style camembert. Meritage's blonde wood floors and tables made of wooden wine boxes make for a spirited, funky scene. Glasses are $7 to $14 or half that for tasting portions. Bottles range from $26 to $350. Head to the restaurant owners' newer wine bar and small plates spot, Fixture (2706 N. Ashland) for both domestic and foreign wines with all bottles under $60 and 24 glass choices.

avec 615 W. Randolph, 312-377-2002

People say avec is one of the best restaurants in the city with its supper club-style, long, communal tables filled with foodies and locals alike. But the hotspot truly is a wine bar, with about 50 varietals and a menu designed to compliment that list. Red wines take center stage, with a complex list of unique finds from Italy, Spain, France and Portugal. An artisan cheese selection features just as unique selectionspick 3 for $14. Try the Amarelo de Beira, a Portuguese blend of raw cow and sheep's milk that has a semi-soft texture and earthy flavor and pairs nicely with a pinot noir such as the 2003 J&F Lurton "Les Salices" from France. Wines by the glass are $8 to $15 and bottles, high $20s and up.

winebar | chicago 3339 N. Halsted, 773-871-6227

Scheduled to open in September, the folks behind minibara smoke-free, vibrant spot in Lakevieware expanding to make room for this wine bar that will take up one side of the building and breaks the mold with brighter lighting and a swankier, more cosmopolitan feel. Co-owner John Dalton says the concept behind winebar | chicago is to create a lively atmosphere where patrons can be more adventurous in picking out wines and cheeses to try. The menu also aims to teach the novice wine drinker by listing "old world" wines in the form of traditional varietals from Europe and suggesting similar, but more modern "new world" wines such as a domestic pinot gris or sauvignon blanc from New Zealand. For the cheese, look for unique treats like blue cheese with honey or cheese infused with mangos. All wines here are served only by the glass for $5 to $12.

Quartino 626 N. State, 312-698-5000

This bustling Italian "trattoria" and wine bar by the Gibson's owners with rustic furniture and TVs playing Italian films boasts a diverse wine list with authentic and rare selections from Italy, as well as others from France, Spain, South Africa, New Zealand and the United States. Quartino's cheese selection includes traditional, but first-rate Italian cheeses like parmigiano reggiano and fontina ($4). The simplicity of the cheese selection allows for a more dramatic wine, so opt for a spicy, full-bodied cabernet such as the 2003 Primitivo Igt from Pugia, Italy (bottle only) or the Barbera D'asti Ca'Bianco Piemonte, described as "jammy and chewy." Wines come by the bottle for affordable prices between $22 and $75, or by the carafe in three sizes: quartino (1/4 liter), mezzo (1/2 liter) or litro (liter). Carafe prices average $7, $15 and $30 and up for their respective sizes.

Vintage Wine Bar 1942 W. Division, 773-772-3400

A Wicker Park hotspot, this wine bar has an urban-antiquity feel due to a vintage, wood wine rack, full length bar, exposed brick and walls decorated with artwork by local artists. The wine menu features the usual varietalspinot noirs, merlots, cabs and sauvignon blancs, along with a handful of interesting white blends and other mixed varietals labeled "irresistible reds." Chef Ian Swope chooses three artisan cheeses for a $12 tasting that varies frequently. Cozy lounging chairs line up in front of a fireplace at the front of the bar, perfect for cooler months.

Bin 36 335 N. Dearborn, 312-755-9463

This popular River North locale revved up the wine bar trend years ago, offering friendly, well-trained servers and a number of flights to choose from that offer a mini-education, such as the Italian versus Spanish wine flight that allows you to taste the differences between the two regions. To further ease the decision-making process when choosing wines, acclaimed Wine Director Brian Duncan assigns each wine a "bin" number and matches them with items on the regular and cheese menus. Bin 36 also features a separate cheese bar with more than 50 selections at $2 or $3 each, including an impressive array of sheep's milk cheeses and fun flights like Fat City and The All Cheddar for $12. If you fall in love with a particular wine while dining, afterward you can shop for it in the market next door.

Webster's Wine Bar 1480 W. Webster, 773-868-0608

Truly unpretentious, but still hip and sophisticated, this perfect pre- or post-movie spot across from the Webster Place Theaters features a casual interior with rustic, wood tables and a velvet couch for lounging. Private parties, tastings and classes are held in an upstairs area, and Mondays feature live music. There are 400 impressive bottles to choose from, reasonably priced at about $30 to $40 a bottle, or 35 wines by the glass that vary each month when wines from particular grape varieties or regions are chosen as themes. A rare treat on the lengthy cheese menu is the Neal's Yard Stilton, a rich and crumbly English blue that pairs well with port or fall reds, or the Neal's Yard Cheddar, which compliments a riesling.

404 Wine Bar 2856 N. Southport, 773-404-5886

Three warm fireplaces and leather couches make this spot a great place to get out from the cold with a nice glass of wine and good company. The crowd is a bit more chic and polished than those flocking to Jack's Bar and Grill, the sporty tavern attached to the wine bar. But that doesn't mean 404 is pretentiousservers are friendly and attentive, and the wine list boasts a selection of 90 wines by the bottle and 35 by the glass from old wine countries like Italy, Spain and France, as well as other selections from South Africa, Austria and the United States. Flights include four 2-oz. tastes, and there's also a handful of dessert wines.

Published: August 01, 2006
Issue: November 2006

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