Making the List with Belinda Chang

The award-winning sommelier on what it takes to craft an 800-bottle steakhouse wine list from scratch.
Photo by Ellen Silverman

Having worked for a number of high-profile bosses like Rich Melman, Charlie Trotter and Danny Meyer, Belinda Chang knows how to run a seamless wine service. A James Beard Award-winning sommelier, Chang is the wine and spirits director at Chicago’s newest steakhouse, Maple & Ash, which opened during the summer. She’s part of a blue-chip team alongside chefs Dave Ochs (Girl & The Goat) and Danny Grant (North Pond). Chang meticulously assembled an 800 label wine list that ranges from 2011 Neyers Merlot ($68) to a jeroboam of 2003 Dom Pérignon ($5,100). So what, exactly, goes into pulling all that together?

Make sure you have exclusive wine offerings
“Danny Meyer said something to me on the first day at the Modern. He had a wine list marked up with his notes, and the most important thing was the by-the-glass list. He said, ‘I want you to make this a great wine-by-the-glass list that no one wants to turn the page.’ I’ve always tried to do that with every list moving forward. That’s your point of view, your signature, the wine director’s perspective. No by-the-glass wines are poured anywhere else in Chicago, and you can’t find it in retail. If the guest loves it, they’ll have to come back here. It’s hard to do, but that’s always the end goal.”

Go with the classics … and then have some fun

“My palate is pretty classic. I’m not that into orange wines, underaged wines, etc. You have to consider the neighborhood and who is going to be dining. And then, also having people stretch and learn and have some fun. Our wine list today is 85% classics of the wine world. Everyone wants a Bordeaux with bottle age, a Super Tuscan blend, the Napa Cabs and all the Napa Chardonnay. Those certainly fit here.”

Get on the same page as the chef and have continuity

“It’s so important to mind meld. Personalities should shine through on the menu and wine list, and we should talk about philosophies. Our product and wine-sourcing styles should be the same. [Danny Grant] goes to artisan and family producers, and we do the same with the wine. People want something that’s comfortable with a restaurant with the title ‘steakhouse.’ Both Danny and I have an upbringing that involves classic techniques and the canon of French tradition, but we’re all-American, love to play and have fun, and love to make it into a cool experience. Will we do Château Latour wine dinners? Yes. Will we have Abe [Schoener] from the Scholium Project from here? Yes. And everything in between.”

Sometimes you just don’t give a…

“We have something called the ‘I don’t give a f*@k menu.’ We will put a blindfold on someone and let them go in and pick out a bottle. If they don’t like it, 400 other people might, and we’ll Coravin it and put it on the by-the-glass list.”

Get by with a little help from your friends

“We have a visiting sommelier program, and Scott Tyree [Tru, Sepia] will be our first, for six months. He had a lot of wine collector fans when he was at Tru, and there’s a lot of synergy. We have a lot of people here going for Advanced and Master level [certification], so it’ll be great to have someone like that to work with, and guests will get access to him. I’ve had a lot of interest from master somms who don’t work in the business anymore, but we’ll have them working in our dining room. In the past, chefs got to have fun with [this concept], but now we get to do that on the wine side of things. I’ve never seen where someone comes in residence and works the floor.”

Published on November 4, 2015
Topics: Pairing Tips, Sommeliers, Wine Trends



SUBSCRIBE TO
NEWSLETTERS
The latest wine reviews, trends and recipes plus special offers on wine storage and accessories