Alinea, as long as you’ve known it, has never really been a “wine restaurant.” Though, you suspect, it once was. Speaking to Wine Spectator’s Laurie Woolever in 2007, Grant Achatz recalls a year spent as the assistant winemaker at La Jota in Howell Mountain while on leave from the French Laundry: “It was a fabulous experience, and really opened my eyes to not only making wine…but really just developing the palate.” Returning to Thomas Keller’s restaurant, he was frustrated by how “at that time, everybody wanted bottles or half-bottles with their meal.” The thought was, “when you have a menu that’s anywhere from seven to 20 courses long, one bottle of wine simply just doesn’t work with every course.”
When it came time for Achatz to cut his teeth at Trio, he happened to meet Joe Catterson–who would go on to become Alinea’s opening wine director and general manager. Catterson, by the chef’s own measure, “loves the great classic wines, but he’s more interested in the synergy between wine and food.” Trio allowed the pair to “commit to a wine-pairing program….[that] plays to the nature of [Achatz’s] cooking”–which is to say “foods that, in the scope of an experience, are intended to jar, and in some cases are sweet and savory at the same time.” This interplay of contrasts ensures “it’s impossible to select a bottle or a half-bottle and walk your way through an entire tasting menu” at Alinea; thus, the restaurant has–from its inception–favored the flexibility a wide range of paired pours imparts on the experience.
Still, that does not mean Alinea’s wine list at the time was any slouch: “our wine list has over 650 selections, so you can certainly purchase that trophy wine if you want it,” Achatz continues. Customers “will select something from the list and we’ll incorporate it into their pairing program.” Sometimes, the restaurant will even “modify the food slightly” to accommodate the wine (a humble bit of back-of-house hospitality taken straight out of the Charlie Trotter playbook). As to the pairing, selections “run the gamut” as Catterson likes to “look for that obscure varietal or producer or country to show people something that they’ve never had, or that they can’t go to their local wine shop and pick off the shelf.” Such a pairing is “in constant flux, because the menu changes on a monthly or bimonthly basis.”
Looking at that Wine Spectator interview today, you only wish you could have dined at Alinea during those first few years. It seems like a much more dynamic and generous restaurant–eager to please and assuage guests’ experience of such novel food, rather than simply set a “showtime,” put the guardrails up, and whisk chumps in and out with a song and dance two times per night. It is unclear what became of Joe Catterson, but a cloying Chicago magazine article on Nick Kokonas from 2019 makes clear that he left the group in 2012 and that he felt “uncomfortable” with Tock’s paradigmatic refusal to accommodate guests’ last-minute changes.
December of 2011 marked your first visit to Alinea, and it suffices to say that nearly all of your experiences with the restaurant have come in the post-Catterson era. His departure seems to have been an inflection point for the group. No wine director since has taken real ownership of the program–or achieved any level of prominence–at Alinea. Gary Obligacion was brought on as “Director of Service Operations” (a decidedly corporate-sounding, unhospitable title) in 2012, but he always struck you as a glad-hander. Since Obligacion departed in 2018, it is hard to tell if the group’s hospitality has gotten better or worse. It has simply been “meh” for so long that nothing short of radical change–a “new line of thought,” if you will–is demanded.
You do not know enough about Catterson to feel comfortable naming him the lynchpin of Alinea’s one-time, aborted effort to offer superlative service (wine or otherwise). However, you cannot help but notice the restaurant’s shift from a people-focused enterprise to a cold, monolithic “entity” that doesn’t dare sign their communications with anybody’s actual name. You cannot help notice the ascendancy of “Grant and Nick” as a duo–which is to say, a chef and a stuffed shirt who brags about how rarely he eats at his own restaurants–relative to partnerships like Daniel Humm and Will Guidara that imply the equal footing that cuisine and hospitality most certainly share. You also have certainly noticed how the technological and financial conveniences Tock offered restaurants quickly became bulwarks against accommodating customer requests. Not everywhere, but certainly within the Alinea Group, where–over the course of a few years–service interactions became a series of stilted “variations on a theme” more concerned with keeping “the show on the road” than conjuring peak experiences.
In short, soulless business interest supplanted any chance Alinea had of becoming an institution like the French Laundry (under longtime general manager Michael Minnillo) or Le Bernardin (under longtime directeur de salle Ben Chekroun). It is also no surprise that Grace so threatened Alinea’s fine dining hegemony before its untimely demise, given Curtis Duffy’s manner of sharing the spotlight with general manager Michael Muser. Such a partnership is not strictly necessary to imbue a restaurant with soul–Brooklyn Fare’s César Ramirez (or any great omakase, really) comes to mind. However, when one privileges good business as much, if not more, than “art”–when one denies hospitality its rightful seat at the table–the end result can only be cookie-cutter experiences designed for conspicuous consumers’ social media feeds. Superficially fancy-looking food devoid of substance, story, or soul. That is to say, Alinea 2.0 is a nutshell.
In a sense, The Alinea Group Wine Series is the endpoint of the darkest timeline where Kokonas, a derivatives trader, does wine events while Catterson, a career hospitality professional and the man who perhaps knows how to pair Achatz’s food best, is cast off never to be heard from again. Looking back at your Alinea pairings from the post-Catterson era, there just isn’t much to get excited about: Beaucastel Blanc, Bollinger, Dr. Bürklin-Wolf, F.X. Pichler, Guigal, Keller (RR), Knoll, Krug (Grande Cuvée), Pierre Péters, Quilceda Creek, Quintarelli, Ridge, Robert Weil, Smith Haut Lafitte (Blanc), Torbreck, Zind-Humbrecht. There is no doubt that this list includes great producers (including a couple of your personal favorites), but, at some point, Alinea’s wine program became more about up-selling customers on the next “tier” of wine (non-alcoholic options are only offered upon request) and reflecting “bigger” names and “better” value. Offering compelling wines (let alone “one” pairing) that truly completed Achatz’s food fell by the wayside, as servers memorize and reprise three sets of wines in broad strokes that become just a bit more fine as one doles out more money.
Ultimately, the restaurant has settled on fulfilling guests’ expectations with representative wine pairings rather than challenging their palates and engaging in the hard, rewarding work of cultivating wine appreciation. The offerings are not clearly better than those at Smyth or Oriole, and the hurried service certainly pales in comparison. Fifteen years of savvy buying and cellaring could have made Alinea a national destination for boundary-breaking food and wine pairing. Yet that sort of savvy buying requires expertise, which can only come about from fostering talent. Wine service–and service in general–was sacrificed for the sake of better “efficiency” and increased profit. The magic was stripped away, and the pairings devolved into a pantheon of “recognizable” names (a value proposition) rather than an expression of artistry equal to Achatz’s food. They are a frill, plain and simple. They are “coach, business, and first class” tickets as far as the restaurant is concerned–superficial differences separated by a supreme upcharge, and yet everyone feels similarly cramped, cranky, and hungry upon landing.
Roister’s wine list was an absolute wasteland for the first few years of its existence and has only, recently, put together a selection that can be called competent (and maybe even charming should they restock on those wonderful magnums of Dönnhoff). It must be said that the restaurant, under Andrew Brochu, had little need for fine wine. In fact, you remember being absolutely delighted by the cooler of humble beverages offered along with his “High Brow, Low Country Boil” menu. Yet that was a different Roister–one with a soul. As the restaurant has become less Southern-inflected and more of a “rustic” Alinea (or, perhaps, a place to house their overflow), the quality of wine has climbed. The range of affordable magnums offered helps set the mood in the dining room, while a small selection of bottles by coveted producers like PYCM, Arnoux-Lachoux, Quintarelli, and Giacosa are actually offered at reasonable prices.
Next’s wine pairings have tended to be stronger than Alinea’s, but–then again–you would say the same about the food itself. The group tends to perform better when forced to color “inside the lines” of a set theme rather than float off, as is their tendency, into rootless abstraction. It is for this reason that you felt the Wine Series displayed such promise: the concept of a “wine dinner” evokes certain expectations (positive or negative), yet there is ample room to surpass or subvert them. Next is still guilty of perpetuating a three-tiered system of pricing; however, the tiers of wine actually take on distinct themes–for example, an ultra pairing may offer only wine and sake while the reserve incorporates distilled beverages. Next’s non-alcoholic option is not obscured (as it is at Alinea), but you must fault the restaurant on insisting so strongly they do not have a bottle list when other favored guests have made clear (on sites like Cellartracker) that they were allowed to order from one.
This is all to say, you were excited to see the Alinea Group get their feet wet hosting dedicated wine events. Excited, you say, as someone invested in the growth of Chicago’s (and the nation’s) wine appreciation (particularly among the yuppies that form the restaurant’s target audience). You were also rather skeptical of the events, owing to Alinea’s underwhelming track record with wine service over your many visits. However, you will always be the first to applaud a step in the right direction, and so you attended four of the group’s “wine series” events in 2019 and 2020. They were, in order, focused on Jean-Louis Chave, Hundred Acre, Louis Jadot, and Larkmead. While the inaugural dinner showed some promise, each subsequent one grew more disappointing. As is usual, you will condense the entirety of your experiences into one cohesive narrative, preserving as many interesting details and as much comparative potential as possible. So, let us begin.
While you rue the fact that St. Clair Supper Club–formerly Roister’s “prep kitchen”–no longer dishes out Brochu’s whimsical set menus, you must admit that, on a night like tonight, the subterranean space truly does feel like a private club. Entering the building, you approach Roister’s hostess, are recognized, greeted warmly, and guided over to the restaurant’s upstairs bar for a brief pause. The bartender doesn’t miss a beat in offering two drink menus, but you must refuse any hard liquor in a bid to preserve the palate for the tasting to come. There’s just enough time to take a few sips of water before the hostess reappears to lead the way. Down the stairs, past the bathrooms, and through the tufted leather door–where a menu board confronts you with that evening’s special: the wines of this or that treasured producer. To your left, the full span of bottles stretch across St. Clair’s kitchen counter. You peruse for only a moment before being greeted by a member of Alinea’s wine team, Champagne in tow.
After a bit of chatter, you work your way to the end of the counter into the dining room “proper.” Anybody who has dined at St. Clair Supper Club knows that it is an intimate space, seating somewhere between 20 and 30 guests at two- and four-top banquettes alongside a lone horseshoe booth. Bar seating is offered at the counter, but it isn’t typically used for these events. Though the Alinea Group’s inaugural events made use of place cards, later dinners embraced a “free for all” style of seating. The former, you have found, is more traditional for higher-end wine dinners. It implies a curation of the experience and ensures, should the winemaker or another representative be present, that they are able to engage the assembled parties in a cohesive way. At the minimum, seating should guarantee the guest of honor’s comments can easily be discerned (more on that later). At its best, planned seating forms the conversational backbone of the evening, allowing the assembled experts to guide guests towards a richer experience with the featured wines across the myriad facets of wine appreciation. This is to say, place cards imply being “hosted” with some intention; whereas, seating oneself and one’s party at a communal table outsources the generation of social inertia to the guests.
The first of the wine dinners you attended–the “Hermitage of Jean-Louis Chave”–seemed to handle seating best. You were a party of two, and, after receiving that welcome gulp of bubbly, you walked into the dining room and found your name appended to a favorable two-top towards the front of the dining room. While certain guests chose to remain standing and socialize until the formal call to be seated, you took your spot at the table and, thus, avoided the constant twisting and turning required to stay out of the way in the cloistered supper club space. There were no special guests from Domaine Chave present for the dinner, but, from your spot, it was easy to hear the announcements and other remarks made throughout the evening by the members of the Alinea team. More importantly, you were able to direct your attention solely towards the wines and your dining companion without the distraction of making “polite” conversation with strangers. The seclusion of the two-top (in truth, you could have conversed with the adjacent table as your date did) secured the purity of the experience: great wine and great company undiluted by any demand to entertain “other” people. At $735 per person (excluding service and tax) for that particular dinner, the two-top ensured–at least–you could enjoy the evening at your own level of energy.
The second of the four dinners–titled “Hundred Acres [sic] Dinner at the St. Clair Supper Club”–revealed one of the pitfalls of pre-arranged seating. It also marked a change in title from “The St. Clair Supper Club Wine Collector Series” (that which was used for the Chave event) to “The Alinea Group Wine Series” (a moniker that has graced a range of dinners at Roister and Next as well). The change would seem, naturally, to reflect the expansion of the series to the group’s other restaurants. However, you think there is something more sinister at play–something that will become clear as your analysis proceeds. In contrast to the first dinner (for two), you booked the Hundred Acre dinner as a group of three. At $805 per person, the second dinner was slightly more expensive too. That is to say, you came expecting an experience that was as good, if not better. You three gentlemen lumbered downstairs in the same manner, received the welcome glass of champagne, found the place cards, and seated yourselves at a four-top towards the back wall of the dining room. Now, a party of three guests at a private event always spells trouble. You know that. Yet you hoped the dinner’s sticker price might work to insulate you from any unwanted “additions” to your party. What sort of person would pay such a price to drink and dine alone?
Nobody, truth be told, but that doesn’t mean the seat laid empty. One of Hundred Acre’s sales representatives–no, not Jayson Woodbridge–graced you with his company. The man was pleasant enough and–alongside one of the winery’s regional distributors–acted as the evening’s “master of ceremonies.” That is to say, your companion spent most of the dinner on his feet and schmoozing with the well-heeled patrons who might like to purchase a few thousand dollars worth of the cult Cab. Your party had little to offer other than liking the wine and enjoying the irreverence of his sales pitch (relative to Napa Valley’s more austere estates). He was savvy enough not to disturb the three of you much further–and, truth be told, he spent so little time at the table as to miss eating some courses entirely. All in all, you did obtain the privacy you desired. However, the arrangement left you feeling like somewhat of a voyeur, as the attention paid to other tables by the interloper only underscored that the evening was less a celebratory “wine event” and more a cynical marketing opportunity. Truth be told, Hundred Acre just does not have much of a “history” to draw on. As tasty as it is, the wine is inextricably linked to the winery’s eccentric owner, without whom it becomes yet another expensive California wine nearly indistinguishable, at times, from the other 100-point Parkerized bottles in the same price category.
The third of the “Alinea Group Wine Series” events you attended revolved around Maison Louis Jadot, the Burgundian négociant and domaine with widespread tendrils throughout the region. The winemaker, Frédéric Barnier, was in attendance, yet you did not find him–or any other unexpected guest–sequestered at your table. Rather, you and your date traversed the stairs down from Roister and into St. Clair Supper Club to find… a free for all. Your welcome glass of champagne came with the admission that seating was “first come, first served.” At only $295 a head, the event clearly occupied a different price category than the previous dinners. However, you could not help feel that the Alinea team had abdicated its duty to properly host the event.
Groups of two, such as yours, were left to pick their poison among an array of half-filled tables which just as easily could have been split to suit the tickets as they were sold. Some quick-thinking patrons opted to sit on the tall stools facing the counter (and shielding themselves from unwanted contact across a shared table). You chose the empty horseshoe booth by the door, waiting on tenterhooks to see who might occupy the remaining two place settings. Another young couple answered the call–and, clearly, had similar designs, as you avoided saying anything more than a passing greeting to them throughout the evening. You got what you wanted, so why complain? Because, while the booth served as a bulwark against unwanted socializing, it altogether obscured the ability to hear the winemaker speak. Thus, despite the supper club’s constricted space, the Alinea Group shirked the responsibility of arranging guests in an orderly fashion while also failing to ensure all the accessible seats could meaningfully participate in proceedings. It sounds, you think, almost like a total abdication of the restaurant’s responsibility as host. At a price point that is, nonetheless, not far off a meal at the flagship itself, you had a hard time seeing the connection to Alinea “hospitality” at all.
The fourth of the wine events you attended took you out of the subterranean space below Roister and called you over, next door, to Next. “Now we’re talking,” you thought, “a real Alinea Group restaurant” (and one that long deserved a Michelin Star before Roister gained and lost its own). You stepped through the awning, through the vestibule, and into the dining room with your date. At $375 per person, the dinner–centered on Napa Valley winery Larkmead–measured closer to the Jadot event in price than Chave or Hundred Acre. Thus, your expectations were tempered, and for good reason. That welcome glass of champagne came with the same sheepish instruction that seating was self-serve. Though Next’s dining room is more spacious than St. Clair’s, you found yourself squeezed at the end of a table for six along with two older couples from Indiana who knew each other. They were charming, as was winemaker Dan Petroski (who, thankfully, was within earshot of all the guests). You cannot remember if all the two-tops were full or if they were offered at all. But, with every painful conversational probe throughout the evening, you again felt cheated from what may easily have been a more intimate, personal experience.
While, at an organizational level, the Alinea Group Wine Series falls short, the move away from name cards merely presaged the deeper problems that pervade the events. Perhaps it is best to proceed thematically. Whether you were seated in isolation or forced to mingle with strangers, the wines at each of the dinners should have–ostensibly–provided the raison d’être to endure any manner of proceedings. Chave, to wit, is a great estate, and any opportunity to taste a range of his Hermitage should be coveted, right? Personally, you looked forward to that first dinner given your lack of exposure to the great wines of the Northern Rhône. Five vintages of Hermitage Blanc alongside another five of Hermitage Rouge sounds unspeakably decadent–yet it is the quality and distinctiveness of different vintages, rather than the quantity of wine served, that really matters.
You cannot claim that 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016 were poor vintages in the Rhône by any stretch of the imagination. 2015 is “potentially monumental” according to a respected critic while the years on either side of it are both good and geared towards early drinking. Paradoxically, 2013 is the most backwards of the bunch and is said to benefit from additional time in bottle. The wines (Blanc and Rouge) from these four years formed the core of the Chave event. They were accessible (if not giving), they could be contrasted (in broad strokes), and they were by no means disappointing. However, there is no doubt they were drank young–generally three or four years before the most generous drinking window ascribed to them. The wines provided a glimpse of the glory to come later down the road; they made a superficially pleasing impression as many great bottlings are apt to do when drank so close to their genesis. Given that the event was billed as “a vertical examination of the last four vintages of Chave Hermitage,” you knew what you were signing up for.
But should a “Wine Collector Series” really be concerned with curating a range of more or less current release wines that are still available at retail? Do “wine collectors” really drink verticals of successive recent vintages for pleasure? Such a passing glimpse at the greatness Chave’s wines may attain in ten, twenty, or thirty more years’ time only serves aficionados willing to dole out the dollars for a case (or two) to track over the course of those decades. That being said, there were two reference point vintages on display: the 1997 Hermitage Blanc and the 1995 Hermitage Rouge, both of which–while not quite legendary–you must admit come from great years and displayed the peak of their maturity. Thus, guests were teased with an even smaller glimpse of the respective wines at their absolute prime. The older vintages formed the “spoonfuls of sugar” that salved the experience of the younger ones. They transformed the evening from an extended sales pitch for vintages still on the market in Chicago into something vaguely resembling a wine event.
That is to say, the guiding light at such an event should be the appreciation–no, the celebration–of a great domaine. That means selecting representative–if not rare–wines rather than relying on what happens to be gathering dust on the shelves at the moment. Take, for example, the vertical Antonio Galloni describes in this article–a trek through mature vintages of Chave strutting all their stuff. Drinking coiled, nascent wines just isn’t much fun. It doesn’t encourage wine appreciation but, rather, investment. Anybody could make the same guess as to the wines’ development based on vintage conditions and critics’ scores. The end result is the same: they need time to display their promised pleasure. The 1997 and 1995 could have been emotional wines for some parties present–you will not deny them that experience–but the event, overall, had the pervading sense of being a vehicle for New York Vintners wine sales. And is it really a good idea for Alinea to leverage its brand in such a cynical way? Mind you, the Chave dinner was not only the inaugural event in the wine series but, you think, the best.
The selection of wines put forth at the Hundred Acre dinner followed much of the same pattern–that is, a few younger vintages (also, of course, offered for sale that evening) were offset by a couple well-aged ringers which sought to increase the value proposition. The evening began well enough with Bollinger’s 2002 “R.D.” Champagne, a blend of 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay from 71% Grand Cru sites. This was followed by Vincent Girardin’s 2015 Corton-Charlemagne, a befuddling bottle both in its age and style. You can understand the need to serve a “proper” white wine with a certain portion of the meal (actually, you do not, given you have attended several excellent events devoted entirely to red wine). However, the relative mediocrity of the producer and youth of the wine did the evening no favors. It was pleasant, yes, but out of place, and it indicated an unwillingness to craft either a coherent progression of wine or an appropriate menu that featured, principally, the stars of the show (but more on that later).
Whereas the best wines from the Chave dinner were split between the “white” and “red” flights, the Hundred Acre dinner cut right to the chase. The youthful Corton-Charlemagne was immediately followed by the 2005 and 2006 vintages of Hundred Ace’s “Ark” vineyard. Those wines were then followed by a flight of the 2008 “Kayli Morgan Vineyard” as well as the “Deep Time” release of that same vineyard’s 2014 vintage. The evening ended with Hundred Acre’s 2014 “Wraith” and the 2007 release of “Fortification,” a Port. Placing the mature, mellow wines early on was probably the right choice, allowing the younger vintages of such a “juiced-up” Napa cult Cab the benefit of richer fare. In truth, the 2005 and 2006 Ark wines were the first releases from that site and carried with them a certain sense of that history. However, tasting them towards the beginning of the meal ensured the night reached an early crescendo. With the sales representative by your side, you tasted history. Yes, and then you proceeded through the rest of his portfolio before ignoring the order sheet appended to your event booklet and scurrying out the door.
The Maison Louis Jadot dinner, perhaps owing to the house’s breadth of holdings, put forth the most diverse array of wines. Hidden away in the acoustically-isolated horseshoe booth (and, thank heavens, undisturbed by the other party who parked themselves there), you worked your way through what winemaker Frédéric Barnier termed a terroir-driven tasting. After a welcome glass of 2007 Comtes de Champagne (the same served at the Chave event) came the white wines: a 2017 premier cru Chablis, a 2016 grand cru Chablis, and a 2016 Corton-Charlemagne. While these wines, even in the context of Burgundy, were young, they made for an engaging comparison of crus, appellations, and vintages. The same can be said for the evening’s red wines: a 2014 premier cru Chambolle-Musigny, a 2012 Corton Pougets en magnum, a 2008 Charmes-Chambertin, and a 2014 Échezeaux (altered from the 2014 Grands-Échezeaux listed on the event page). Again, the lineup–while young–offered a nice interplay between sites of different status in different vintages.
Perhaps you felt that way because, at $295 (the cheapest of all the Wine Series events you attended), the Jadot dinner was not burdened with the expectation of offering any bottles that were particularly rare. Likewise, the driving force for the event was to feature a range of different wines rather than conduct a “vertical examination” of recent vintages for the sake of sales or simply choose an arbitrary assortment of bottles to accompany a brand ambassador’s song and dance. Perhaps, most of all, it mattered that Louis Jadot’s winemaker was in attendance (even if you strained to hear him). For as highly as the Alinea Group thinks of itself, these events should always endeavor to champion the artistic process involved in creating great wine rather than treating guests as a captive audience for the company’s friends who sell wine. The presence of the winemaker–like Grant’s own presence at Alinea–papers over any number of missteps made in the name of experimentation. That doesn’t really ring true for Jadot’s classic expressions of terroir, but it surely does for the wine events themselves. If the wines are not superlative in their own right, it is only the presence of the vigneron that lends the occasion some gravitas. Why else bother paying for an event that only exists as a means to sell–not celebrate–“art”?
All that being said, the Larkmead dinner–priced at $375 per person–seemed poised to be the most balanced of all the wine events. The cost of admission was not too high or too low and the winemaker (Dan Petroski) was present for an evening of “storytelling and imbibing” in the more dignified setting of Next’s dining room. While the event was billed as celebrating Larkmead’s “125th Anniversary,” the winery’s contemporary history began with the second generation of ownership and replanting of its vineyards in 1992. Thus, Larkmead’s history is very much being consciously constructed (or reconstructed) from a branding perspective (though it was, admittedly, founded in 1895). For that reason, the dinner lacked the enchantment that a multi-generational family estate preserving a unique piece of terroir evokes. Likewise, the change of ownership and recent replanting ensured there would be no extraordinarily-aged wines on display. Still, Petroski’s presence was, itself, enchanting, and the nature of Larkmead’s revival means that his role in expressing the diversity of soil types on the estate is unusually essential (and engaging to hear about).
The evening began with a glass of Egly-Ouriet Grand Cru Brut then proceeded to the 2011 vintage of Larkmead’s “Lillie” Sauvignon Blanc. The estate’s white wine was a winner, presenting a nice change of pace from the 2015 Girardin Corton-Charlemagne at the Hundred Acre dinner and the young Jadot Chablis and Corton-Charlemagne wines. Still, you do not think it would have been much to ask for them to serve a vintage of their Tocai Friulano just for fun. The red wines offered a representative assortment: two vintages (2010 and 2016) of “Solari,” the winery’s most “complete” Cabernet Sauvignon; the 2016 “Firebelle,” a Merlot-dominated blend; and the 2015 “The Lark,” which is Larkmead’s signature, more terroir-driven Cabernet Sauvignon. Though actually offering the fewest wines of all the Wine Series events, this selection felt satisfying. Perhaps it was Petroski’s charm, expertise, and generosity in refilling glass after glass that struck you. While Jadot’s winemaker also spoke of “terroir,” he and the wines–perhaps due to their austere, traditional nature–were a bit more inaccessible. Larkmead’s wines try to distinguish themselves from their Napa brethren, and, thus, the event carried the thread of “terroir” in an engaging way. It really showed how much the Chave and Hundred Acre events were handicapped by both the unglamorous setting and presence of salespeople. In retrospect, they seem closer to timeshare seminars than wine events in comparison.
While you think the Alinea Group Wine Series events are improving in vinous terms–eschewing eye-catching labels and an undercurrent of being “sold” the wine by the sponsoring distributor–there is a reason you have saved a discussion of the food for last. With regards to the menus served during the course of the four events, you have never been more disappointed–nay, insulted–by the group’s efforts. Strangely enough, it was the inaugural Chave event that approached the comestibles most honestly, touting “a menu of prime rib and classic faire paired to showcase the wines.” Underneath the listed wines was posted the bill of fare: “crab cake with frisée salad and sauce gribiche,” “roasted leg of lamb with shallot confit and root vegetables,” “hand cut of prime rib with 50/50 mashed potatoes and cocktail mushrooms,” and “strawberry shortcake with amaretto liqueur” for dessert. Fair enough, you thought. That’s pretty much the normal St. Clair Supper Club menu with the addition of a simple lamb dish (which, nonetheless, would go very well with Syrah).
The Hundred Acre Dinner–the most expensive of the lot–stated the wines would, likewise, be “accompanied by a menu of prime rib and classic fare paired to showcase the wines.” Okay, you can understand drawing on the prime rib yet again to go alongside such big, bold New World wines. The specifics of the menu, unlike before, went unlisted on the event page. You might have gotten your hopes up for something special. Instead, you were served “oyster [yes, singular] Rockefeller,” “crab cake with frisée salad and sauce gribiche,” the promised cut of prime rib, and a “chocolate cherry torte” for dessert.
The more affordable Louis Jadot dinner changed up the language a bit, promising “a special menu to showcase these singular wines” (which, again, went unlisted). The oyster (singular) Rockefeller returned while the crab cake didn’t. It was replaced by a paltry cocktail of a couple shrimp and a Caesar salad. There was one dish, you must admit, that was especially made for the menu: a tagliatelle with steamed mussels, saffron, and lemon butter that marked the transition from the Corton-Charlemagne into the red wines. Then, of course, your old friends–the prime rib, mashed potatoes, and cocktail mushrooms–reared their heads again. You cannot remember what the dessert was, but it was surely one of St. Clair’s creations that–even on a “normal” evening–fall far short of what they could and should be.
By the time you reached that final Larkmead dinner, you had just about abandoned any hope of gastronomic delight. Nonetheless, the staging of the event at Next–rather than Roister’s basement–was an interesting choice. Could it be that their kitchen–then engaged in its “Tokyo” menu–was required to craft a meal of more consequence? Or was the decision made for the sake of utilizing a more becoming (or simply larger) dining room? It’s the Alinea Group, so the answer should have been obvious. You were served the same ol’ crab cake and prime rib. To the best of your recollection, there was one special–a pasta dish you believe (it was actually a sunchoke rigatoni)–but by that point you had ceased documenting the wine dinners in any sense.
To summarize, four events at two different venues over the course of five months–costing a total of $2,210 per person–yielded a grand total of three unique dishes from a restaurant group that holds four Michelin stars (in total) and who specializes in “molecular gastronomy.” The train of new thought, for some reason, has gone completely off the rails. What they did create–lamb and two pasta dishes in a classical style–was competent and little more. Is this criticism fair? You would be more forgiving had the wine series retained its original moniker: the St. Clair Supper Club Wine Collector series. It’s a name, you think, that implies the fare served will be drawn from the supper club’s normal menu. (Even the “wine collector” portion does a better job articulating the sort of comparative flights and purchasing opportunities that are actually being offered, rather than robust wine education or a “piece of history”).
“The Alinea Group Wine Series” (though, technically, correct since the dinners have spanned three different dining rooms) conjures images of Alinea itself. At the very least, the name carries a certain with it a certain sort of precision, an irreverent attitude, a subversion of expectations. These wine dinners were not “Alinea” in any way, shape, or form. To the letter, none of the marketing materials for these events ever claimed the food would be anything “more” (or anything at all). You don’t have the slightest problem seeing restaurants like St. Clair and Roister lead the way with their own creations. They actually offer the group a rare opportunity to simply please customers rather than provoke them. The menus served at the wine events, however, can only be called thoughtless. They aimed for and achieved the bare minimum of what was required, showing no particular interest in tailoring the offerings to go with wines that cost many more hundreds of dollars than the price of the food. That, even though the FAQ for the Wine Series page states that “food pairings [are] curated for each experience.” The result was a cynical assemblage of the same standard dishes–as if someone asked how they can turn a bigger profit at St. Clair without having to put in any extra work. It can only be called an abject failure of hospitality, a pantomime of what a wine dinner can be.
Then it dawned on you: commercial events like the Hundred Acre dinner would otherwise be hosted at an anonymous steakhouse somewhere in the city. The menu would feature some seafood, a salad, a steak, some sides, and a token dessert. Because “serious,” “wine collectors” have the palates of adult children, and all the Chicago chefs who appreciate the full beauty of wine’s relationship to food died out a generation ago. The Alinea Group, as it so often does, rather than taking risks for the advancement of the city’s hospitality industry, has chosen–instead–to cynically cash in. They have chosen to put together their knockoff version of the “steakhouse wine dinner meal,” drawing on average, existing dishes that could be thoughtlessly cranked out by a skeleton “special” events team.
At only $54.95 per person, the “Alinea’s Steakhouse” menu being offered during the pandemic for carry out was far, far better than anything served at the $800+ “wine events.” And you have a hard time getting over it. You wouldn’t begrudge the group for choosing whatever wines (or winemakers) they have access to. You could even come to understand that Hundred Acre would only host its “first” event in Chicago unless its marketing operative was allowed free reign. Perhaps you’d even forgive having him at your table (not to mention the other strangers you were forced to sit with). But, as far as you know, the Alinea Group operates restaurants. The Alinea Group has cultivated a reputation for experimental cuisine. The food at these events did not need to be “Alinea food.” It could have been crafted in the Roister or even the St. Clair Supper Club styles of more “honest” American cooking. You just wish the menu was crafted at all by someone who worked with the wines and with fresh ingredients to see how the two might best interact. You wish someone gave a damn, or you wish they would have simply presented you with the usual St. Clair menu.
You have had several better meals at the supper club ordering your own food and ordering your own wine without sharing a table, without being sold to, and without being spoon-fed the illusion that there was anything approaching “wine appreciation” going on. The value proposition of these wine dinners needs to be much more clear, for there is nothing markedly “Alinea” about them at all. They are an extension of the Group’s brand into the wine world–not for the sake of enriching customers experiences, but simply to grab a piece of the pie. It would be easier if Alinea could put together tastings of appropriately-aged wines from their cellar. However, their cellar has been mismanaged for quite some time and offers little of note. Looking at the producers the events have featured, it becomes clear that nobody of value in the wine world really cares about Alinea, because Alinea doesn’t really care about wine. They might be able to leverage their “good name” to trick customers into spending twice the cost of their nicest tasting menu to go to these events, but they do not care about wine.
In the final analysis, it is hard not to look back at all four events you attended as a mere cash grab. The wine dinners you have attended in New York City–at restaurants like Daniel, Bouley, Ai Fiori, Del Posto, and NoMad–were engaging and emotional. The events cultivated a lifelong love of wine, and the chefs present on those evenings made clear how humbly they sought to raise their cuisine to the level of the bottles being imbibed. In contrast, years from now, you would be surprised if you ever remember even attending these Alinea Wine Series events. They were not only forgettable, but bitterly so too.
For a renowned restaurant group to dip their toe in the water of hosting wine events after 15 years of operation is commendable. You are more than willing to forgive any missteps with regards to the space, the seating, the rarity of wines served, and the level of education offered. The latter is particularly true because Alinea itself has failed to nurture a long-term wine director, let alone one with the requisite reputation and authority to lead these events. Having Nick Kokonas go table to table and offer an awkward greeting does nothing to demonstrate the group cares about these dinners (particularly when he noticeably skips over some parties, like yours). It only serves, instead, to drive home the point that this is all business. It is all branding. It is about being the “sort of group” that puts on “wine dinners” in a weak market where they, as usual, will escape any meaningful criticism.
You cannot forgive the fact that a restaurant group holding four Michelin stars shrunk to the challenge of crafting a truly custom menu for customers spending many more times the amount of money of a meal at the flagship. Not only that, they leaned on the most pedestrian offerings out of all their concepts, as if the guiding force was “how can we move more of these crab cakes and prime rib?” rather than “how can we accentuate (and pay respect to) these wines?” The Alinea Group did nobody any favors by putting these wines together–anyone could find and purchase 95% of the bottles that were poured at the events–instead, the expectation was that they add value onto each evening’s selection. Given they are restaurant group, you would think the food served provides an easy opportunity to do so.
For whatever reason, it was just too much for the Alinea Group to handle. You would have preferred a faltering, yet unique, menu to the same St. Clair crap over and over again. It would have shown intention. It would have made the evening special. But Alinea only does what’s best for business, and the end result: a few sad, stuffy evenings at the supper club.