This article originally appeared in the December 2014 edition of The Somm Journal.
WHEN A STEAKHOUSE IN CARNIVORE-CRAZED Chicago gets a top ranking from a local restaurant critic, the award isn’t based solely on whether meat is wet-aged or dry-aged, or if it has the most turned tables on a Saturday night. The market is so saturated with steak, it’s as if the Chicago River is flowing with au jus.
But David Burke’s Primehouse is a standout mostly because of a forward-thinking sommelier, and his embrace of the Coravin Wine Access System. The Coravin allows for pouring any amount of wine without pulling the cork, and prevents oxidation from affecting what remains in the bottle. Primehouse’s enthralled customers—rather than eating, drinking and running—are sticking around to experiment. Matthew Bills, Certified Sommelier, directs Primehouse’s wine program. He was instantly transfixed by the Coravin, and knew his customers would have the same reaction. Within a month, he secured the device for the restaurant. The timing was ideal: the waning weeks of 2013. Holiday revelers, splurging on high-end dining, not only could sample three- or six-ounce pours of rare wines, they obtained gift ideas.
“I started the Cellar Glass Pour program with the Coravin in December last year,” Bills says. “There are a dozen wines on that list, and people have just been thrilled! And since it was December, you could hear people say: ‘Hey, you should get this
as a gift for your brother, since he loves rare wines.’ The Coravin probably had a sales boost at retail because people came here, saw it in action and realized how they could use it in their cellars at home.”
Once he had the Coravin at the ready, the first bottling that Bills wanted to break into was the 1988 Château d’Yquem Sauternes. As a white wine offered only by the bottle, it was predictably not moving at a Chicago steakhouse. But Bills knew exactly what to pair with it, and the Coravin “opened” the possibilities.
“I knew that wine was going to be the one I’d try first, and that it would pair with our foie gras,” he says. “Once we started doing that, we went through the bottle within a week.”
Now, Bills has carved out a real niche in his wine program at Primehouse, cordoning off special areas in his already prestigious wine cellar. When he first purchased the Coravin, he also obtained the Vintage Cork Needle, which is narrower and protects the integrity of delicate corks often found on older vintages. This gives Bills peace of mind when pouring quite the legion of legendary reds: a 1999 Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a 1975 Pauillac or a 1966 Château Margaux.
“The Coravin really moves people to branch out,” Bills adds. “Sometimes, a guest will think about starting with a six-ounce glass of wine on the Cellar Glass Pour list, but then ask to talk to the sommelier. I’ll then say, ‘Maybe try a three-ounce pour of this, and another three-ounce pour of another. Or, try a trio of three-ounce pours to make a small flight.’ We can also discuss whether their palate is more inclined to Old World wines or fruit-forward wine, and then move on to food pairings. The Coravin provides customers flexibility to experiment.”
The decision to bring the Coravin tableside for a demonstration depends on the situation, of course. Those at business meals might find the presentation distracting. But for a table for two on a date, it’s an opportunity.
“When a couple is out to have fun, it adds to the ambience and the guest experience,” Bills explains. “Sometimes, a table nearby sees the Coravin and switches from their original beverage plans to the Cellar Glass Pour list.”
Bills hopes to have the Cellar Glass Pour program expanded to 16 or even 20 wines in time for the holiday season. He’d like to add an older vintage white Burgundy or a Chablis to pair with first courses and salads, and maybe even a vintage Port. But, he will also branch into the bottle-only list if a guest is adamant.
“If someone wants a glass of Chateau Montelena Estate—absolutely, I will pour that. I can easily just add that particular bottle to the Cellar Glass Pours. And someone might want a whole bottle of what’s already on the program. We’ve done that a few times. It’s all about the guests.”