Sommelier Arthur Hon admits to being a bit obsessive about his quest for wine knowledge. His first “a-ha moment” in wine was with a 1998 Chiarello Family Vineyards Roux Old Vine Petite Sirah, prompting him to drink only Petite Sirah for the next three months. Then he discovered Burgundy. “I really fell in love with wine,” he tells us, noting that nowadays, he’s broadened his horizons. “I taste anything and everything.”
And now he’s pouring out his passion (along with Ribera del Duero and Rueda wines, but more on that later) quite literally as Beverage Director at Sepia in Chicago, which is currently nominated for Best Wine Program in this year’s James Beard Foundation Awards. Hon has also been named Wine & Spirits’ Best New Sommelier for 2015 and Best Sommelier by Jean Banchet for 2014 (and also just passed his Advanced Sommelier exam) … you get the point — the guy knows his juice.
Like the ink color for which it is named, the Michelin-starred Sepia is old-school in terms of design, but the menu is decidedly contemporary American. Chef Andrew Zimmerman’s training in French, Italian and Spanish cuisine is used as a starting point for adding new flavor components such as those from North Africa.
Hon, who’s been at Sepia since it opened, first as a server and wine captain and then becoming wine director, echoes Zimmerman’s approach to food with his “food-driven” list of 700 labels. “Like his food, my wines are truly globally influenced; my list represents 95% of all of the wine producing regions in the world.”
I’ve always enjoyed Verdejo. It is a grape that straddles between Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc with muted herbal notes, like Sauvignon Blanc, but more texturally-driven, like Chardonnay.
While other fine dining wine lists most dive deep into a few specialized regions,,Hon’s list puts its emphasis on breadth … thanks in part to both philosophy and also Sepia’s small cellar logistics. “My small space forces me to buy smartly,” Hon tells us. “I have to rotate my selection more frequently, which is especially true of our by-the-glass program. I vary [the list] according to season, adding a wine that will pair with one or more dishes currently on the menu.”
Hon jokes that some might say Chicago has but two seasons — cold or warm — he truly relishes the springtime when there is an abundance of produce to work with (especially greens).
For him, a logical pairing option for these fresher ingredients is Rueda Verdejo. “I’ve always enjoyed Verdejo. It is a grape that straddles between Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc with muted herbal notes, like Sauvignon Blanc, but more texturally-driven, like Chardonnay … It fits into the wine consumption today given that Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are so popular and [Rueda] can easily fit into that profile.”
I feel that it is my job to present guests with something they haven’t had before.
But, “I don’t want to pigeon-hole Verdejo as being either Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay,” he says, noting that it’s its own thing and those are just familiar reference points. He describes the Naiades Rueda as being “a Burgundy-esque” style of Rueda.
“I feel that it is my job to present guests with something they haven’t had before, and this is one of my favorite go-to wines.” For him, “the Shaya Rueda is much cleaner and more Sauvignon Blanc in style. We’ve had very good success with this wine and use it as a good alternative to Sancerre.”
From an economic standpoint, Hon loves Spanish wines for their accessibility, particularly when discussing older vintages. “In general, I think we drink wine too young. Spain is a sweet spot for drinking older wines compared to older French wines, due to their lower price points.”
He is thrilled to be able to offer aged wines to his guests at affordable prices. Accordingly, all of the Ribera del Dueros on his list have some bottle age: Uvaguilera Palomero 2000, Arrocal Christina 2005, Alión 2007, Finca Villacreces 2009, Emilio Moro Malleolus 2009 and Áster Crianza 2010. And, nearly all of which are under $120 with several sub-$100 options – not bad considering the standard restaurant markup.
Equally important, Hon acknowledges, “These wines are table ready. We don’t have to wait several hours to decant them. They taste and perform well at opening and work within the typical two-hour dining time span.”
Simply put, “Ribera is a great choice for American palates,” Hon says, “as a great gateway to European wines, particularly for people who are used to drinking New World wines.”
Tracy Ellen Kamens is a wine educator, writer and consultant based in New York City. She holds the Certified Wine Educator credential from the Society of Wine Educators and the Wine & Spirits Education Trust’s Diploma of Wine & Spirits (with Merit) and earned a Doctorate of Education from the University of Pennsylvania.