Wine Service at Alinea

Michael Nagrant / 08.05.07

The last temptations a professional French horn player seeking transcendent tone needs are the temperate climes, azure beaches, and snow dusted peaks of the Canary Islands. But for an itinerant orchestral player who spent six frigid winters as a freelance player in Berlin, the warm life beckoned, and Joe Catterson joined the Orquesta Sinfonica de Tenerife.

While it was a rewarding opportunity to ply his craft, the alluring surroundings and an undemanding performance schedule threatened his resolve.Tenerife’s quirky bureaucracy, (it took three months for Catterson to get a phone line installed) also took its toll, and Catterson headed to Los Angeles to spend time with family.

What he imagined would be a short stint turned into two years of working well-paying restaurant jobs and too many languid afternoons watching the horses run at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park. The move turned out to be a good bet though, as one of his managers inspired him to think more critically about wine, rekindling a childhood passion.  When other 15 year olds boys were indulging in horror movies or comic books, Catterson poured through tomes on wine. He almost applied to UC Davis’s enology program before choosing music school.

Intent on restarting his music career, Catterson left LA for Chicago.  While studying with a prominent horn player for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, he volunteered with the Chicago’s Beverage Testing Institute, which forced him to taste critically, take rigorous notes, and to communicate about what was in his glass. Most importantly, he gained confidence in his wine judgement. Though he still harbored musical ambitions, Catterson spent much of his time speaking with winemakers, tasting, reading, and engaging customers to measure the effectiveness of his wine pairings at a series of hallowed Chicago restaurants including Le Francais, Les Nomades, and Trio.

Catterson, with his superhero jawline and barrel torso exhibits the sturdiness of a former NFL linebacker.  But, during his third year working at Trio, a neck injuring car accident made playing the horn difficult, and Catterson finally retired from music and embraced the sommelier life.

Catterson’s success as Alinea’s general manager and wine director is rooted in the traits required of an accomplished musician. Catterson’s flavor recall reminds one of a composer parsing notes in his head for a new symphony. George Molitor, owner of Fine Vines, a Chicago distributor says, “Joe might taste a hundred wines, disappear for six months and then show up with request for a specific wine from that tasting.”

Palate memory is only a starting point.  Catterson says, “My record for wine pairing from memory turns out like Peter Lynch’s theories on picking stocks.  For every five wines, I’ll have one that tanks, three that perform so so, and one great pick.”  Discipline is the quintessence of Catterson’s approach. Just as he once parsed etudes and orchestral excerpts, Catterson ardently tastes.

The summer before Alinea opened, Chef Achatz tested recipes in Alinea managing partner, Nick Kokonas’s kitchen. Like a DJ carting milk crates filled with vinyl to a gig, Catterson showed up at Kokonas’s house with twelve cases of wine to find the perfect grape compliments to Achatz’s dishes.

Kokonas says, “It was hard to stay professional.  I’m a wine lover, and it was amazing to see 150 bottles spread out on my dining room table — and then to open most of them! There is a romantic notion of a sommelier who instinctively pulls out just the right bottle to pair with a particular food.  The reality is that such knowledge requires tasting a great many wines, taking detailed notes, and having a fantastic taste-memory.”

Two years later, with the restaurant in full swing, when there’s a menu change, there are still dozens of bottles open in the cellar, reflecting Catterson and his head sommelier Craig Sindelar’s constant pursuit for the ideal pairing.

Ironically, as Sindelar and Catterson taste in a cellar outfitted with wooden alcoves filled with dusty gems like Penfolds Grange, Krug champagnes, and a pick of first growth Bordeaux, the wines they’re slating for pairing are likely to be small grower Champagnes, cult Rieslings, and exceptional but unheralded grapes like Ligurian Bosco, Friulian Schioppettino, Portuguese Baga, Grecian Moschofilero, or Scheurebe from the Pfalz. Some wines used at Alinea are of such small production runs that the restaurant blows through an entire allotment for the Midwest in a month or two of service.

Despite the seriousness with which they work, stuffiness never rules. On occasion, you might catch Sindelar, a native Wisconsinite, padding around the cellar in his foam Green Bay Packers cheesehead hat. Texture and taste is paramount to pedigree.

Because Catterson is such a rigorous taster, he needed a chef that would give him ingredient lists and assemble sample dishes, instead of unveiling new plates at the last minute, to flourish.  He needed a chef who was so convinced of the importance of wine that he’d wade through a musty vat of the stuff.

In between stints at the French Laundry, chef Achatz took a job as an assistant winemaker at Napa Valley based La Jota vineyards under the tutelage of Bill Smith. Smith is a purist who believes in applying delicacy at all stages of the winemaking process from hand picking grapes to gravity only movement of juice from tank to barrel.  Smith also believes in crushing grapes manually.

One morning, Achatz says Smith handed him a swimsuit and told him to get ready to get wet. Minutes later, Achatz found himself hip deep in the winery’s one ton fermenters separating skins from pulp with his toes.

Making wine, tasting barrel samples daily, and even swimming in grapes, Achatz realized that wine is a living breathing organism, borne from as much craft, attention to detail, and finesse as his cooking, and it deserved just as much attention. At Alinea, 80% of diners order the wine pairings over whole bottle service, whereas with most restaurants in America, it’s the other way around. At a run-of-the-mill-ruddy-steak-dripping-in-bordelaise joint, you can open up any bottle of red, and you’ll be in the pairing ballpark, but Achatz’s dishes which feature a cavalcade of flavors and textures, require a particular focus from a sommelier.

This makes Catterson a perfect partner, as he’s as devoted and attentive to finding the right wine as Achatz is to cooking. Catterson pays close attention to levels of alcohol and sugar, balance of acidity and tannin, the types of acid, the type and size of the tannins, and the level of fruit extraction in a bottle. He studies the winemaker’s choice of and use of wood and pays careful attention to mouthfeel, texture, and the viscosity of a wine. For him a wine can be thin, thick, light, heavy, slippery, satiny, vibrant, dull, velvety, and chewy.

Because of Achatz’s and Catterson’s intense nuanced effort, the food improves the wine and the wine improves the food.  You can have an incredible meal without Catterson’s wine choices and you can enjoy an unbelievable wine tasting without Achatz’s dishes, but putting the two together results in the best complete experience.

Consider Catterson’s philosophy on the aperitif as an opportunity to prime the palate. Dry champagne is often a logical opening choice, but pairing such a pour with Achatz’s sweet skewing amuses, like a steelhead roe topped croquette embellished with candied flowers, is akin to brushing your teeth before sipping orange juice. Just as the hint of sweetness of the appetizer might lead one to perceive a dry Champagne as tart and not entirely pleasing, the dry Champagne might exaggerate the hint of sweetness of the appetizer, affecting one’s perception of the intended balance of flavors of the dish. To temper this effect, Catterson will often add a touch of sweetness to champagne through the introduction of other wines or liqueurs. In this case a splash of Pineau des Charentes, with its ripe orchard fruit, caramel, and spice notes, creates a Champagne cocktail that serves as a delicious aperitif which pairs flatteringly with the croquette.

At Alinea, wine pairings are also used to amplify or draw out flavors in a dish. In the summer tour menu, the smoky cedar and berry notes of Henschke “Johann’s Garden” Grenache/Mourvedre/Shiraz are a liquid echo of Achatz’s blackberry topped tobacco infused custard dish.

Sometimes a dish calls for the intense fruit or higher alcohol content of a cordial or spirit rather than a wine. In the summer menu, Catterson tempers Crème de Cassis with a Moscato rosa to create a kir that stands up to rich chocolate ganache and an intense hibiscus infused lollipop.

With a dish like “crispy chicken skin with truffle, corn, and thyme”, even beer has a place on the Alinea pairing list. Mike Carroll, Alinea’s bread baker doubles as their in-house brewmaster. A self-proclaimed “yeasthead”, when Carroll took the job at Alinea, he chose his apartment based on its close proximity to the Hopleaf, one of Chicago’s best beer bars. Carroll says his approach to brewing is like “making a risotto”. Many brewers tend to let their mash steep undisturbed, but Carroll constantly stirs his to encourage the starches to break down as much as possible, resulting in a fuller bodied brew. His most recent lager style beer for the restaurant, made from spicy and herbal Tettnager hops and Vienna malt (which has more flavor and adds more golden color than typical brewer’s malts) displays grapefruit and orange notes and a hint of rye.

Achieving the proper wine and spirits match is as visceral and intellectual as it is practical. Catterson and his team watch customer’s reactions and speak to them constantly about the pairings. Despite his personal feeling, if customers aren’t enamored, Catterson’s never reluctant to go back to the cellar to discover a new bottle.

The simple mechanics of deploying such a detailed wine and spirits program are painstaking. An Alinea tour menu might have 12 different pairings, and on an average night of service this means 600 or more pours and a similar number of glasses for the dishwasher. The restaurant’s wine glasses are even separated from the rest of the serviceware and cleaned in a dedicated glass washer.

The consideration given to the marriage of food and wine by Achatz and Catterson is singular and precise. Most of us understand the interplay of the spicy notes of a Cabernet with the rich gaminess and heat of a rare dry aged pepper coated steak or the grace of a cold beer washing down a hot dog. Yet outside of sommeliers and serious wine enthusiasts, few of us have experience with sweet high acid rieslings, stony Gruner Veltliners, or viscous Moscato. And yet, if you dine at Alinea, each of Catterson’s pairings of these varietals is as intuitive as chasing a molten chocolate chip cookie with a creamy glass of milk.

The pairings are so enlightening, that over two years after dining at Alinea, I can still recall a dish of Lobster ravioli with chanterelles, a duo of basil and carrot juice infused ravioli filled with coconut powder. Catterson matched this dish with a 2003 Muller Catoir Haardter Burgergarten Riesling Spatlese Trocken. Orange notes in the wine punched out a citrus haze from the carrot ravioli while other tropical flavors in the wine wrapped around the coconut.  One sip alongside a bite of the dish channeled a lazy afternoon lolling in the waves of the Caribbean, or in Catterson’s case, the Canary Islands.