Behind the Scenes of Henri’s Soiree des Sommeliers
Shebnem Ince

The subject of wine in Chicago has come up surprisingly often over the past week, with one publication declaring we are the “Second City of Wine,” while another actually thinks we have New York beat. Interestingly, one story that got lost a few months ago was when Henri’s sommelier, Shebnem Ince, was named one of Food & Wine’s Top Sommeliers of 2011. To celebrate, Henri decided to try something different: instead of a simple wine dinner, Ince gathered up some of her friends — who also happen to be some of the most respected sommeliers around the city — for an event called Soiree des Sommeliers. Considering the wine buzz around town, we decided to chat with all involved, including Henri’s executive chef, Dirk Flanigan, to see how the event was put together.

Ince reached out to Chad Ellegood (Tru), Dan Pilkey (RIA and Balsan), Jeremy Quinn (Webster’s Wine Bar, Bluebird, and Unnamed Logan Squre Wine Bar), and Amy Lewis (one sixtyblue), and all were thrilled to help out. Each one picked out a bottle of wine or two, and then delivered them to Flanigan. Only then did he begin to design the menu.

Flanigan worked directly with Ince to help create a dish for each wine. “It’s so cool,” he admitted to us, “we have this nonverbal way of communicating.” Though they don’t usually get to sit around and taste wine together, the two spent a few hours going over each course. Ince claimed that it was rare to start with a specific bottle of wine, “Usually, it is the other way around.”

The dinner happens tonight, but all the reservations were snatched up weeks ago. Instead, check out all the details below, along with a slideshow of everyone involved.

Passed Appetizers: Shebnem Ince of Henri
Bisson Ciliegiolo Gulfo del Tigullio, Liguria, Italy 2010
Domaine Des Huards Cour-Cheverny, Loire Valley 2009

I picked an obscure white from the Loire Valley and a red from Liguria so light it may be interpreted as a rose. I wanted to express my love for France and Italy in equal ways. I also wanted to be conscious of a progression for the rest of the evening; I chose things with high acidity and levity so that our guests’ palates would be lightly awakened before they sat down for the formal part of the dinner.

Dirk’s Dish: Oyster, Olive, Lime, Arare; Shrimp, Strawberry, Crispy Purple Rice; Baesetra Caviar, Potato, Buckwheat Cracker, Chive

Both of these wines cry for salt, and I immediately thought of briny olives. Then came the caviar, which is a twist on a traditional blini. Then, I also thought about the strawberry notes in the wine from Liguria, and decided to pair the fruit with puffed rice.

Course 1: Chad Ellegood of Tru
Balthazar Ress Riesling Rudesheim Berg Rottland, Rheingau Germany 1996

I am, as I believe most sommeliers are, a huge fan of aged Riesling. It becomes so dynamic and multi-faceted with time in the bottle. This particular one has a base flavor of orange marmalade and dried apricot, but also bursts with fresh floral and Asian spice notes. Turning people on to new, unsuspecting, things is my favorite part of the gig.

Dirk’s Dish: Escargot, Trumpet Royal Mushroom, Melted Red Onion, Crisp Pousse Pierre

It’s a pretty old wine, with this sweet apricot and mushroom-like quality to it. The earthiness kind of reminded me of the smell of leaves, which brought me to the idea of snails crawling through them. I also needed meatiness without much fat, so I picked up the trumpet royal mushrooms. The melted red onion matches the apricot flavor.

Course 2: Jeremy Quinn of Webster’s Wine Bar, Bluebird, and Unnamed Logan Square Wine Bar
Domaine de Montbourgeau L’Etoile ‘En Banode’ Jura, France 2007

I chose this because it was aged for 3 years under a veil of flor (yeast); as a result, the finished wine bears a strong relationship to fino sherry — its nutty, savory, high-acid character makes it a great pair for a wide range of fish. I imagined this wine to pair best with langoustines, sea bream, greyling, or trout.

Dirk’s Dish: Poached Sea Bream, Fiddlehead Fern, Artichoke Puree, Black Pepper Caramel

The first thing you smell is crazy, crisp green apple. The second thing is this yeasty funkiness. I wanted to do fish, but it needed heartiness, too. It worked with artichoke puree, and some fiddlehead ferns for seasonality, but that apple kept crying out. My mind went immediately to caramel, and then I thought of a black pepper caramel. It’s kind of outrageous, and definitely one of my favorite dishes.

Course 3: Dan Pilkey of RIA/Balsan
Sjouras ‘Synoro’ Pelopennese, Greece 2006

One of our focus areas on the wine list is the “Right Bank” of Bordeaux France. The right bank utilizes Cabernet Franc & Merlot grapes and creates some of my most memorable wine drinking experiences. When I was in Greece, George Skouras tasted us on about 25 wines from his cellar. After learning he did his formal training in Bordeaux France he pulls out a “Synoro” blend that has Caberent Franc, Merlot and Aghiorghitiko (a local indigenous grape) that I absolutely loved it. The wine smelled like a mini Cheval Blanc. Generally, right bank wines are softer than most Cabernets, and with the addition of Aghiorghitiko, it brings additional tannin structure and gamey notes.

Dirk’s Dish: Stone Oven Loin of Venison, Pickled Ramp, Nameko Mushroom, Beet, Butter Poached Tomato, Smoked Date Reduction

Out of nowhere, this Greek wine showed up. It shows some Bordeaux-esque qualities, but it’s also very acidic. I thought immediately about venison, and fruit and chocolate. To get seasonal, it needed mushrooms and beets. I also wanted soft and smooth acid, so I butter-poached the tomato. It’s a pretty wild dish.

Course 4: Amy Lewis of one sixtyblue
Felix Callejo ‘Vina Pilar’ Ribera Del Duero, Spain 2006

I chose the Tempranillo with the cheese course, because, for me, there is something magical about this grape and cheese. The acidity is high enough to handle the natural richness of cheese, and the non-fruit notes in the wine settle in nicely with pungent cheese. The tannic structure is soft enough not to interfere.

Dirk’s Dish: Caprichos de la Pastora, Animal Crackers, Strawberry/Cherry ‘Jam’

I started thinking about the area in Spain, and couldn’t help but think about all the fatty dishes. The cheese is moderately stinky, has a thin rind, and is a little waxy. I already have a little tart, which I pair with a duck breast, and I thought how well it would go with the wine. So we used salted duck fat in the house-made animal crackers!

Course 5: Amy Lewis of one sixtyblue
Maculan Breganze ‘Torcolato’ Veneto, Italy 2006

It is simply the perfect end to an evening. Notions of sweetness are balanced by bright acidity and aromas of honeysuckle. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t smile after taking a sip.

Dirk’s Dish: Enhanced Blueberries, Layered Corn Biscuit, Cream Cheese Ice Cream

Some of my favorite wines come from this region. Things are very European, not necessarily Italian, and there is a heartiness in the cuisine. I wanted grains to play a roll, and on the nose, there is this almond and stone fruit smell. With the blueberries, I wanted natural sweetness, and not a jammy mouth feel. So I just put a small amount of syrup under vacuum with the fruit to give it a multi-layered taste.
Behind the Scenes of Henri’s Soiree des Sommeliers