French wine expert Patrick d’Aulan on appreciating wine

Whether you’re new to enjoying wines or an old hand, it’s always nice to hear what an expert has to say—especially one who grew up in the midst of the French champagne mystique. Such a man is Patrick d’Aulan, who recently visited Chicago.

Matthieu Grassin and Patrick d'Aulan enjoy talking about wines
Matthieu Grassin and Patrick d’Aulan enjoy talking about wines

Patrick d’Aulan (right in photo), owner of both Altamana Chilean and Alta Vista Argentinian wineries, comes from a family with 150 years of winemaking experience as owners of Piper Heidsieck champagne. But all that time and even after selling the company, d’Aulan said his father was always looking for new challenges. “He was the first to make sparkling wine in India,” said d”Aulan. “He had already gone to Sonoma and established a presence there with Piper Heidsieck.” He said his father believed in starting early to instill the appreciation of wine in his children.

“My father began teaching me and my sister to taste wines when I was 5 or 6 years old. On Sunday nights he would give us a small glass of wine, then blindfold us and put a covered plate of fruit in front of us. Smell the wine, then smell the fruit, he would say, to notice the relationship between the two.” D’Aulan recalled how early Chardonnays were always associated in his mind with pineapple.

“The fact that he made it fun really helped us learn how to taste wines,” said d’Aulan. “But I really began to learn about wines seriously from my uncle. He had a library of wines. He started me early in life by giving me a little bit of wine and a lot of water. Then each year he would increase the wine a little and decrease the water. Once I reached 18, he told me I had the right to go into his library of wines. Later, I gave him a bottle of my first wine which he had agreed to put in his library.”

“People tend to confuse the idea of having wine as part of your lifestyle with the excesses of alcoholism,” said d’Aulan. “There is no comparison. Giving a kid wine early on is a great way to introduce that child to the appreciation of wine for a lifetime.”

Technology can help, and education is very important. Matthieu Grassin (left in photo), winemaker at d’Aulan’s Alta Vista vineyards in Argentina said, “We use technology to enhance our ability to make good decisions while making our wines.” Grassin said they use an app that shows the slope and temperature variations over every square yard of their vineyards. But that’s just a tool in their winemaking scenario, D’Aulan said. He hired Grassin not just for his formal education in oenology and viticulture, but also because he had significant hands-on experience in the trenches—personally working the vineyards. “I would not trust someone who did not have this kind of experience,” said d’Aulan.

D’Aulan is proud that Alta Vista’s three single-vineyard Malbec wines are considered benchmarks of Mendoza’s old Malbec terroir wines. To help Argentina build its reputation—and so that his own wines will be part of it—he has gifted the trademark concept and use of “single vineyard” Malbec to the Argentinean National Viticulture Institute.

More memorable remarks from Monsieur d’Aulan:

  • Technology can help with changing climate conditions, but good winemakers know how to make good vintages in all kinds of weather. “When nature is not generous with us, we have to deal with it. It is the heart and courage of the winemakers that makes the difference,” said d’Aulan.
  • Global warming isn’t just a temperature threat. More frequent storms, especially hailstorms, are an even greater threat to a vineyard. They can destroy the green-leap canopy and damage the vines for the next year as well. Our protection against hail is emergency nets; against frost, it’s setting fire pots around the vineyard. One winemaker hires a helicopter to fan the air circulation against frost. These attacks cannot be predicted but rather are always completely random.
  • Cutting down on nature’s interference may make less work for a winemaker, according to d’Aulan, but a very clean vineyard is not a good sign. “It should be wild and a little dirty, with flowers and creatures.”
  • D’Aulan believes that apps like Vivino make sense. “I like to get feedback from consumers, expert or not.”
  • Winemakers usually add SO2 (sulfur dioxide) to their wines to purify them. But this is not natural. D’Aulan’s Altamana vineyard is working towards adding no SO2 to become a totally natural wine. No pesticides.

Read more about d’Aulan’s extraordinary Altamana and Alta Vista wines here.

National French Fry Day – Local take and survey winners

Wavy French fries sold in a Canadian supermarket.
Wavy French fries sold in a Canadian supermarket. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

National French Fries Day (July 13) was yesterday. Sorry we missed it, but over at this Gold Coast eatery, The Local Chicago, 198 E Delaware Pl., they’ve kicked off the celebration with a new french-fry-based dish, Cherry Pepper Poutine. Made up of hand-cut fries, rich brown gravy, Wisconsin cheese curds and fresh cherry peppers, it’s then topped with pork belly and an over-easy egg sprinkled with tasty chives. A filling meal-in-a-dish for $14.

French fries covered in cheese
French fries covered in cheese (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whether fast or fancy, some people have been known to judge a restaurant almost exclusively on how good its French fries are. Either way, it’s an honorable dish in the U.S. (deep-fried potatoes are known as chips in Great Britain), despite the French nomenclature. Read more about the history of French fries here.

Meanwhile, also in honor of National French Fries Day (July 13th), (crowd-sourced rankings) released results of its public poll asking voters to rank The Best Fast Food French Fries to determine which ones are a cut above the rest. Here are a few highlights:

  • McDonald’s French fries Take #1 Spot
  • Millennials prefer Dairy Queen French Fries and Chick-fil-A waffle fries
  • Women favor Rally’s/Checker’s seasoned fries and Culver’s fries
  • Men’s top picks included KFC Potato Wedges and Dairy Queen french fries
  • Baby boomers like Arby’s curly fries and White Castle fries


Chicago q brings barbeque to dizzying heights

Chef Lee Ann Whippen with a hunk of Wagyu beef
Chef Lee Ann Whippen with a hunk of Wagyu beef

I was recently invited to sample new menu items at Chicago Q on a complimentary basis. I’m delighted to report my experience was exceptional in almost every way. Kyle, our server, gave attentive service that didn’t overwhelm, and he was happy to share his extensive knowledge of the food. Plus, he told us a great story about how he came to work at Chicago q. Seems he worked at a nearby establishment when the manager there decided to take the employees out for a team-building lunch. It so happened the lunch was at Chicago q. Kyle was so impressed with the food and the place that within three weeks he jumped ship at the other place and came to work here.

I can see why. Almost everything we tasted here was not just delicious but also non-greasy (who gets to say that about barbeque ribs?) and exceptionally flavorful.

Complimentary B&B pickles and Pig Powder Chips
Complimentary B&B pickles and Pig Powder Chips

As soon as you sit down, your table gets a complimentary bowl of house-made sweet Bread and Butter pickles (we saw a vat of those marinating from scratch with garlic and onions) and another of their proudly Pig Powdered potato chips made in-house and flavored with the restaurant’s signature rub, made from Chef Whippen’s father’s recipe from long ago. A smart tip from Kyle: These are delicious, addictive and filling, so control yourself! You do not want to miss out on experiencing some of the other delicious menu items.

New among the starters: Pork Belly Corn Dog (made with in-house brined and smoked pork belly), Pig Powder Fries, and Smoked Alligator Sausage (clove-y, gently spiced, tender, fall-apart meat inside a traditional sausage casing, served nestled in a bed of chunky Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes). The Select-a-Style sides are new: two bucks a side for your sandwich that include a choice of: Memphis style with coleslaw, house-made B&B pickles, and a mild barbeque sauce; or Chicago style with caramelized onions and peppers and American cheese; or Southern style with crispy bacon, a fried egg and American cheese.

Two massive Southern-style smokers in the kitchen give the royal rotation-smoking treatment to everything from ribs to pork belly to whole brined chickens (brining makes the breast come out just as juicy as the dark meat).

Other new items include the Steakhouse Wedge salad, sides of grilled vegetable skewers (crisp-cooked onion, pepper, zucchini), Elote Grilled Corn with herbs, Cotija cheese and chipotle sauce (maybe slightly overcooked but lovely to look at and very tasty). Other new dishes include Shrimp Brochettes (wrapped in bacon and stuffed with Monterey cheese and poblano peppers), and the CAB house-cut Ribeye. This is just the heart of the ribeye steak, cooked

Gorgeously charred CAB ribeye
Gorgeously charred CAB ribeye (Sorry about the blur)

to your desired doneness inside a sugar-char-crust that makes a heavenly complement to the tender, juicy medallion of meat—served with house-made chunky Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes with the natural sweetness of good potato flavor and a tiny tang from the buttermilk. Don’t know how they manage to get the crust so dark and crunchy and still have the meat come out medium rare. Meltingly delicious. Another new item is the Bourbon Vegetable Kebabs (grilled zucchini, mushrooms, red onion, green pepper and tomato with a Kentucky Bourbon glaze).

The macaroni and cheese sports a crispy Panko breadcrumb topping and a mix of cheeses enrobing the curly macaroni pasta. Kyle explained that the small order we asked for was not as cheesy as the full orders. Although we couldn’t finish the skillet because of all the other excellent dishes we had, I sure enjoyed the hell out of the leftovers for breakfast the next morning. Plus you can get the Mac’n’Cheese Pitmaster style: mixed with your choice of bites of one or more of Baby Back Ribs, American Kobe Brisket Burnt Ends, Pulled Pork, Pulled Chicken, Bacon or Smoked Corn.

Charcoal-grilled bacon slabs
Charcoal-grilled bacon slabs

The Q Bacon appetizer takes a seriously thick hunk from the same spot on the pig that your grocery-store bacon comes from but then performs a small miracle with it. Think a quadruple-thick-sliced, maple-glazed chunk of smoked pork grilled on a super-hot charcoal grill. This is not your mother’s bacon, people. The leftovers next day made a scrumptious dinner with a baked potato and steamed green beans.

Did I tell you Chef Lee Ann Whippen wears earrings with little dangling gold pigs? She grew up visiting a hog farm that one of her relatives owned, and she does not kid around about her love of all things pig.

Honey Butter Cornbread pleases everyone!
Honey Butter Cornbread pleases everyone!

The Honey Butter Cornbread was a huge hit for us—and with our 8-year-old lunch companion, who by the way also inhaled her grilled hamburger—while the more savory version of the cornbread, Poblano Cheddar, promised to be equally rewarding. The Watermelon Feta Salad sounded appealingly refreshing. And then there was an intriguing list of other sides: Bruleed Mac’n’cheese, American Kobe Brisket Baked Beans, Red Bliss Potato Salad, and Braised Greens. Heck, you could make a satisfying meal just out of sides here.

Q'x Competition Ribs and veg skewer
Q’x Competition Ribs and veg skewer

As for the ribs, we had to try the Chef’s Competition Ribs (at $38 for a full slab a bit pricier than the regular ribs at $20/$29), but for good reason. The rub on Competition Ribs is bolder than the signature Pig Powder used on the regular ribs. The meat is cooked two hours longer at a lower temperature, plus the Chef adds other ingredients that make these ribs even tenderer and spicier. Chef Lee Ann Whippen wins competitions all over the country with this recipe. And it’s clear why. Incredibly tender, sweet meat falls effortlessly away from the bone yet maintains a firm texture and an integrity that surpasses any we’ve tasted before. Thanks to Kyle’s suggestion, I dipped this beautiful meat into a combination of the Kansas City spicy sauce mixed with a little of the mustard sauce. Perfection. Really. I rarely eat meat and never as much as I happily consumed at Chicago q that day.

Irresistible Oreo-crusted peanut butter pie - we'd already started eating before we remembered to take the photo
Irresistible Oreo-crusted peanut butter pie – we’d already started eating before we remembered to take the photo

Oh, and the Chef insisted we save room for dessert and had us try a piece of her justly famous Peanut Butter Pie. A thick, firm crust made from Oreo cookies plus the filling formed the container for an exceptionally light-yet-rich filling made of undisclosed ingredients (maybe including cream cheese with fluffy beaten egg whites to lighten it?) whipped together and delicately flavored with peanut butter. We, I’m embarrassed to say, ate the whole thing.

All in all, this is a place I will definitely come back to and am already recommending unreservedly to friends and acquaintances. My companion, whose husband’s ribs have been her total favorite for many years, insists she is bringing him back here with her ASAP (they live in Cleveland so it’ll be a long way to come to learn that your ribs are no longer the fairest in the land).

Q's chalkboard list of bourbons
Q’s chalkboard list of bourbons

In fact, Chicago q is having a Woodford Reserve Bourbon Dinner this July 7. It’s only $65, including cocktails, and my friend and I already have reservations. I don’t even know the full menu yet, but I can almost guarantee, if you appreciate barbeque at all, you’ll love it.

P.S. They have a cool upstairs for private parties and a BYOq (Build Your Own q) catering menu of all their specialties. And their weekend brunch sounds great with items like Carrot Cake Pancakes, Cheddar Chive Biscuits & Gravy and more. Saturdays and Sundays 10 to 3.