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Picking out wine for a BYOB restaurant

I have a group of friends who have likely eaten at every BYOB restaurant in Chicago.

For them, it’s a great way to explore the city’s dynamic dining scene at a cheaper price. It’s also a chance for them to educate themselves on wines, and they have so much fun while doing it. But after awhile, everyone gets stuck in a rut and brings the same wines again and again to gatherings. They really need to mix it up!

So I sought the advice of several well-respected, local wine experts who spend their days and nights seeking out the best wines for every occasion. Whether it’s a BYOB outing with a significant other or large gathering, they all have their favorites and offer great recommendations on how much to spend, what to get and where to get them.

“When it comes to BYO-ing, I probably have the reverse logic of most people,” says Jon McDaniel, general manager at Oon Chicago, which opens in the West Loop in June. “I always start with the wine. Being in the industry, I am lucky to have a pretty decent collection of both rock star wines and great everyday selections at my house. With that in mind, BYO is a great opportunity for me to take some of these wines out in the world and have someone else do the cooking.”

Once McDaniel has a wine in mind (his favorite is Riesling from the Rheingau in Germany), he decides on where he’ll experience it. It’s typically a Thai or Vietnamese restaurant, but every now and then he will challenge himself.

“BYO is a great way to test the flexibility of a wine,” he says. “I had a great experience recently at 4 Suyos in Logan Square for a friend’s birthday. Eight people. Twelve bottles. Great Peruvian food. I found that this great rosé of Mourvèdre from the Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara called Liquid Farm is great for ceviche. It was one of the most perfect pairings I have ever had.”

McDaniel offers additional tips for the BYOB novice and connoisseur:

  1. BYO is also a great opportunity to enjoy and create an experience with wine and food, so it lends itself to more of a group setting. Being able to meet up with friends and each brings something different is a perfect way to not only try a lot of different wines, but learn about the palates of your friends.  
  2. When going to a casual BYO, pick a wine that is within your normal budget for a bottle of wine when dining at home. Wine should be an ingredient to the bigger picture of your meal, so don’t go too crazy. Learn your neighborhood and seek out a bottle shop or make a connection with a guy at Binny’s or Whole Foods and find something that would go with the food. If you are drinking $15 bottles at home, then pick out a solid $15 bottle.
  3. When going to a BYO for a special occasion, use your restaurant wine budget as a guide. If you normally spend between $50-$60 at a restaurant for wine, go to your bottle shop and buy a great bottle for $50. Fifty dollars at a retail store can be sometimes up to $150 at a restaurant, so you are able to use your dollar to get a much better wine.

As the Northern Illinois district manager for Terlato Wines, Annie McDonnell is a big cheerleader for BYOBs. Those wishing to get the best out of their BYOB experiences, she advises, should make it a point to get familiarized with the wine stores. Her personal favorites include Andersonville Wine & SpiritsLush Wine’s & SpiritsWine Discount Centers and Schaefer’s in Skokie.

“Befriend one of the clerks there. You will use them again and again if the suggestion works!” she recommends.

McDonnell’s tastes for BYOB range from sparkling wine ($30-$100) when dining for a special occasion with a significant other to sangiovese, pinot noir or merlot for casual outings with friends.

“You have a better chance to appease everyone’s palate and pair with the food,” she explains.

McDonnell offers additional tricks to make the best picks:

• “Sometimes I will ask my wine retailer what is ‘hot’ right now that they recently tasted. Why? I love a wine I have never tried before.”

• “Wine Discount Center has the best selection of grower champagnes at very reasonable prices. Labels that one might not find at Binny's, and might be too expensive at a smaller boutique shop: H. Billiot Rosé, Jose Dhondt Blanc de Blancs and Paul Goerg are among my favorites; all $40-$50.”

• “Know what type of food you are eating, what your guests’ like and your budget you want to spend. Do you have that bottle you have been sitting on? Bring it!”

Another fan of Wine Discount Center is Jennifer Tietz, the sommelier at Tru. Since most people don’t know what they will order in advance, she suggests going with lighter reds.

“They tend to be very versatile in this situation; might not be perfect, but will work with fish or meat,” she says. “I'll probably head to (Wine Discount Center)’s Burgundy section, as they have many highly sought-after producers that you might not find elsewhere: Leroy, Raveneau, Bachelet. These can range from $20 and up.”

When dining with a group, lighter Italian reds tend to be a great and cost-effective choice, she adds. “There's a little shop by my apartment called The Noble Grape that sells one of my favorites: Vietti Tre Vigne Barbera ($20-$30). Binny's also has a wide selection of esoteric Italian reds; I love the Tenuta della Terre Nere Etna Rosso ($20-$30).”

Tietz offers one more piece of valuable advice when BYOB-ing: “Unless you go online and select your courses beforehand, you probably won't end up with a ‘perfect pairing.’ So just drink what you like. Or better yet: Pair the wine to your mood, the occasion, the weather.”

As a partner at Candid Wines, Damien Casten gets to travel all over the globe exploring the world of wines. When he’s at home, he explores the city, making great connections with boutique wine stores to carry his products.

While he’s not a big BYOB-er, he does spend time at home sipping fine wines with his significant other over homemade dinners. When they’re celebrating something big, he goes for the sparkling, of course.

“I love our vintage Champagne Pierre Moncuit - 2002 Blanc de Blanc “Extra Brut,’” he says. “It’s a total luxury for sitting down with one other person. It stops conversation and brings everything back to the wine. It’s 100 percent chardonnay, very crisp and straight lined, but it opens up on the back end.” For $75, you can pick it up at Perman Wine Selections in the West Loop.

When Casten’s celebrating special moments with a group, he goes for a Cremant ($18-$25). “If it’s a crowd that likes wine, this is definitely a crowd pleaser. It pairs well like a bubbly and works with a good dish or appetizer.” Cremant can be found at Pastoral Artisan Cheese, Bread & Wine.

Casten also appreciates a great, healthy red, and his favorite for a group outing is Porter Creek Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($30). It’s an organic wine from one of the first biodynamic estates in the Russian River Valley. “It’s deep enough to justify a bit more money,” he explains, “but not as esoteric as some of the more expensive wines I’ve mentioned.” It’s available at Green Grocer Chicago.

Rachael Johnson is the sommelier at the pricy David Burke Primehouse, but when she decides to BYOB, she keeps it simple, yet tasteful.

“The larger the group of people, the less money I spend per bottle, unless I’m planning to bring a number of bottles of the same wine,” she says.

Her current obsession is Washington Riesling (“Its subtle hints of apricot and peach make it an ideal choice for any special occasion”), and she picks it up at Red & White Wines or Wine Discount Center for $20-$25.

She also frequents Whole Foods for wine selections. “Their purchasing power leads to some fantastic retail deals. I usually stay around $15 and tend towards (Albariño or grenache) wines that can match well with a number of things.”

More valuable tips from Johnson:

• “Every meal can be turned into a celebration simply by adding bubbles! Pick out a good cava, Champagne or even a Tasmanian bottle to get the evening off to a good start. Wine Discount is my choice for purchasing these, and for special occasions it’s ok to splurge. However, a good special occasion wine shouldn’t run over $60.”

• “If you plan to bring more than one bottle to any casual outing or special occasion, bring one of your favorites, but also bring something new to you. It could be a great discovery.”

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