The vibrant red door leading into the restaurant of the same name in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood is more than a traditional symbol for hospitality. It represents the bright future of gastro-bistro-pubbery. It’s also a gateway to the unsuppressed – even florid – opinions of Red Door’s general manager, R.J. Wall.
Originally from Indianapolis, and bringing with him the Hoosier State’s particular craving for craft beer, Wall is affably outspoken – not just about beer, but wine, too. His impassioned demeanor resonates with guests, gets them talking about the imbibing options, the cuisine and the alfresco-dominated ambience.
The dearth of substance that can be witnessed on Yelp is replenished and then some at Red Door because of this dynamic. All of this, of course, gets relayed to chef Troy Graves, who then might tweak the menu items accordingly – Yelp happily notwithstanding. And Wall gets back to work crafting his wine and beer options, making sure Red Door’s guests always have new tastes and experiences awaiting them.
Chicago Budget Wine Examiner sat down with one of Chicago’s more enthusiastic restaurant general managers to discuss the alcoholic beverage industry, and Red Door’s beverage program within it:
Chicago Budget Wine Examiner: What’s the philosophy behind Red Door’s wine list? Did your wine background influence its compilation?
R.J. Wall: As I came into and studied the wine world in the early 2000s, I first noticed the “core” wines – your oaked Chardonnays, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Rieslings, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Restaurant managers would just drum those varietals into your head. But, there are a lot of great wines being made out there in the $8-$12 range that are being overlooked. The thing is, you can have a lot of fun with these wines, and you can learn something about something different and cool (and not pay such a huge premium). That’s the route I wanted to take: Put a really delicious, affordable wine in front of someone, where they could go outside of their comfort level. This way, they wouldn’t have to spend upwards of $40 on a bottle of wine and be worrying, “Will this wine measure up? Will it be good?” When customers have an opportunity to try a glass-pour of something unique and value-priced, there’s a greater chance that they will be adventurous.
CBWE: So, this is the first place where you’ve made the list truly your own creation – where you’ve had the artistic license?
RJW: Yes. Earlier on, in my previous restaurant experience, the conventional approach was really the only approach. And this was true (at the place) right before I came here – I would see the young, hip wine drinkers were craving something new, but ownership was still bent on emphasizing Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Malbec. But, it worked for them. When you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, why go through the trouble? But here, my favorite thing is that I can say: That’s my beer list; that’s my wine list. I didn’t inherit them from someone else. And, every day, I think: “What can I do to make this work even better?” Or, “What can I switch out?” That way, it doesn’t become stagnant, and in turn, my staff becomes better educated with a good knowledge foundation.
CBWE: Do you taste everything before you add it to your wine or beer list?
RJW: If it’s going on my glass-pour list, I absolutely taste everything. Also, I never take notes on the wines I taste until the sales reps leave. Why? Because I feel like it’s rude to them – it makes it look like I’m critiquing their wine right in front of them.
CBWE: Do you and Troy collaborate on the list and menu?
RJW: No. My input on the food to him is from the feedback I receive from customers. I relay those opinions to him. And by opinions, I mean honest ones – so I open up a dialogue. If I hear the same thing several times – good or bad – then there’s a consistency that I can communicate, and that works best for him. When we do some wine and beer dinners with wineries and breweries, that’s when we have more in-depth conversations about pairings. The majority of the glass pours on the list can be enjoyed alone, without food.
CBWE: How is wine viewed at Red Door with respect to the other beverage alternatives?
RJW: Wine and beer are really neck-and-neck; I sell more cocktails than anything else. But I will see couples come and sit on the deck. I’ll notice the woman having a glass of wine, and her husband is trying a new beer. And one of them will usually say, “I’ve never had this before, I really like it; it’s pleasantly different.” When people comment like this, it really spurs conversation about so many different (drink) options. I think this kind of passion is very much a characteristic of the Millennial generation.
CBWE: Do you think the recession has changed the way people drink and their perception of value? D you think these changes have been built into perpetuity, or when good times return, will people go back to expensive brands?
RJW: I think people of my generation have broken down the doors of pretentiousness and snobbery. Pabst Blue Ribbon is the prime example of what happened when really expensive things went out of fashion. I drink Pabst a lot, and I consider myself a big beer snob. The same thing happened with wine. You can get a lot of really good bottles of juice – that are well made and a good value – for a great price. Am I going to really love an $800 bottle of Pinot Noir? I probably will. But, is it worth that much versus something that $70, which also is pretty damn good? That’s hard to answer, because that value gap is really tremendous. If the economy really picks up, I don’t think people’s drinking habits will revert back (to pre-recession practices).
CBWE: Please recommend both a white and red value wine, priced at less than $15 at retail, and what you would pair with each.
RJW: Judith Beck makes a Blaufrankisch for $12. I’d just pair that with my patio on a fall evening. It’s absolutely delicious. I could sit there with blue cheese, some cured meat or capicola and a drop of honey, and that’s just a perfect evening experience.
For white wine, I like Chateau Tuilerie Pagés white Bordeaux – Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. It’s great with Troy’s rhubarb salad.