This is The Feast 14, in which we highlight the most anticipated projects of the new season. Here, Liz Mendez explains how she and husband Mark Mendez (formerly of Carnivale) will make their forthcoming wine bar, Uva, ground zero of a sherry revolution.
When it opens in the West Loop in mid-October, Uva hopes to fill a niche as a "chef-driven wine bar." That chef is Mark Mendez, formerly of Carnivale, and the eclectic wine program will be headed by his wife, Liz, who is on a quest to dispel myths about sherry, marsala, and wine on tap. The Feast spoke with Liz Mendez in the dusty, still-under-construction restaurant as she preached the gospel of misunderstood Spanish grapes.
Why the focus on sherry?
A couple wine friends and I are trying to start a sherry revolution. The push came from the fact that we're going to be doing Spanish cuisine at Uva, and sherry is so food-friendly and a huge part of the cuisine in Spain.
When did you know sherry was going to be important to Uva?
One of the best delicacies to come out of Spain is jamon Iberico, and it's so traditional to have that pork with sherry. When the ham first became legal in the United States, the distributor who sold it was coming around with the ham and a glass of sherry. After Mark and I tried that combination, I told him we had to feature sherry because it pays homage to so much of the food we're going to do.
What's the challenge going to be?
Sherry gets a bad rap. It has that sweet, "old lady wine" connotation. People think all sherry is the same and all sherry is sweet, and that's not the case. Finos and manzanillas are definitely more dry. The grape that sherry comes from is called 'palomino', which means horse in Spanish, and it's quite versatile.
You have a photo of New York's Terroir tacked to the wall. Why?
Sherry education in and of itself is quite a project. We want to do for sherry what Terroir and Paul Grieco have done for Riesling with The Summer of Riesling, Fingers crossed. I may have to give it away in the beginning to convince people.
What else is different about your wine program?
We're going to do quite a bit of wine on tap. One reason we want to do it is because it gives us so many benefits that we can pass on to the customers. First is affordability. We're saving on corks, bottles, foils, and closures, so we can offer great wines by the glass for $7. It also has the environmentally-friendly, less waste aspect. Just as Chicago embraced craft beers on tap, we want to show that you can get small-batch, artisanal wines on tap as well.
Is it easy to find distributors to do wines on tap?
It's interesting that you asked that, because...no. It's a lot of work for distributors on the back end. Just as with beer on tap, the distributor has to pick up the keg when you're done, clean it, and go through a whole process. Wine distributors are used to just dropping off a case and being done with it. But I think as more restaurants demand wines on tap, it will grow, just like screw caps did. At first, people wouldn't drink wines with screw caps, and now you have bottles coming out of France with them.
Which pours on your wine list will surprise people?
We're going to do some esoteric, oddball stuff, just to give people options. We want to have some of the usual suspects but from different parts of the world. You might see a chardonnay on the list, for example, but it might be from Austria. Or we might bring in a sipping marsala. People think that's bad cooking wine, but we're here to dispel myths like that. [The Feast]
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