12 Career-Changing Wines from Chicago’s Diana Hawkins

© Kyle Kissel
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Here are the bottles that inspire this engineer-turned-sommelier.

Diana Hawkins started her professional life in technical sales for the manufacturing industry—think air compressors and pneumatic tools—after earning a degree in engineering. But something felt not quite right. “I was using all of my vacation time to get to wine country,” she says, “be it Santa Barbara or Paso Robles or Washington State…” When a promotion came up within her company, she decided it was time to follow her true calling.

“I dropped off my resume at a wine shop and told them I had been taking night courses at the International Sommelier Guild after work,” says Hawkins. “I figured, if the wine stuff didn’t work out, I could always lick my wounds and go back to a sales gig. Luckily, that never happened.”

Now the beverage director at Chicago’s Lula Café, she oversees a smart, rotating list of wines from producers who have unique backgrounds. (“Maybe they didn’t start out making wine; maybe they rediscovered themselves through this medium that has inspired so many other people.”) So, we tapped her for her top 12 bottles—either those that influenced her own career shift or those made by winemaking talents who were drawn to the vine from another field altogether, proving that anyone can make a life out of a subject they love.

1. 2014 Domaine de la Grande Colline 'Le Canon Primeur' Pétillant Naturel Rosé

“As a fellow nerd, I love [winemaker] Hirotake Ooka’s story. He decided mid-way through his studies (bio-chemistry, in Japan) that he wanted to make wine… specifically in the northern Rhône. He worked under several top-tier winemakers there before buying his own vines and a small winery. And now, he works in a way that is beyond minimal intervention; rumor has it he doesn't even prune because it’s too invasive. I picked up this pét-nat for a New Year’s Eve special and ran it by the glass for the month of January. It’s unpretentious, highly drinkable, and just plain fun. Think tart berries and wild flowers, with an acidity that’s mellowed by the lees still in the bottle. You can almost taste the rocks, as strange as that sounds. I’ll probably put something else on from him for the spring.”

2. 2014 Ingrid Groiss Weiner Gemischter Satz

“Ingrid Groiss was a marketing director for Coca Cola in Berlin, but her family did a little bit of winemaking for their Heuriger tavern in Austria. Her wine epiphany actually brought her back home, but she and her father had conflicting ideas on which direction to take the family estate. So she made her first vintage from vines donated by her grandmother instead. When that was a huge success, her dad passed her the reins. This is her field blend—17 grape varieties all fermented, aged, and bottled together (really, the kind of wine served in a heuriger). It’s pretty round and rich as far as Gemischter Satzs go—the fruit bordering on tropical, like mango and melon. Then you get that Grüner Veltliner pepper and a little bit of a sweet pea note, finishing on flowers and fresh fruit rather than on minerality. It’s really gorgeous.”

3. 2013 Littorai 'Charles Heintz Vineyard' Sonoma Coast Chardonnay

“This Chardonnay is amazing. It tastes like the best qualities of Burgundy… not like a full-on Meursault, but really perfectly ripe and wonderful. You get this Fiji apple, honeysuckle… Plus, it has some oak and some lees, so it’s round and silky with some body and a slight toastiness. I'd been putting off going to Sonoma for the longest time out of fear it'd be this over-commercialized, super-touristy experience. But when I finally went, Littorai was my first stop, and the big surprise was that it totally opened my eyes to biodynamics. I had read about it before, but it was a whole different thing to see it first hand: the cover crops, compost teas, the forest next to the vines, and, yes, the damn cow horn. The thing I liked most was the subtlety of it; I'm pretty sure our guide only said ‘biodynamic’ once. It was just how they farmed and thought farming should be. That was one of the moments that inspired my career move. It’s hard to have a an experience like that and not fall in love with wine.”

4. 2013 Kinero Cellars 'Alice' Paso Robles Grenache Blanc

“Anthony Yount decided to start making wine rather than pursue finance when he went on a trip to Paso Robles and fell in love with the place. He landed a job at Villa Creek and worked with them for a few years before starting this project. Grenache Blanc is a hard grape variety to characterize because it’s done in so many different ways. Some make it as they would a Chardonnay, so it’s oaked, and it’s gone through malo, and it can taste flabby. I’ve also tasted examples where they’ve used some skin contact, which makes it weirder. So whenever I have one, I’m never sure what I’m going to get. But his is like a clear vision; it has those tree fruit flavors—like pear and apricot—and this nice fresh orange zest note and an almondy hint of marzipan, in a way that isn’t sweet. It has great weight and roundness without tasting like butter and cream. It’s everything I look for in New World wines.”

5. 2015 Mouton Noir 'Love Drunk' Willamette Valley Rosé

“Mouton Noir is the brainchild of André Mack, and I definitely feel somewhat of a kindred spirit with him. He quit his job in investment banking to study wine and work in a restaurant. He started out in San Antonio as a sommelier, but he’s worked at The French Laundry… he’s worked at Per Se… he’s definitely a somm’s somm. And when I met him in person, I immediately thought 'this is a man who gets it.' The wines he’s turning out are complex, balanced, quaffable, affordable, and approachable. He’s blending Chardonnay and Pinot Noir here—which I'd never seen together in a still rosé. But it’s bright, zesty, with these great honeysuckle notes… It is a patio pounder that I plan to enjoy mass quantities of this spring.”

6. 2012 Gros Ventre 'First Born' Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

“Chris Pittenger from Gros Ventre got his start as a snowboarder and occasional sommelier in Wyoming. When I met him, he glossed over the details on his conversion to winemaking, but I can totally understand the desire to see how wine is made once you’ve been working on the other side. He’s done harvests with winemakers from all over—New Zealand, Australia, California… This was the wine that stole the show for me at the West of West tasting a couple of years ago. It was as if all of the Pinots in the room had put their best qualities into this one bottle. It screams for duck. Pinot and duck: That’s classic for a reason. It’s also great with beluga lentils, which are these kind of rich, brown lentils that absorb so much flavor.”

7. 2012 Antica Terra 'Ceras' Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

“Maggie Harrison was on a career path in conflict resolution when she switched gears to pursue wine. I'm not sure how she came to that decision, but she strikes me as the kind of person who, once their mind is set to do something, goes for it head first. I went to Oregon for this wine learning experience called Pinot Camp, and I tried dozens that were amazing, and when I had hers… You could taste that it was Oregon Pinot Noir but there was this other element. Maybe it’s her terroir that really is that different from her neighbors. Or it’s her approach in the cellar, which is really intuitive and physical. She paces and peers into every tank and barrel to decide when it’s time to bottle. It really stayed with me, and now I can’t get enough of this wine.”

8. 2013 Mas del Périé ‘You #%$& My Wine?!’ Jurançon Noir

“Fabien Jouves is the winemaker here, and although he comes from a long line of growers, he originally thought he was going to buck the trend, go finish med school, and become a doctor. When he opted instead to take over the family estate, he made some huge changes. For one, he started bottling his own wine instead of selling in bulk to other producers in Cahors, which is what his parents had been doing. And he took the estate biodynamic as of 2004. “You #%$& My Wines?!” isn't printed on the wine list here, but when the label shows up, it definitely turns into a topic of conversation! Jurançon Noir isn’t a permissible grape for Cahors AOC, so Jouves has to declassify it to Vin de France, hence the name. He calls it a vin de soif, and that ‘gulpable’ description is apt: ripe dark fruits, French funk, violets, and herbs… It’s one of our top sellers.”

9. 2013 BLANKbottle 'Confessions of a White Glove Chaser' Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon

“I don’t know how to describe [winemaker] Pieter Wasler in any kind of intelligible way, but he’s like a crazy man. Hearing him speak is like if you sat down with Iggy Pop or David Bowie or Mick Jagger and they told you about their life. He has all of these preposterous stories, from surfing for a year and almost getting eaten by a great white shark, to bicycling professionally while recovering from epilepsy, to working for the BBC… The name for this wine also comes from a story. The ‘White Gloves’ are Pieter’s name for this group of French producers who have been going around studying the soils to find the best spots for Cabernet (there’s a lot of outside investment in South Africa right now). So when they buy vines, he’ll buy the plot right next to theirs. It's genius really. And this is a damn good Cab. Like so many South African wines, it is both familiar but so subtly different you have to keep going back to the glass to try to figure it out.”

10. 2012 Sesti 'Monteleccio' Toscana Sangiovese

“Here, you have a father daughter team—Giuseppe Sesti, who is actually an astronomer (he wrote books on the subject), and Elisa, whose background is in theater design and classical architecture. The family only got started with winemaking when Giuseppe purchased the Castello di Argiano—an abandoned estate that he’s since restored—vineyards and all. They’re based near Montalcino, and this wine is what we call a ‘Baby Brunello,’ the richly fruited Sangiovese that for whatever reason doesn’t make it to the Brunello bottling. But it’s bold, has that Tuscan herb scent, and is drinking so well right now.”

11. 2011 Domaine Bourdic 'Le Puech' Côtes de Thongue

“This is made by Christa Vogel and Hans Hürlimann, a couple from Switzerland that were originally musicians. The story goes: they were planning a vacation in Italy, but it was raining there, so they ended up in the Languedoc instead and fell in love with the area. So they decided to stay, eventually buying a house with a vineyard and started to make wine as a result. I personally find they approach winemaking in a very musical way. Their wines are often blends of grapes you don't normally see together, like this one, which is Grenache, Tempranillo, and Cabernet. You taste each grape's best traits: black but also red fruit—like bright, wild strawberries—a little black pepper and cigar box, surprising acidity, great structure and silkiness.”

12. 2012 Gramercy Cellars 'Inigo Montoya' Walla Walla Tempranillo

“When I started having doubts about my corporate job, I considered grad school and booked a trip to check out the viticulture program at Washington State. I don't remember how I found Gramercy Cellars; I think someone at my motel told me the wines were nice and I should stop by, and wow was that an understatement. The gentleman manning the tasting room showed me the full lineup, and when he poured me the Tempranillo, I commented on the name. It ended up being my favorite: this full-bodied, concentrated wine. It might be the soil there that does this, but it has these really fine tannins and great texture and acidity… almost like you can taste the cold snap of Washington. Like biting into a fresh apple. To this day it’s one of the best Tempranillos I’ve tasted from outside of Spain. I might not have ended up at viticultural school, but that trip in many ways solidified by decision to transition to wine.”

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