Top California Wineries Are Taking Their Tasting Rooms to the Midwest

You don't have to head to Napa for a wine country tasting room experience.

The Oakville Grill & Cellar rendering

Lettuce Entertain You

The old saying goes, if you can’t make it to wine country, bring wine country to you. OK, maybe no one has ever said that, but if they did, that might be the slogan for a first-of-its-kind restaurant opening in Chicago this spring. 

When The Oakville Grill & Cellar, the latest concept from Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises (LEYE), opens its doors in Chicago’s Fulton Market neighborhood sometime this spring, it will evoke the best of not only Napa Valley — as the name Oakville might suggest — but all of California wine country. That means sourcing the highest-quality ingredients from ranches and farms throughout the state, but also from the Midwest. Most importantly, it means having a wine list dedicated entirely to showcasing wine from the Golden State. 

LEYE wine director Richard Hanauer said this will be Chicago’s first wine list to focus entirely on wine from throughout California. To further bring California wine country to Chicago, he plans to recreate one acclaimed winery’s tasting room experience each month in the Cellar Door, an intimate six-seat setting tucked away within the 250-seat restaurant bathed in warm colors, natural textures like stone and oak wood, and earth-toned distressed leather.

BBQ Salmon from The Oakville

Lindsay Eberly

Robert Sinskey Vineyards will be the first winery featured in the Cellar Door, followed by Ridge Vineyards and Shafer. Hanauer says he wants guests to experience a tasting menu from California wineries with name recognition, at least to start. During the hour-long experience, people will taste the same flight currently being featured at that winery’s on-site tasting room; this typically comprises four to six pours, often with an extra pour of something special reserved for the tasting room experience. Like at any good tasting room, you can purchase bottles and sign up for the wine club at the end of the experience at the Cellar Door. 

“Once you step into a tasting, you’re part of that program,” Hanauer says. “I wanted to bring that experience of enjoying wine country to Chicago, which couldn’t be further removed from the vineyards.”

Apart from the tasting experience, diners in the main restaurant can delve deeper to taste what’s happening in California wine from the 750-bottle list that represents upwards of 500 wineries, and approximately 100 appellations. While half of the list will come from Sonoma and Napa counties, the rest encompasses wineries from lesser-known and emerging areas like Lodi, Anderson Valley, Paso Robles, Happy Canyon, and the Sierra Foothills. 

“What makes me happy about bringing these smaller appellations into play is they guarantee guests get a dynamic wine experience,” Hanauer says.

Hanauer is working closely with chef Max Robbins (former culinary director and managing partner at Land and Sea Dept., and executive chef of Longman & Eagle) to bring the essence of casual California dining to Chicago’s Fulton Market. Robbins’ menu includes chilled and raw bar classics, toasted sourdough with house cultured butter, and a bacon and onion pizzette. There’s also a chopped salad with California artichoke, peppers, avocado, and lemon yogurt, barbecue-glazed grilled Faroe Island salmon with stone ground grits and aged gouda, and buttermilk fried chicken with Napa Valley potato salad.

“It’s a return to the American comfort food restaurant with a casual Napa attitude and style,” Robbins said. “But it’s still very much Chicago.”

Hanauer says the team has worked to offer a balanced, casual experience where anyone can come in on a Tuesday for a casual meal and a great glass of wine, but also go big on a Saturday night to celebrate. Regardless of when someone goes in, he wants to make sure they’re finding something new every time — if they want to. 

Fried chicken and salad from The Oakville

Lindsay Eberly

“The big deal is I want to make sure California wine is really represented,” he says. “There are so many genres and styles of California wine and they all deserve their due and attention.”

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