An Italian inspiration rustic chic restaurant in the heart of Chicago’s Gold Coast
The interview to Bret Heiar, Wine Director of Nico Osteria in ChicagoThe best of Italian cuisine paired with European wines to propose to the American audience the perfect combination. Bret Heiar, Wine Director and sommelier, tells us about the wine list of one of the most well known Italian restaurants in the USA, Nico Osteria, a rustic chic restaurant along the Gold Coast of Chicago, recently named by the Daily Mail as one of the 10 best Italian restaurants in the world outside Italy. Every day Bret Heiar suggests with passion the best varieties of Italian wines that he chose accurately during his travels around Europe.
How do you choose the wines of your wine list? Is there a criteria?
I choose the wines following these criteria. A) If they are delicious B) How they were farmed C) How they pair with our food D) If they have typicity- if they taste like where they're from and have a sense of place. Italy is one of the most culinarily diverse countries in the world and so are its wines, the wines should be as diverse as the food and not covered by wine-making.
You have a very interesting wine list, with a description of the different Italian territories…
Our list is comprised of 200 labels of Italian, Greek and Grower Champagne wines. Italy makes up about 95 percent of the total. The wine list is divided into groups of "Regioni" and each group has a meaningful title: "Crossing the Rubicon" (Friuli Venezia-Giulia, Trentino and Valle d’Aosta), "The Three Kings" (Piemonte, Veneto and Toscana), "Mezzo" (Umbria and Abruzzo), "Soul of the Boot" (Puglia, Calabria, Campania), "Island Treasures" (Sicilia and Sardegna). For each section there is a brief description with the main characteristics of the wines in that area.
Which relationship is there between your cuisine and the wine list?
A very close one, food and wine should be friends not competitors. All of our products in the kitchen are carefully chosen, and so are the wines. We place as much attention on the farmers who grow our ingredients as we do the vineyards that produce our wine.
Who decides the wine selection? Do you have a Wine Director?
Wine Director Bret Heiar
How do you propose wines to clients? Is there a sommelier at disposal of your clients?
Yes, either the Wine Director or the Assistant Sommelier, our staff is also extremely knowledgeable.
Is there a philosophy in the choice of wines connected to cuisine?
Yes, as stated previously, Italy is very regional and very diverse. When I think of Piedmont, I think of butter and risotto. Puglia makes me think of olive oil and tomatoes. The wine is also diverse in its flavor profile, the wines of Piedmont are perfect for the food of Piedmont etc. People unfortunately think of all of Italy as spaghetti and red sauce, when it couldn't be further from that. Friuli has Slavic influences, Alto Adige was a part of Austria until about 1919, Val d' Aosta has Swiss influences etc etc.
Which is the relationship of your clients with Italian wines?
The beauty about selling Italian wines is that most guests don't have much experience with them. They are a blank slate. Whereas guests often have go-to producers and varietals from other regions, with Italy as a whole people seem to be a lot more open minded to suggestions and trying something new. It makes the role as the wine director much more engaging, and has created a lot of fantastic relationships with guests by opening up dialog about varietals, producers and regions.
And for those who are familiar with Italian wines?
For those that are familiar with Italian wines, we focus on older vintages and smaller producers to offer wines they might not see elsewhere.
Which is the sensibility toward the price of the wines?
I think there is tremendous value in Italian wines compared to other places in the world.
About Nico Osteria
From the team behind One Off Hospitality Group, Executive Chef Paul Kahan and restaurateurs Donnie Madia, Terry Alexander and Kimberly Galban present Nico Osteria. An Italian-inspired seafood restaurant, Nico Osteria at Thompson Chicago hotel brings rustic simplicity to the heart of Chicago’s Gold Coast. Chef Erling Wu-Bower’s house-made pastas and fresh seafood, alongside Pastry Chef Leigh Omilinsky's unconventionally creative and approachable style are perfectly suited for the setting’s rustic elegance. The wine list is chosen by Wine Director Bret Heiar.
Wine Director, Bret Heiar
Longtime wine collector and sommelier, Heiar sipped his way through Europe, South America and Australia, as well as across the West Coast where he worked harvests and cultivated his wine knowledge. Bret Heiar’s wine list is focused on Italian, Greek and and Grower Champagne wines with a special attention on small producers and vintage editions.