Sommelier Bret Heiar wears his love for wine on his sleeve, literally. He has a wine barrel tattooed on his inner bicep, and his devotion for wine shines through the reopened Cru Café & Wine Bar (25 E. Delaware) in the Gold Coast. He tastes hundreds of wines a month to constantly refresh the spot, which is a perfect place to escape the summer heat. Food Mafia’s Jamie Hausman sat down with him over a glass of Rosé to get a behind-the-scenes look at the new wine list.
FM: Could you talk me through your background a little bit on how you came to be at CRU?
BH: I’ve been with Debby for almost nine years. I’ve been the Wine & Bar Director at Feast Restaurants and the Goddess and the Grocer. So it’s been a while. Pretty much my whole time in Chicago has been with her. It was kind of a natural progression to go through the curve.
FM: Where were you before Chicago?
BH: I’m from Iowa actually. I’m a small town boy.
FM: Where in Iowa are you from?
BH: Quad Cities. Iowa City area.
FM: Were you doing wine programs out there?
BH: I was. I’ve worked throughout the country at random places and was always back and forth. I came to Chicago and just stayed here. There’s definitely more opportunity out here.
FM: I was reading through the press release and saw that you really have a sense of the stories behind the wines and trying to figure out how they fit in.
BH: All the wines are organic or in the least case sustainable. I do a lot of small production. I do a lot of third generation, family wineries. Richard, the chef, does a lot of farm-to-table, very clean, very thoughtful dishes. They go hand-in-hand. There’s no big, pay-to-play kind of wines here. They are clean with a sense of place and personality.
FM: What was your process in creating in such a big wine list?
BH: The best examples of all things globally. As you see a lot of our glass pours are from Solvenia, from Budapest, from Hungary, from Greece, from Croatia as well as the United States. I just wanted to find the best examples of all things globally. It’s just from taking notes, drinking and travelling.
FM: Out of all of those countries, what has been your favorite?
BH: Different places for different things. Stylistically, wine-wise, I’m a Francophile. I got to admit. There’s some great stuff coming out of Greece. There’s great stuff coming out of Slovenia. If I had to pick a few regions, I think Greece has some really great stuff coming out. Historically, people credit the Egyptians for creating wine but it was the Greeks that really perfected and championed it and really took it to the next level. Greece is an interesting place. There’s something like 3,000 islands and only 63 are inhabited. It’s definitely got a lot of historical significance and a lot of old vines. Phylloxera, which was an aphid infestation that pretty much paralyzed the wine world never hit most parts of Greece. You’ve got all this ungrafted, indigenous varieties that are really, really cool.
FM: You mentioned Slovenia, Hungary and the central European region, what’s new going on there?
BH: You’ve got to think geographically where they’re situated. Slovenia is right next to Italy. Climatically, it’s ideal for growing wine and there’s a lot of natural winemakers out there, especially in Slovenia. They age it in these big urns underground like the Romans used to do and do very hands-off, minimalistic winemaking. Wine is an agricultural product and it should taste different vintage to vintage, and it should have a sense of place and sense of identity. If it tastes the same very vintage, it’s not fun.
FM: Is that socially a part of the culture out there also?
BH: Absolutely, which is interesting because American wine consumption just took the number one spot from France and Italy for the first time in history. So we’re catching up per capita. I don’t know if that means we just like to drink more. It’s more considered food out there. The wines I choose here, sometimes you have these huge, massive modernized wines and wine is like food. it’s like dessert. If you eat dessert once in a while it tastes great, but if you eat it everyday then you want your fruits and veggies. When you start drinking wine as food, not to party, but to just drink as part of your life, you want more balance, more harmony, more sense of place. The key is balance. In the same vein, we have all grower champagnes on there. The champagne region is the most profitable, highly processed and manipulated and commercialized agricultural product in the world. Eighty percent of all the champagne is from seven large companies that buy juice at a bulk weight and manipulate through acidification, enzymes, etc. Whereas grower champagnes rarely use dosage, they’re clean, straight from the grower. When you grow on a mass scale, you burn out the vines, you don’t have the longevity. Older vines mean better wine. So you have these smaller producers that are growing wines and they’re making more beautiful product. It’s not any more expensive than these big houses, especially when you take out the middle man. Only two percent of the champagne that comes to the United States is grower champagne. If you go straight to the grower, they farm organically for the most part, as much as they can. To be champagne you have to be from the champagne region in France. There’s a lot of people making sparkling wines that are really good in the rest of the world, but to be called champagne you have to be from Champagne. That’s only so much space that can only produce so much.
FM: How did you become a sommelier?
BH: My first restaurant job was when I was 16 as a cook at a truck stop. From there I worked in the back of the house and moved to the front of the house. I did it on the side as I was trying to do other things. I just started travelling, so the more I travel to wine regions, the more I pick up. The more it just takes over. The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. It becomes an obsession to learn more. All things distilled and fermented fascinate me. I got a wine barrel tattoo, come on. I’m committed to the cause.
FM: What about spirits and wines sparked your interest?
BH: Historically and universally, it’s always been a part of life and culture and food. It just makes everything better. Thomas Jefferson said, “Good wine for me is a necessity of life.” It definitely makes everything better. Homer Simpson said, “The cause and solution of all problems is alcohol.” Whoever you want to quote.
FM: What’s been the reaction or reception of the program around here?
BH: It’s good. It’s been pretty positive. It’s nice to step outside the box. When you’re selling a lot of wines from places like Lebanon and Greece and Serbia and Croatia, it definitely is a bit of gamble, but people seem pretty receptive and welcoming to it. The feedback has been great. People are tired of the same, and there’s great value. Napa is $20,000 an acre, that’s just how much the dirt costs. When you go to the south of France, it’s $3,000. I’m not saying Napa wines aren’t great, but there is definitely a value structure there. So you can have great wines from around the world, even though they have to be shipped across the pond, they’re still an incredible value. You just have to find them. In the same vein, just because they’re from somewhere different doesn’t mean they’re any good. I taste at least 100 wines a week. I taste at least every day. We plan wine poker once a week, we have BYO groups. My vacations are wine vacations my books are wine books. It’s what makes me happy.
FM: So when you set out to find a new wine to add to the list?
BH: I always try to visit as many wineries as I can to learn technically about them, to get a sense of place and what they’re doing. I can’t always do that with every wine. You just taste and study and compare and try to make something well rounded and balanced. I definitely do research on the wines, I don’t like the big boxed wine. They just don’t have a soul. I like everything to have a sense of place and identity. I have a grape here; it’s a wine that begins with an X. If I’m going to sell something from Greece that begins with an X, I want it to taste like where it’s from. I don’t want this giant, inky wine that tastes like anywhere. I want it to have an identity and a personality. The idea is for a wine to a, have balance and b have a soul.
FM: Do you think Chicago’s a good place for wine?
BH: Chicago’s a great place for wine. You’ve got to think that California is very backyard, homegrown. There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s not as much global diversity. New York is probably the best for diversity, but Chicago you’re right smack dab in the middle. You’ve got all kinds of food, a lot of restaurants, a lot of people. People are out more, and I think Chicago’s got the best wine scene. Vegas is very union, very tourist driven. California is very California-centric. New York, you can’t compete with because it’s three times as big. Outside of New York, I think Chicago’s got the best food scene and the best wine scene. People drink here. This is part of daily live. People are more adventurous. It’s more neighborhood-by-neighborhood. There’s more opportunity here. It’s not quite as xenophobic here. It’s definitely more accessible and casual. Everything is so shiny in New York; it’s expensive and completely xenophobic. It’s definitely more accessible in Chicago. Chicago’s been good to me. My hometown’s only about three hours away. Originally, restaurants were on the backburner as I was trying to focus on a career competing in Muay Thai kickboxing and as you get older, focus shifts. Now it’s wine. I hung up the gloves, grabbed a corkscrew.
FM: Where was the most recent place you traveled to?
BH: Actually, I just got back from Tequila, Mexico a month ago. I’m trying to wrap my head around how things are made. For a lot of time I spent time in Bourbon county and local distilleries, but I didn’t really know much about tequila. So I went down there to work with some distilleries and try to figure out what tequila is all about from a technical aspect. I just got back from there. Before that, three weeks ago, I was in Paso Robles, California at the International Wine Festival. Before that, I spent a month in Australia then Spain. I try to leave the country at least every harvest every year. I try to get out and see somewhere new.