A Wine List in an Italian Village

By Craig Camp
Friday, October 24, 2003

IT'S LIKE a war. Chicago is a tough town for business, even the wine business. Large retailers like Sam's and Binny's are in constant combat with each other, much to the benefit of consumers. However, some of the best wine values in Chicago hide away on the third floor of an old building in the Loop. To top off their bargains, even the proper Reidel wineglasses come with the wine you select from their extensive inventory of over 45,000 bottles.

They only have one restriction: you have to drink it there. The twist is that this is not a retail store, but the historic Italian Village group of restaurants: Vivere, the Italian fine dining location, and The Village and The Cantina Enoteca, both offering classic Italian-American cuisine.

"When I started we had Virginia Dare on the list," said co-owner Ray Capitanini who, with his brother Frank, took over the restaurants from their father, Alfredo, who founded the Italian Village in 1927. Virginia Dare, a sweet wine from the indigenous American scuppernong vine, was the most popular wine brand in the United States before prohibition and staged a brief comeback during the years after repeal.

"My father came to the United States and did not know a thing about restaurants," said Capitanini. "He got a job as a dishwasher, learned the business, and worked his way up to opening his own restaurant. The only setback he had was during World War II when he had to change the name to Alfredo's Village because of the anti-Italian feeling."

The Capitanini family has a wonderful collection of early menus that are in pristine condition. These menus feature items like Spaghetti with Meatballs for 80 cents, Veal Marsala for $1, Barolo at $3 a bottle and Corvo for $3.75 a bottle. Yes, the Corvo was more expensive than the Barolo. Times have changed.

In 1961 the brothers created The Florentine Room, Chicago's first Italian fine dining restaurant. "We were selling liter bottles of Chianti," remembered Capitanini. "We were the first to change to 750 ml. bottles and one of the first in the city to put vintages on the wine list. But you could only put on the list what was available."

With the arrival of the 1980's they wanted to push the restaurant towards even higher quality-levels. First, in 1981, there was the arrival of wine consultant Tom Abruzzini. "He was my mentor and tormentor," said Capitanini, referring to Abruzzini's legendary tasting marathons -- some lasting all night. Working together, Capitanini and Abruzzini created one of America's finest wine lists and won a Grand Award from The Wine Spectator in 1984, just three years after they started.

To bring the quality of the food up to the level of their new wine list, in 1983 the Capitanini family hired renowned cookbook author and expert on Italian cuisine Giuliano Bugialli as their consultant for a price that was staggering at the time: for $10,000 a visit, Bugialli would come in four times a year and redesign their menu for the season. "We were serious about trying to improve," said Capitanini.

They had redone the wine list and the menu, but in 1990 they decided it was time to bring the room to the level of the wine and food. The slightly worn, old fashioned Florentine Room was reborn as the visually dynamic Vivere. Vivere, which means "to live" in Italian, was created by Jordan Mozer, the hot restaurant designer who also conceived The Cheesecake Factory among many others.

Today the restaurants are run by a new Capitanini generation, but Ray, supported by consultant Robert Rohdin, has kept his touch on the great wine list he created. Sommelier Ron Balter has taken over day-to-day control of a wine list that has become a treasure chest for wine lovers. On taking over such a large list Balter commented, "When I arrived three years ago it wasn't like there was much to do with the list. It was like taking over as groundskeeper at Versailles. There was only a little trimming to do."

There is plenty of good food at these restaurants, and the current menu at Vivere includes excellent dishes like Pappardelle con Cignale Brasato (pasta with wild boar sauce) and Medaglioni di Carne di Cervo (grilled venison medallions), but the higher purpose for going here is to drink the wines. Balter presides over a list of more than 1,000 selections (and tens of thousands of actual bottles), and the restaurant is expanding the cellar so it can accommodate 1,200.

"When I first came we redid the whole cellar," recalled Balter. "It took a while. I had to move 45,000 bottles one-by-one. I also created a new inventory and wine-list system and created a full training curriculum for our staff."

Balter has put his own stamp on the list in the last three years. "I like wines that speak of terroir, that are not over-oaked," is how he describes his taste. "I don't like to buy wines for window dressing. I like to build verticals (multiple vintages) of wines and we need enough to both sell and age. We are not trying to just look good for awhile by buying a case. We need depth of inventory to age the wines."

What makes the wine list at Vivere such a bargain is the price of older wines. "We don't buy at auction, but only on release so the wines are always under our control in our temperature controlled cellar," observed Balter. "We also buy in quantity so we can negotiate better prices and have the wines on the list for years while they are maturing."

"When the 1985 vintage of single vineyard Gaja wines came out they were $250 a case and we have kept that reflected in our prices over the years," said Capitanini. "We decided right from the beginning to keep our prices down and that is why there are so many wines on the list that you can't find anywhere else and they are priced reasonably. We always wanted our customers to order a second bottle because they felt they were getting a good deal."

"We care about value," stated Balter. "For example, one year ago we took Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio off the list. Not that it is bad wine, it is just a bad price/value relationship. We can give customers 7 or 8 pinot grigio wines that are better wines and better values. The price was just beyond our comfort factor. Customers don't seem to care and love the other wines we recommend."

One of the unique aspects of the Vivere wine list is that it goes far beyond Italy and offers a deep selection of wine from every major wine growing region, including France.

"We made an investment in 2000 vintage Bordeaux futures and I asked our importers what other restaurants were buying futures," said Balter. "They told us that restaurants don't buy futures and said that only one other restaurant in town had ordered. Now those wines are 33% more expensive and we can pass those savings on to our customers."

The wine list at Vivere is a thick tome, but it is well organized so as to make browsing easier. In the Cantina Enoteca and The Village there is a two-page short list, but the main list and every wine on it, as well as the services of sommelier Balter are available in each of their three restaurants. Even with the thousands of bottles he has to deal with everyday, Balter can't help but get attached to them. "Sometimes I feel bad when we sell the last bottle of a wine -- like selling out one of our babies."

"For over forty years I have been trying to convince people to drink fine wines with their meals," concluded Capitanini. "This wine list is a passion for me."