For Chicago-born beverage director Richard Hanauer, everything stems back to the family dinner table.
Growing up, his father would return from work each day to see what was cooking in the kitchen, before heading down into his cellar to select a wine that would pair with that night’s dish. “This was a nightly ritual,” Hanauer said in a 2013 radio interview.
Years later, Hanauer returned from Syracuse University with an English degree in hand. With rent checks to pay, he soon “fell” into the service industry, starting as a lunch server at a steakhouse in the city’s West Loop neighborhood.
Hanauer wasn’t sure service was going to be for him, but then he approached his first table and was instantly transported back to those family meals. “Nothing could stop the smile on my face,” he says.
More than a decade later, Hanauer oversees eight sommeliers, working as the wine and beverage director for Chicago’s RPM Restaurants. The group includes RPM Steak Chicago and RPM Italian Chicago & Washington, D.C.
VinePair caught up with Hanauer to discuss birth-year wines, death-row wines, and a Burgundy obsession so strong, it fueled a job switch.
1. What’s the bottle that made you fall in love with wine?
2006 Elio Grasso Barolo “Runcot.” I was literally first reading about Barolo at the time and had never had it before; I bought the bottle on a total whim. Everything I had read was true — the hedonism of the varietal and region were legit. That was the day I dedicated my career to wine.
2. FMK three varieties: Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay?
Kill Cabernet. No offense at all, just compared to the other two, Cabernet, you never had a chance. But I would be sad about it…
F Pinot Noir. Such a nuanced, fickle varietal whose best performances are unearthly and whose underwhelming performances are devastating. Pinot is possible of making the most interesting wines of the three but is unreliable in its greatness.
Marry Chardonnay. Such a reliable, diversified performer. Whether it be Chablis or [other] Burgundy, Champagne or New World, the grape rises to every occasion.
3. You’re on death row. What’s your last-supper wine?
1983 Château Margaux. (I, too, am vintage 1983.) It’s an incredibly undervalued wine … The ’83 Margaux is truly one of the most impressive Bordeaux I have ever had the chance to work with. It would be nice, on my death-row pity party, to reflect on the wine’s life as well as my own.
4. You can only drink one wine for the rest of your life. What is it?
2002 Leflaive Montrachet. Frankly, I’d be really pumped with any of their wines from that vintage for the rest of my life. The wines started a Burgundy obsession that would make me change restaurants to focus more on the region.
5. You can only drink at one bar for the rest of your life. What is it?
6. What’s the best and worst wine on your rack (or in your fridge) right now?
1990 Chave Hermitage. The Domaine has always topped my list of personal favorites, and the vintage seems to just keep getting better. I’ve had the pleasure of having several over my career and was lucky enough to buy some bottles before the world caught on.
7. If you could no longer drink wine, what would be your beverage of choice?
It’s going to be beer. Personally, I find it refreshing and therapeutic. Professionally, there is a myriad of textures and flavors in the world of beer that have epic dining room performances.