5 Questions with Sommelier Jon McDaniel
Hi I’m Jon McDaniel. I’m the wine director for The Gage, The Dawson and Acanto restaurants, all here in Chicago.
Q1: Can you tell us about your path to becoming the Sommelier at The Gage, Acanto & The Dawson?
Sure! So, right out of college, I was a lobbyist for about 12 seconds and realized that politics was pretty much the worst thing you could ever do with your life. I managed to find my way into wine – started in retail in Washington, D.C. and kind of had a pretty crazy path. I’ve lived in New York, Italy, South Africa, Santa Barbara. I’ve done distribution, importing, retail, restaurants; a little bit of everything. It’s kind of given me a great perspective on how the whole process works – of understanding not just my job, but everyone else’s job as well. It gives you a better, kind of, sense of where things are coming from at the end of the day.
Q2: What is your typical week like?
My reputation is probably the hardest working Somm in Chicago, just because there are so many different things going on. I mean running three, very, very different restaurants; being the GM of one of them; trying to find time to do all of those things is pretty crazy. Being on the floor, tasting, inventory, training – all of those things kind of at once. So it’s really just about time management and really one day is not like the next. I’ve learned that you’ve got to take the day in front of you, make sure that you clean out your email box at the end of the day, and just you know – making sure that guests are happy. I mean, you know, every day kind of brings new guests – especially here on Michigan avenue. I mean you get people from all over the world and you get people with very, very different pallets. Some that have zero wine experience and some that have amazing, really kind of deep wine backgrounds, too. Every day, every table is a very different experience.
And can you tell us more about your week specific to your sommelier duties?
Really, it’s just making sure that I don’t screw up Chef’s food. That’s priority number one. I have 800 different wines between 3 different restaurants and they’re all very, very different. At The Gage it’s wines from all over the world; at The Dawson it’s wines from all over the United States; at Acanto it’s basically just Italian wines. So it’s just – finding the right wine for the right situation and really bringing forth stuff that you’re not going to find stacked at the end of Binny’s. You’re not going to find at Costco. People can love Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay all that they want, but they’re not going to find that in the restaurants. But it’s finding something that, if you do like Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay, okay well, I don’t have it but maybe you’ll like this. So it’s kind of pushing people to the next level of taking what they know and then adding on just a little bit without them being scared, without them thinking I’m the biggest jerk in the world. Sommelier’s have that reputation enough already. I’m trying to get people to like wine and to enjoy wine the same way that they do, you know, craft beer, craft spirits. Chicago has an amazing scene for both of those. We can have a great wine scene as well, without it being too pretentious or that 1% that people think it is.
Q3: If you could have a glass of wine with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be, what would you pour them and why?
I think probably some sort of like, old, French King. Looking at the first Sommelier was really just one that was like a mule packer, that made sure that transporting things was going from place to place and the person that would taste the wine so that the King wouldn’t be poisoned. So actually, like, sitting down and having a glass with Henry VIII and being like “This is going to be actually good.” And understanding, you know, I think that we’ve lost a little bit of the true meaning of Sommelier. Now we’re just stewards of wine. Other than a few examples, none of us actually make wine. We’re the ones that are really trying to get the stories in front of people and it’s not about us, it’s about the wine. So kind of getting back to the origins of our actual job and understanding that, I think would give us a better respect of what a Sommelier really means and not just what it is today.
Q4: What did you drink last night, and why?
I had a Negroni last night, actually. It’s funny, people always ask me what do I drink at home when I’m drinking wine. The honest answer is that i don’t really drink a bottle of wine at home. I’m not one of those that just needs that glass of wine when I get home because I drink wine all day long. I taste roughly 100 to 200 wines a week between the three restaurants. So the last thing that I really want do is drink wine when I get home. So it’s usually a single-malt scotch or some sort of cocktail and, you know a Fernet Branca before I go to bed. It’s basically my home drinking scenario.
Q5: Pick whichever restaurant you want – food and wine pairing not to be missed?
At Acanto we have this dish that’s Duck Egg Spaghetti. So it’s kind of a riff off of Carbonara but it’s kind of like creamy duck egg that’s whipped into it, classic spaghetti, little bit of pork, broccoli rabe, a little garlic. People think that, well there’s pork in there, it’s a very rich dish and probably something on the red side, but the coolest pairing that I’ve ever had with it [is] I put a Greco di Tufo from Cantine di Marzo (so actually the first people to ever have Greco di Tufo – actually the family that brought it to the little town of Tufo) – that really high acid brightness to it, little gingery notes, really cuts through the richness of the dish. So [it] kind of puts people a little bit at ease. I can pair things that may or should go with reds and pair it with white and it’s okay. Life will be okay, and the world does not explode if you do those things. And that’s kind of what I try to do a lot – is break those rules a little bit for people who think [this is what] they have to have and say “No, it will be all right. You will enjoy this,” or “It’s about your palette.” It’s not about mine, it’s not about some writer somewhere that you’ve never met and will never meet. It’s about you and that’s the important part.