5 Questions with Sommelier Steve Morgan
Hi my name’s Steven Morgan. I’m the wine director and manager at Formento’s, which is an Italian American restaurant at 925 West Randolph in Chicago in the West Loop.
Q1: Tell us about your path to becoming Sommelier at Formento’s
It’s actually pretty funny.
My first real restaurant job was at Osteria Via Stato in 2004, where Chris Pandel was the Executive Sous Chef and became a really, really good friend. For a very long time, as I got more involved in restaurants I would constantly kind of push it off to the side. I was more interested in talking about how I wanted to write and how I wanted to do other things. So you know, I worked for Elisabetta Foradori, I came back and he was like, “So do you want to be more involved in wine?” I was like, “Nah, no.” That was really an amazing experience but I wanted write. So I moved to New York and was Sommelier at Del Posto and he was just like “So you’re Sommelier at Del Posto, that’s pretty cool. Is this what you want to do?” “No, No no. I’m moving to New York because I really want to be – I want to get an internship with Marvel. This is why I’m in New York.”
Then after The Bristol opened, I’d just taken a job at a place called Dressler, that doesn’t exist anymore, which was a Michelin star restaurant in Williamsburg. I was the wine director and service director. And he was like “So, Steve, you’re now the wine director and service director at a Michelin Star restaurant, is this what you really think what you’re going to do with your life?” And I said “Yeah, yeah, I think it is.”
So after that – as I continued forward, I kept delving further into it. But I love Chicago. So I got the opportunity to work at Tribeca Grill and I was the head Sommelier there for 2 years and worked with David Gordon who’s one of the great professionals in this industry. And then at that time also do another Harvest, but this time in California at Larkmead. And the opportunity to come back to Chicago presented itself, or I guess I presented myself to the opportunity and I was fortunate enough to get the chance to be a Sommelier at Alinea – which was two of the hardest and most rewarding years that I’ve spent in a restaurant. But when I first wanted to move back for Chicago, my goal was to work for Chris. So as I saw my time rolling to a close at Alinea, I reached out to Chris and Chris connected me to John and Phil. And I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a lot of really important, big wine lists at both Tribeca Grill and Del Posto – grand, award-winning, 2000 plus selection list and this was the first opportunity that I had to start something with the goal of making – not quite a list that big – but a list that at least harkened back to those two lists that I think are two of the most defining wine lists I’ve ever had the chance to work with.
Q2: What goes into building a restaurant’s opening wine list?
It’s a really organic thing. Hours and hours are spent picking out different wines that you want to show, trying to create – craft – this ideal list of all the things, and all of your geeky loves and producers and that and all of the stories you want to tell and then you have to sort of pull it all back and say … Actually, Robert Hood was the person who said it to me. “The list can only ever be 20% for you – it has to be 80% about the customer.” And I really took that to heart and when I made the opening wine list, I had stories that I wanted to tell, so I was able to tell the story of George Vare. I was able to tell the story of historic vineyards. I was able to create a document that talked about farming methods, but none of it too much in your face and only a small part of it with that being the focus. More of the framework. Then from there, to actually get a – I guess – give the guests the opportunity to define the rest of it. Leave room so that I could talk to guests about what they liked about the wine lists, what they saw was missing, try and find wines that fit into certain price points that you wouldn’t normally find in those price points because that’s what expectation was and that’s what people were excited about. So I would say that the list itself has really grown more based on guest interaction and also because I look at numbers and I look at what sells. Based on what sells and what people are excited about, so those two things coming together – myself, being the 20% and then the guests who are really defining what this wine list can continue to become.
Q2 (continued): And how many bottles of wine did you taste to solidify your opening list?
So from working at Alinea, I felt really out of touch with less expensive wines – so for the first two weeks of my time as part of this company, I tasted with pretty much every distributor that I knew. I found out that there were others I didn’t know – but pretty much every distributor that I knew and there were days where I tasted 200 wines. I tasted about 1500 in total and all of them had a wholesale price $20 and under – most of them $15 and under
Q3: If you could have a glass of wine with anyone – who would it be, what would you pour them and why?
So this was a funny question to think about, because who I would want to have a glass of wine or milk or water or anything with is Douglas Adams. Douglas Adams wrote the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which I consider to be this sort of brilliant, brilliant, 5-part trilogy – as he likes to put it – of science fiction books that I read when I was kid and really defined my sense of humor. Really created this sense of whimsy and fun, but they were deeply, deeply intelligent books and sort of really got your mind thinking creatively and intellectually and just kind of firing on all cylinders and for me what I’d love to do is pour him something that was important to me – which in this case would be something either, Elisabetta Foradori’s Teroldego or if we wanted to be geeky and I could talk a little bit (but I really don’t want to talk – I just want to let him speak) one of her amphora wines – like the Moray is my particular favorite of the single vineyard amphora wines and just kind of share something important with someone and just let them talk to me about anything.
Q4: What did you drink last night and why?
Amusingly I drank JJ Christoffel Erben Wurzgarten Riesling 2012 because it was opened in my fridge and it’s the end of the shift and I’m not really overly thinking. Mostly hungry – so I had tortilla chips, which were salty and some sweet Riesling and kind of unwinded at the end of the day. A wine that I probably should have taken a lot more time to enjoy and to think about, but at the time was just something that was utterly delicious and what I love about wine in general because there are times where it needs to be cerebral and times where it’s literally what you have a glass of left in your fridge.
Q5: Food and wine pairing not to be missed at Formento’s?
So, actually – A new wine we added by the glass is Ciro Picariello, which is really fun to say and really difficult every time. I have to say it like I’m an Italian. Greco di Tufo from Campania. I would pair with our scampi – it’s become pretty much our signature – one or our signature dishes – we are fortunate to have many. But the scampi are these just beautiful, beautiful prawns and they’re lush, and rich, and buttery, and sweet and there’s garlic and there’s shrimp sausage and all these things and what’s great about this Greco is that it literally has this vibrant acidity that vibrates on your tongue, so it almost feels like it’s effervescent, so it cuts through the richness of the butter but Greco has these beautiful stone fruit notes and so it goes really nicely with the sweetness of the shrimp and then it has really, really, brilliant acidity and minerality so it kind of gives you that sense of like – I feel like when you’re eating seafood you want to feel like you’re drinking something that came from the sea. So there’s that little saltiness that plays with it too, it’s really, really good.