As difficult as it is to afford the rarest of wines, it's even more difficult to know more about them than Richard Hanauer. A Chicagoan born-and-raised, Hanauer cut his chops in the finest of local restaurants, becoming sommelier at Tru at the tender age of 25. Now, as wine director at L20, he oversees one of the greatest collections of vintage champagnes outside of Paris. Eater spoke to Hanauer about the rarest of wines in his collection, in Chicago, and his greatest wine regret.
What are the wines that pop off your list, the ones you think are the most interesting and rare?
There are two real big things we have going for us. It starts with the Krug collection. To enjoy a bottle of Krug Grand Cuvee is an amazing wine by itself. Krug usually sells around $400 a bottle. That is just the floor of our Krug collection. We have 10 different vintage Krugs, three of which are magnum. Then we offer three different collections that go back to the seventies. On top of that, and probably the most important, is our collection of Clos d'Ambonnay which are probably the most sought-after, hard-to-find, incredible champagne that exist on planet Earth and we're lucky to have verticals of them. Any list would be lucky to have one and the fact that we have seven is pretty awesome.
You came over from Tru, which is the only restaurant in Chicago that has a Grand Cru award.
When I was there they didn't have it alone, which is unique. Sadly, they are the lone holder of the title because the other restaurants with the title closed, which is really upsetting, most notably Charlie Trotter's. Working at Tru was like going to wine grad school and really learning those wines was a definite pleasure. I used my experience there and I knew that what made the wines there great was the in-depth collection of Bordeaux. With restaurants that have a great wine list, that's just a guarantee in itself to have a great collection of Bordeaux and burgundy. I wanted to take it in a very unique direction, which is why I went towards champagne and white burgundy. They're wines that are great throughout time, they age well, there's complexity, there's vintage notoriety, there's great houses. Our mark in Chicago and hopefully the world is to have these great white offerings of champagne and burgundy.
How often do people order the most expensive ones on the list?
There is no steadiness to how the wines are consumed, I can sell three bottles of Krug one night and not sell one for the next week. About once a week we have someone that's going to come in and enjoy one of these bottles.
What are the most expensive bottles you've ever poured?
That's a great question. I was working at Tru and served a bottle of 1970 Hermitage, that was something in the $15,000 range.
Do you remember what the people were like that ordered that bottle?
The one thing they all have in common is an expendable income, to be honest with you. As a guest they're not inform, guests that drink really nice wines are sometimes in nice suits and sometimes are in jeans and a shirt. The one thing that they're coming with that most guests aren't is a working knowledge of these grand bottles of wine, which takes a lot of study and dedication. Knowing these wines and having experience tasting them is a rare treat and I'm honored and blessed to have that knowledge and that background. For most guests drinking a vintage Krug would be such a pleasure, but I've had guests that have had several vintages of Krug in their past and now they want to try one they haven't had. That is really unique perspective on wine-buying.
Where do you think Chicago ranks in having these wines and a love for vintage wines?
It's an interesting question and it's hard to speak on that because not all of our guests that order these are from Chicago. But where I think of Chicago as a wine city, much like the American wine industry, it's young in this game. But we're coming on very, very, very strong. There are great restaurants with great lists that are still appearing. We cannot compete with the restaurants of Paris, unfortunately. They've been buying these wines for a century now, I've been open for five years. But when you look at us domestically, we're certainly chasing down New York and we're sprinting in that direction. New York beat us to the punch with having these great wine lists at more restaurants, but you're seeing Chicago catch up very, very fast.
What table ordered the most volume of vintage wines that you can remember?
My favorite meal that I ever served in terms of wine, I remember this very well, came at the hands of a very generous father. His son was studying to be a sommelier and his father took him and two of his friends and another dining companion out to dinner and teed off and showed the son all the wines he wanted to drink. The vintage Krugs, the Montrachets, the Clos?what made that one so unique was we had five people at the table and usually when you sell nice wines it's at a two or a four-top, never at a big table. They were also in a festive mood. When all was said and done, it was a wine menu that would be second-to-none. It was a cous des grace, if you will. A one-shot meal of having the best-of-the-best, every time, once in a row.
How many bottles did they order?
I think they ordered eight or nine. When people are buying this kind of wine you usually see three or four. The upsetting thing is right around ten years ago is when some of the best wine meals were truly being served in Chicago, pharmaceutical accounts were a little different, and certainly before with the dot com era, there was a higher expendable income and you saw more people with less wine experience buying these wines just to spend the money. But now you really have experienced wine drinkers buying these wines. To be honest, not that these wines should only be enjoyed by those in the know, but I do appreciate when a guest can actually appreciate these fine wines. It's not they're so mind-bogglingly more delicious than the bottle above or below them on the list, they're very rare. They're a great wine that very few people are going to be able to drink, and I like knowing that's appreciated. It feels good to know that the vintner's work won't be forgotten.
That's actually the next question I was going to ask you, how many of these people order them just to throw their money around and how many order them to really appreciate them.
We're definitely more of the latter and less of the former. I think the big thing is, not that it wasn't existent before, but it's a great place to be seen spending money now instead of restaurants or clubs. That is truly where champagne's list cost is being driven up. That's a better medium to be shown spending money because there's a bigger audience to see you do it. Now you see a lot more refined wine drinkers are drinking fine wines more often and it's not about spending money, it's about enjoying the glass.
Do you have any wine sales you regret?
I will not say the name of the restaurant I was working at when I did this, but I had a guest come in and literally buy the five best wines off our list, the five great trophies. I was so excited to bring in such revenue to the restaurant, I went to bed with a smile on my face, that I was ignorant to the fact that that list would never ever be as good. I sold away the five greatest treasures and they will never again come back. The kicker to it all is that not every bottle of wine was enjoyed in the restaurant that night. They took those bottles and resold them in a different market. There's a unique law that you can sell them retail as long as it's less than the amount you're selling during service that day.
How much did they pay for them at the restaurant and how much do you think they sold for on the open market?
They went for probably well over 400-500 percent of what they paid for at our list prices. I don't want to give you the (dollar amount) because it's really big and really embarrassing. It was astronomical and it had a lot of zeroes on the end and it was for very few bottles. I don't want to say because it would be very obvious where it came from at that list is hurt because I did it.
Is it six figures?
It's approaching it. It's not there, but it's very close. It was a bad day, I learned a lesson that I will never forget. I feel terrible but I know that somewhere down the line, hopefully those wines will make someone happy.