“I’ll tell you this: I might be the best Bears fan in the city, because I actually don’t like football and I watch every bloody game,” says the enigmatic Michael Muser, a partner and the general manager and wine director at Chicago’s Grace restaurant. “But I’m very passionate about what it means to a Chicagoan to love a Bears team that never wins. I go to any Bears game I get a chance to, and if not, I always watch them on TV,” he says.
Every time he and Grace chef Curtis Duffy are invited to a game, it’s the tailgating that’s the real focal point (with a drum line, to boot). Their friend, a wine distributor, and his family roll out a major feast out of the back of their Bears bedecked Hummer. The wines that people bring to go with the millions of brats and chili are insane: premier cru Burgundies, top-level Hermitage, bold zinfandels and three-liter bottles of Austrian blaufränkisch. “When you’re with a wine distributor and tailgating, sommeliers show up like fruit flies, and they all bring their toys,” says Muser.
Check out his toys, six top-notch wines for a fancy tailgate.
1. 2014 Robert Biale Black Chicken Zinfandel ($46)
“For Chicago tailgates, as far as food goes, you’re heavy on meats and proteins, like big spiced brats, sauerkraut, sausages, things off the grill. Here, hot dogs are on the light side. Oh, and spicy chili, especially during the wintertime, when things get freezing cold. All of those massive flavors and dense and chewy textures will cause your mouth to sweat and perspire. Well, what responds to that from the wine side? Oh, I don’t know, how about a swashbuckler of blackberry syrup, jacked with alcohol and laden with ripping tannins that are round as a balloon? The tannins come in and respond to the savory notes and attempt to dry the palate out, creating balance.”
2. Older Vintage Domaine de Trévallon Rouge ($79 for current 2013 vintage)
“In the setting of a pre-Bears game tailgate, I’d throw Trévallon against anything from Cool Ranch Doritos to spicy chili. Why? Because Trévallon’s rustic, edgy, gritty and sandy; it’s grumpy and pissed off. It gets in the ring and will do battle. You might knock it down, it might go weird on you at spots, but it’s not giving up. I like it with some age. When it’s young, it’s a scrapper—big, angular and quirky—so they need some time in the bottle.”
3. 2013 Do Ferreiro Cepas Vellas Albariño ($39)
“My favorite thing about the Cepas Vellas is you can’t catch it. The second you think you’ve cornered it, you haven’t. It rides this razor-sharp edge of big green granny apple and fat aromas with ripping high acidity. The fruit does not follow through from that tropical, rich ripe scent; it just wobbles this highwire line. I can never get as much of it as I want, and it’s expensive wine, so it’s not an everyday drinker; it’s more of a meditative moment for me.”
4. 2015 Heinrich Blaufränkisch ($25)
“This is spice for spice’s sake. If there’s pig anywhere nearby, everybody usually loves blaufränkisch. And to be honest, the clunkier the better, really. Heinrich is actually a very good bottle of blaufränkisch. Blaufränkisch is just a little bit weird, and when you look at it in the glass, it’s an inky purple-y color. And when you put it in your mouth, it’s over the top! It’s silly, it’s super opinionated. It’s very Sprockets—you can’t not think of a tall, skinny German dude in a black turtleneck outfit dancing on your tongue.”
5. 2014 Kistler Les Noisetiers Chardonnay ($65)
“There is a time and a place where delicious is for delicious. I’ll reach for a glass of Kistler at a tailgate in the same way I’ll secretly hit my fifth Snickers ice cream bar—emphasis on the number five. They’re not even that big, so three I’ll do without any question, but on the fifth one, I’m reaching for it wondering if anybody is watching me. If I’m pouring myself a glass of Kistler, it’s a guilty pleasure for me. As a wine guy, it’s a guilty pleasure. It’s important to remind yourself every once in awhile that it’s kind of fun to roll out at a baller chardonnay. If the Rock drank a chardonnay on that HBO thing, it would be Kistler.”
6. 2014 Radio-Coteau Las Colinas Syrah ($46)
“Any one of the syrahs by Eric Sussman is great, but I especially like the Las Colinas, the colder climate one. It’s a ride, dude. It’s a Côte Rôtie, and I don’t mean that it’s trying to be; I mean that it’s a tight-fisted, raisin-pitted, searingly high-tannin, super snapper, man. It’s a powerhouse. But also there’s ironclad structure there. I think his syrahs are probably some of the most underrated wines in California.”