Rachael Lowe "grew up on a fun farm," with a family raising horses, llamas and peacocks, and she came to appreciate her parents' high-level home cooking at an early age. The passion for quality cuisine eventually took Lowe, 37, to New York in pursuit of a graduate degree in food studies at NYU, but her parallel work on restaurant floors led her toward wine instead. She served wine under culinary luminaries like Thomas Keller and Gordon Ramsay, ultimately landing near her native Michigan at beloved Chicago dining institution Spiaggia two years ago.
As beverage director, Lowe joined a restaurant with a three-decade history, but she quickly found the freedom to put a personal spin on the Best of Award of Excellence–winning wine list, working alongside chef Tony Mantuano on creative pairings. Lowe spoke with editorial assistant Samantha Falewée about the importance of a collaborative workplace, the culinary scene in Chicago and unexpected matches in Italian food and wine.
WS: What’s unique about Spiaggia?
RL: The staff. Tony is one of the kindest, most amazing chefs I’ve ever worked for. The right kinds of people gravitate to that. It’s always been a place where everyone has a lot of creative freedom, and you can’t say that about a lot of places. This has been my best experience in restaurants because of how well the front and back work together and how open the chefs are to working collaboratively with me; that’s a rare thing to find.
When I came aboard, I was able to put my own stamp on the wine list by fleshing out some of the up-and-coming regions and adding a small international section. Every season when we change the menu, I sit down with Tony and often his wife, Cathy. We drink through the courses and change the wine and discuss how things might work. That collaborative process is pretty unique.
WS: Tell me about the up-and-coming wine regions you have focused on.
RL: We’ve always had a heavy Piedmont and Tuscan winery selection, but I like hand-selling a bottle of Etna [Sicilian wine] to a couple that has no idea what Italian wines are all about. They say they’re interested in a lighter wine, and their comfort zone is Pinot Noir. I like saying, "Try this Nerello Mascalese blend, it’s like Pinot Noir plus Grenache." It’s fun to open people’s eyes to places they might not otherwise go. The islands are always great. Regions like Campania, Umbria—the southern and central parts of Italy are often overlooked.
WS: Some sommeliers have mentioned Sicily as the up-and-coming Italian region. What do you think about that?
RL: I just brought on a wine from Lipari. There are a bunch of islands around Sicily, and Lipari is technically considered part of Sicily, but most people wouldn’t even know what that is. It’s a cool Malvasia and Carricante blend, the Tenuta di Castellaro Bianco Pomice 2011, that’s texturally amazing. Whenever I see Sicilian wines I’m excited to try them and bring them on.
WS: Do you have a favorite food and wine pairing at Spiaggia right now?
RL: We’ve got a risotto alla carbonara, which is a unique approach to carbonara. I paired it with a 2008 Movia Lunar Ribolla Gialla, which is from Slovenia. It’s a weird, unfiltered, crazy wine. We were trying the carbonara, testing if it would work with a white or a red, and nothing worked. We needed a wine with some umami in it. The risotto is such a rich dish with the egg yolk and guanciale [cured meat]; there’s a saltiness to it that matched the orange wine and made a magical pairing. Even the owner of one of my wine suppliers told me, "I hate orange wines, but this pairing was amazing!"
To further go into Sicily: A lamb pasta that's almost like a dumpling, with peas, I thought would be a white wine dish, but it wasn’t; instead, it was perfect with a Terre Nere Etna Guardiola [from Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio].
WS: What’s the culinary scene like in Chicago? Have you seen a change while living there?
RL: Chicago is still a Midwest town. The "small plates" mentality of Millennials who don’t want to make a commitment to a full tasting menu—that’s pretty prevalent.
WS: Does this dining style contribute to wine attitudes there? What are the prevailing wine trends in Chicago?
RL: I do see a trend toward the more obscure. There aren’t nearly as many extensive wine lists—instead it’s more about the quirky and more compact selections that can be esoteric. I think people are becoming more open to things like island wines, but there are always the old-school steak house fillers who lean toward the classics, big Cabs and things like that. It's definitely an alcohol-friendly town.
WS: Spiaggia’s casual counterpart, Cafe Spiaggia, has a wine list that, under your direction, was recently re-themed as woman-centric. How did you come up with that?
RL: Chef and I were talking about different potential themes for the wine list, as the cafe was being remodeled, and I thought it would be a cool idea.
As my career in wine has grown, you see more women in the field, but it’s still obviously male-predominant. A woman named Annie Turso in New York, she was the beverage director at the Mandarin Oriental [when I worked there]. She played a large role in my being a female up-and-coming somm. I’m always questioned, "What is it like being a woman sommelier in a male-dominated world?" and that question is paralleled in winemaking too. So it was cool to showcase those women.