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Sommelier Talk: Jon McDaniel, Chicago's 'Sommbassador'

The beverage director for Acanto, the Gage and three other local spots is a sommelier for the people
Photo by: Kira Anderson
With five beverage programs, a teaching gig and his own wine label, Jon McDaniel has his hands full.

Lexi Williams
Posted: April 21, 2017

When a young Jon McDaniel began his studies in politics and corporate law, his goal was "to take over the world, in a good way," he jokes. During a brief stint at a lobbying firm in Washington, D.C., McDaniel realized the cutthroat political arena wasn't his scene. So when one of the firm's clients, a wine retailer, offered him a job, he dropped everything and reset his course.

In the dozen years since, McDaniel has tried his hand at almost every role in the industry, working in retail, export, distribution and even winemaking. In 2010, after beverage consulting for the World Cup in South Africa, he finally figured out where he fit most comfortably into the wine world: restaurants. McDaniel joined the team at Los Olivos Wine Merchant and Café in Santa Barbara, Calif., then was lured to the Midwest to work as manager and sommelier for the Purple Pig in Chicago.

Now 34 ("going on 85," he quips), McDaniel is the corporate beverage director for the newly renamed Gage Hospitality Group, which includes five Chicago-area restaurants: Acanto, the Gage, Beacon Tavern, Coda di Volpe and the Dawson. He also finds time to teach hospitality classes and make wine under his own label. Editorial assistant Lexi Williams caught up with McDaniel to check on his progress toward (wine) world domination.

Wine Spectator: How does your approach to wine differ among the diverse restaurants you manage?
Jon McDaniel: Certainly with my passion for wine, [Acanto is] my baby. It has almost 600 to 700 wines from 20 regions. It's a more sophisticated clientele. They are theatergoers, they are symphony-goers, they are interested in that kind of a wine experience. At the Gage, which is right next door, it's just a very different experience—more classic New World varietals. They typically gravitate toward Napa Valley Cabernets, Sonoma and Santa Barbara Pinot Noir, bigger styles of Chardonnay. So if we're looking at what our guest is really interested in, that's how the wine list is created.

Acanto is the only one that you really need a dedicated floor sommelier every night. The Gage, Beacon Tavern, the Dawson and Coda di Volpe are all neighborhood restaurants. They're about approachability; they're about making wine fun. In a situation like ours, you don't have minutes to talk about soil, terroir, and all the information that sommeliers are tested on. You really have 10 to 12 seconds of explaining how it's going to go with the food, the flavor descriptors, our pricing, the value.

WS: You also have your own California wine label. How did that come about?
JM: It's called Amos Cellars. It started when I was in wine country in Santa Barbara. Running the Wine Merchant and Café was nice because it’s one of those programs that every winemaker in Santa Barbara County wanted their wines in, so I made a lot of really great connections. It was a unique opportunity to say, "Well, I'm a sommelier, but I want to try to create something that I know my guests are going to enjoy." And so you do that from grape to glass. We started out in Santa Barbara, and we made a little Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and since I've been in Chicago, I partnered with a couple great friends of mine who are winemakers in Sonoma, so I do a Sauvignon Blanc from Contra Costa. Then I make a little Zin from Dry Creek that I call "Quasi Famous," and that's really because I'm trying to get the Famous Amos people to sue me, because I really think that'll help sales. I also have a fun single-vineyard California Pinot Noir that I made back in 2013 that's finally ready to go. It's called Grand Crew, and it has two oars crossed—again, I'm trying to get sued by Burgundy. [Laughing.]

But it's not something that I want to do every day; I don't see myself quitting the restaurant business one day to be a winemaker full-time. I love being able to see through the whole process. I know what the end result is going to be, and I know the end consumer. It's like an artist that gets to watch one of their paintings be hung in someone's house.

WS: You stress the importance of hospitality; what does hospitality mean to you?
JM: It means being part of the family. Our owner, Billy Lawless, is this gregarious Irishman that always has the funniest and dirtiest jokes that you've ever heard, and he'll tell it to your grandmother and your fraternity brother all the same. Hospitality is a dying art in restaurants: They get you in, they get you out, and that's the complete opposite of what we do. We really, earnestly, as a group, hire people that are nice people. I mean, I can teach people about, you know, Sardinia, and I can teach them about Burgundy, but I can't teach someone to be nice. People come back to us because they like our genuine style of hospitality and service. It's kind of like going to Nonna's house; we're going to feed you until you wave the white flag and we're going to make you feel special until you can't take it anymore.

Someone once called me the Chicago "Sommbassador." I teach hospitality management at Roosevelt University. I look at the future sommeliers, the future F-and-B people of our city and of our country, and I'm kind of getting to them early. It's a really unique and cool experience to teach 21-, 22-, 23-year-olds about hospitality and beverage. Because all that they really know is Fireball and Moscato at that point in life. It's really building this kind of community in Chicago and doing that as early as possible.

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