Over Thanksgiving 2020, Chicago’s El Che Steakhouse & Bar temporarily closed for a second time due to pandemic restrictions. While its doors were shut for six months, the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence winner’s beverage director, Alex Cuper, made a big shift. He cut every wine that wasn't from South America off the list.
The Michigan native got his start in the Chicago wine scene, and joined chef-owner John Manion’s El Che in 2019. The restaurant, which opened in August 2016, is known for its large wood-fired hearth grill and dishes influenced by South American barbecue styles. In other words, lots of meat. Manion is also from Michigan but moved to Sao Paulo at a young age and was inspired by Brazil’s churrasco and Argentina’s asado techniques and culture.
While America's top steakhouses are synonymous with Napa Cabernet and verticals of Bordeaux gems, El Che features bold and balanced wines from Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and more, at a fraction of the price. Cuper says he loves seeing diners come in and flip through the menu only to find that steakhouse classics like Opus One aren’t on the list, giving him an opportunity to introduce the South American wines he is passionate about.
Cuper recently spoke with Wine Spectator’s Shawn Zylberberg about the decision to create a more focused wine offering, what people get wrong about South America's wines and the future of wine lists.
Wine Spectator: How did you get into the wine business?
From McDonald’s to the nicest dinners possible, my parents took my brother and I out everywhere they went. My parents are pharmacists so I originally went to pharmacy school, but wasn’t a huge fan of it. I had the realization that food had always been important to me growing up, so I studied hospitality at Ferris State University in Grand Rapids and graduated and moved to Chicago in 2014, where I started working at DOC Wine Bar in Lincoln Park, which is now closed. That was where I had those ”aha” moments in terms of understanding wine and terroir. I am by no means a certified sommelier, but rather learned on the job, trying wines, asking questions and talking about it.
From there I took another job at The Bristol in Bucktown. It was much more of an eclectic wine list, experimenting with different wines that fit the neighborhood-style restaurant. Then I ended up at El Che in 2019, not knowing a lot about South American wine, just basic knowledge about Malbec and Cabernet. Over the past year and a half, it’s just been a whirlwind discovering these South American wine producers and importers.
Since reopening in 2021, El Che’s wine list is now 100 percent South American. How did you arrive at that?
When I started in 2019, it was 50 percent South American, 40 percent North American and 10 percent European. When we temporarily closed due to the pandemic restrictions, we took a new look at our wine program and thought about what parts we can take from a traditional steakhouse and adapt it to our unique perspective. So we basically gutted the wine list and took out anything from Europe and North America, and put our sole focus on South American wine. I would say we are now about 50 percent Argentinian wines, 40 percent Chile and 10 percent Uruguay, Brazil and Peruvian.
Did any specific wines have an impact on you?
Zuccardi Concreto was the first Malbec “aha” moment I had when I started here three years ago. Between fermentation and aging in concrete vessels to the pure expression of the grape itself and where it came from, you tasted so much out of it. It’s a crowd pleaser at a great price from an amazing winemaker and family. But the Stella Crinita Barbera from Ernesto Catena and his wife, Joanna Foster, was the one shining moment [for me], and I would argue is the most important wine on our wine list. Tasting it for the first time was the moment I saw everything clearly and thought “If this exists [in Argentina], there has to be more out there.” It was great to see a variety that wasn’t what we consider South American made really well. I would say that, if someone said you could take one South American wine with you and not work with any others ever again, I’d probably take that one. It’s not the best, but that was the wine that spawned this whole idea of committing to put all our eggs in one basket.
What's the difference between beverage director and sommelier?
The difference is that, as beverage director, I’m also responsible for ordering for the bar itself and helping curate the cocktail and beer list menu. The final check goes through myself and John so it fits the philosophy of the restaurant. But I focus solely on wine day to day and buy it for the restaurant as well.
How do you educate guests about the wines? You also teach classes at El Che, right?
We have something called “Wine Class by the Glass” and it's the first week of every month. We pick a topic, whether it's a specific region, varietal or altitude effect, and we open up bottles we wouldn't typically pour by the glass, which gives our staff and guests the opportunity to try stuff we normally wouldn't. We discuss the wines, and it becomes a fun intro to showing people different wines and why elevation is so important and what the different aging and fermentation methods do to the wine. It's been a really easy and not intimidating way to delve into something new, which is one of our missions aside from promoting South American wine. We want to make wine a more comfortable, easy and understandable thing.
What do people get wrong about South American wine?
A lot of what people don't understand is how beautiful and versatile a grape Malbec is. We've had people come in and openly say, “I don't like Malbec,” and I equate that with not having had good Malbec, the same with any wine out there.
Beyond that, it'’s been cool seeing people come in saying they know nothing about South American wine, and I think the response has been pretty great. You get a beautiful bottle of wine you would have never selected in a million years, and it adds to the experience. You feel like you got something new, exciting and different out of it. The premier wines such as Laura Catena’s Domaine Nico are also significantly cheaper than paying $1,200 to $2,000 for the best Burgundies.
Do you have a favorite pairing?
I’ve recently been into old-vine Carignan from Maule Valley in Chile and a tomahawk steak. The bright, sharp acidity from the wine cuts through the fat. It’s a refreshing cleanser. Beyond that, I love the Zuccardi lineup. I could throw a dart at a board and hit one of their wines and it'd be great with a steak.
Do you think more wine lists will have a more focused theme in the future?
I hope so. I love it, and there are already a couple of restaurants in Chicago veering toward a specific wine region. There’s always gonna be a place for steakhouses where you can get every wine, but some of these smaller restaurants have an identity to them and I want them to continue that. As the world gets more curious about obscure wine regions and varietals and wine in general, we’ll get to see more of that.