What to Drink
Alinea’s Jon Leopold On How He Creates His Wine Pairings
What to Drink

Alinea’s Jon Leopold On How He Creates His Wine Pairings

A course-by-course tasting menu walk-through with the Wine Director at one of the world’s most creative restaurants
By The NWR Editors
Photo: Alinea

September 21, 2023

For nearly two decades, Alinea has ranked as one of the best restaurants in the United States. A mainstay at the top of nearly every restaurant awards list in existence, the Midwest’s temple of gastronomy stands as Chicago’s only Michelin three-star restaurant and a pilgrimage site for diners around the world.

Alinea’s wildly creative menus and dining experiences spring from the mind of chef Grant Achatz (whose Chef’s Table episode is must-see TV).  Achatz has spun the restaurant’s success into the Alinea Group, which now includes fellow restaurants Next, Roister, St. Clair Supper Club and award-winning bars The Aviary and The Office.

As Wine Director for The Alinea Group (his second stint with the company), Jon Leopold oversees the beverage programs at these highly influential, much-imitated restaurants. He’s also charged with matching the excellence, unpredictability and thoughtfulness of each kitchen’s culinary feats step-for-step with a wine program that achieves similar heights.

For our inaugural Annotated Pairings feature, The New Wine Review sat down with Leopold who walked us through Alinea’s current tasting menu and explained his thinking behind each course’s pairings.

Note: Alinea offers three different pairing levels with its tasting menu: Standard ($155), Reserve ($245) and Alinea ($395). Leopold discusses the Alinea-level pairings below.

Dish: Communal: Floral, Summer, Garden

Wine Pairing: Laurent-Perrier, The Alinea Group Cuvée Rosé, Pinot Noir, Champagne, France, NV

“The gallery experience starts at a big communal table that’s kind of a Willy Wonka floral garden with little set pieces. There are all these little bites set out. Lots have green vegetable notes. Fava bean and black garlic parmesan spiral. Salad with caramelized raspberry vinaigrette. Fresh garden flavors. There’s char roe. So we need something that works with all of these and is particularly great with a couple of them.

That vinaigrette and that char roe lend to rosé. And we’ve poured Laurent-Perrier’s cuvée rosé for years. It’s a pretty impactful, 100% Pinot Noir, more red fruit-driven style of Champagne that plays off the raspberry notes.”

Alinea wine pairings - Alinea interior

Dish: Affettatrice: Peach, Hyssop, Country Ham

Cocktail Pairing: Adonis and The Debutante

“We then invite guests into the kitchen and serve them what’s almost like peach cobbler with country ham caramel. This ham is right up there with jamon iberico or the best prosciutto. This has U.S. southern influences, so we thought of bourbon or Southern Comfort. But the ham led us to think of Spain, where they drink sherry and vermouth with ham. 

I remembered this old, classic cocktail from the Waldorf-Astoria in the 1880s called the Adonis. It’s an even split of fino sherry, sweet vermouth, and orange bitters. Stirred, very simple, low alcohol, which also helps, because with these pairings, you’re drinking a ton of wine.

We messed around with it a little bit, so for fino, we did amontillado sherry—Lustau Los Arcos—two different sweet vermouths with Punt e Mes, as well as Alessio Chinato. Then we use peach instead of orange bitters and mist the glass with a shrub called Southern Decadence and add a little saltwater to pick up on the ham.”

Dish: Nacre: Ostera, Mussel, Lychee

Wine Pairing: Krug, Champagne, France, 2008

“This is a caviar course. We’ve done interesting things with caviar in the past, but this is just out of the tin from Thomas Keller’s caviar company. It has some tropical flavors underneath, lychee gelee. There are elements of tapioca and vanilla. It comes in a plate that’s meant to fit in your hands and has that mother-of-pearl sheen to it.  

We went pretty classic here and focused on a fuller-bodied style of Champagne like Krug, something with a significant amount of Pinot Noir to play off the lychee and something a little more toasty to hit the vanilla notes.

The Krug carries through to the next course, as well.”

Dish: Green Almond

Wine Pairing: Krug, Champagne, France, 2008 (continued from prior course)

“The green almond is white gazpacho, cucumber, grape, olive oil almonds. And it’s literally one bite. It goes pretty fast.”

Dish: Hot Potato: Cold Potato, Black Truffle, Parmesan

Wine Pairing: Camille Giroud, Chardonnay, Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru, Burgundy, France, 2019

“Chef hates the idea of signature dishes, but if he didn’t this would be one; it’s been around most of Alinea’s 18 years.

This is a single bite. It’s a little wax bowl with a pin sticking up through it with a very hot Yukon gold potato sphere. On top of that sphere is a butter-poached slice of black truffle. Also on the pin are butter, chive, and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. The guest pulls the pin out and everything falls into soup. It’s a shot, and guests are asked to eat it as fast as possible.

This is a Burgundy course. When you’ve got potato, truffle and cheese, Burgundy is the right answer. We’ll do red or white—there are lots of ways to play against the truffle. So you need something with a little more tannin or acid to match up with the fat and parmesan in the soup. We wanted a white wine for the balance of the menu.”

Dish: Plume: Atlantic Sea Bass, Crisps, Ashed Onion Dip, Mint

Beer Pairing: Art History Brewing, Varitace, Czech-Style Dark Lager, Geneva, Illinois

“This is basically fish and chips (or crisps). The potato chips, onion dip, and black bass pushed us toward beer. But anytime we do beer or sake, we have to nail it because people come in wanting wine. Otherwise, it’s not a trust-building experience for the guest.

Art History here in Chicago focuses on Czech-style beers. You’ve got all those allium flavors from what’s like a sour cream-and-onion dip, essentially, with charred onion ash on top. You’ve got these potato chips with like a malted vinegary powder on them, and you get some of that cigar and cedar wood smoke.

We’re using the multi-richness of a dark lager to match with some of these more assertive flavors. But at the same time, it’s still a lager. It looks very rich in the glass, but it’s only 4. 8 percent alcohol. So it’s still pretty light and refreshing.”

Dish: Auberdines: Eggplant, Rye, Butter and Herbs

Wine Pairing: Château Simone, Clairette Blend, Palette, Provence, France, 2020

“This is a play on words. It’s a little tin (like a fancy sardine box, which apparently was a formal service piece you’d own many decades ago). Open it and it looks like beautiful sardines, but it’s actually eggplant that’s been lime-cured and has the texture of sardines. You eat it on rye toast with cultured butter, herb salad on top, pickled beet and frisée lettuce.

We needed something zippier here and wanted to showcase a top coastal wine of the world. Château Simone makes some of our favorites. This wine has enough weight to match up with the butter and rye bite while still having lots of minerality and acid to play off the tinned fish idea.”

Alinea wine pairings

Dish: Squeaker: Potpourri, Foie Gras, Aigre-Doux

Wine Pairing: Turley, Hayne Vineyard, Zinfandel, Napa Valley, California, 1998

“This course is very much inspired by Victorian era formal dining or Bridgerton, which I think Chef and his fiancée were watching. All the formal dinner parties and everything else inspired this course. There’s a squab thigh rillette with smoked blueberries and lots of brown spices. The Aigre-Doux sauce has a squab jus, but also a heavily reduced ruby port wine element with flavors like cinnamon and clove. Then there are biscuits that we make brushed with honey with a blueberry compote and foie gras mousse.

We’re definitely going red here. The richness of that ruby port wine sauce and the Aigre-Doux needs some pretty assertive, more red flavors. I came across a vertical of Turley’s “Hayne Vineyard” and we’ve been pouring those. The idea is big, jammy fruit on the wine to match up with the very intense flavors of the blueberry and the Aigre-Doux sauce. At the same time, squab is not a super fatty bird. It’s not like duck, which has a lot more fat content.”

Dish: Clipped: Gooseberry, Uni, Squash Blossom, Sweet Corn

Wine Pairing: Castello di Ama, Vigneto La Casuccia, Sangiovese Gran Selezione Del Chianti Classico, Tuscany, Italy, 2019

“There are three different plates that are put in front of the guests. What they all have in common is gooseberry. We’ve got rice, sea urchin, custard, elements of gooseberry, and sweet corn. Then there’s a squash blossom that’s been fried, filled with chicken sausage, flavors of shiso, and there’s a little gooseberry sauce in there. And the third one is literally just a chicken wing but with a gooseberry barbecue sauce and sesame.

So, that’s a lot of different things happening. You’ve got a little oak on that wine matched with the sweet corn. Generally, we’re matching with the gooseberry itself, that’s the common thread throughout this course. 

This is a very good Sangiovese. For me, Castello di Ama makes some of the best Sangiovese on earth. We’ve been pouring their Vigneto La Casuccia, which is their top bottling. We give that a hard double decant several hours before service so it’s definitely waking up. These are wines that, while they can last for years, are very approachable when young, as well.”

Dish: Explosion: Black Truffle, Romaine, Parmesan

Wine Pairing: Castello di Ama, Vigneto La Casuccia, Sangiovese Gran Selezione Del Chianti Classico, Tuscany, Italy, 2019 (continued from previous course)

“The Sangiovese carries through nicely to the truffle and parm here.”

Dish: Jacob’s Ladder: Pomegranate, Plum, Jameed

Wine Pairing: Paul Jaboulet Aîné, La Chapelle, Syrah, Hermitage, Northern Rhône Valley, France, 2006

“Jacob’s ladder is pomegranate-plum jameed, a dried sheep’s milk yogurt. We need something tannic to play off all that fattiness and the elements of pomegranate and plum. It’s certainly going to be red wine here.  We wanted something a little bit more gamey in style, which led us to look at Syrah. Something with some black pepper spice, with those very floral characteristics in very good Syrah, like red and purple flowers that can play off the pomegranate and plum, and some of those roasted meat qualities. This is a good Northern Rhône Syrah.

I’m looking to find what I can get from top producers and good vintages, and with this menu that’s Jaboulet Aîné, “La Chapelle”. It has enough tannin to cut through the fat and savory elements to match up with the Middle Eastern profile of the Za’atar, the pomegranate and the jameed.”

Dish: Bubblegum: Thai Long Peppercorn, Hibiscus, Crème Fraîche

Pairing: None

“This is just a quick hit of bubblegum flavors—refreshing, kind of a setup for dessert.”

Dish: Paint: Flavors of a Banana Split

Wine Pairing: Henriques & Henriques, Boal, Frasqueira Madeira, Portugal, 1957 (Bottled 1992)

“We paint the table with all these different sauces and flavors. There’s lots of banana here, nuts, flavors of chocolate and strawberry. Essentially Neapolitan ice cream flavors. There’s also pineapple upside-down cake, a little chocolate, a little cherry, butterscotch. All the elements you would expect in a banana split.

We went to Madeira. It has nutty oxidative notes to play off the banana and butterscotch, in particular. It’s a very good match with chocolate and still has a little bit more acid and brightness compared to say, port, to hold up against some of the brighter flavors like the strawberry.

We’re big fans of Madeira at Alinea. It was on the menu when I started in 2013. Finding good vintage Madeira is getting harder to do, but we are still able to source some 1957.”

Dish: Balloon: Helium, Green Apple, Taffy

Wine Pairing: Henriques & Henriques, Boal, Frasqueira Madeira, Portugal, 1957 (Bottled 1992) (continued from previous course)

“The balloon is green apple taffy that comes out while the guest is enjoying the paint course. And so, it’s essentially two courses in one. We list them separately on the menu, but the  balloon is eaten very quickly. It’s really all about the paint flavors as far as the wine goes. If I were pairing just with the balloon, I would choose a Riesling, probably. It’s pretty tart green apple notes there.”