Meet the New Leader of Canlis’ Grand Award–Winning Wine Program
Linda Milagros Violago is the latest sommelier to oversee the program since Canlis opened in 1950. Plus, Grand Award winner the Modern reopens in New York with a new wine director, and Chicago’s Boka Restaurant Group debuts an Italian eatery
Wine Spectator Grand Award winner Canlis in Seattle welcomed a new team member this month: Linda Milagros Violago, the first woman to run the wine program since the restaurant opened in 1950. Violago succeeds Nelson Daquip, who departed in June 2021 to move to Los Angeles, where he has taken a sommelier position at Best of Award of Excellence winner Osteria Mozza.
“The culture and how things are run here and how we interact with each other at all levels is really unique,” Violago said. “I’m excited about that.” Before joining Canlis, Violago worked in well-known restaurants like Catbird Seat in Nashville, Tenn., Grand Award winner Geranium in Copenhagen and the now-closed Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago.
The hire follows an extensive international search that started in January and also included the April hire of Canlis’ first female executive chef, Aisha Ibrahim. True to Canlis’ signature creative style, Violago says the application process wasn’t a traditional one. She was given two tasks by co-owner brothers Mark and Brian Canlis: Write a headline and first paragraph of a news story announcing her own appointment, and submit a video of, as Mark put it, “60 seconds of you doing something wholeheartedly that is very clear you are not very good at.” Excited and endeared by the request, Violago sent a video of herself baking bread. “I thought, ‘This is going to be a fun ride. Even if I don’t get the gig, this is gonna be great,’” she recalls. Once pandemic-related travel restrictions allowed, she visited Canlis and was selected soon after.
“I really like her as a person. I really trust and respect who she is, who she’s hoping to become,” Mark said. “I find that when we surround ourselves professionally with people that we admire personally, you end up with something special … It’s a bonus to me that she happens to be a remarkably talented expert in wine.”
Mark is excited to see how Violago will impact Canlis’ wine program as part of a wider effort to move the restaurant forward post-pandemic. “It’s just Canlis’ way to keep rethinking what we do,” he said, noting that the 2,400-label count may decrease in the process. “I want our wine list to be more representative of who we are as people, of the kinds of wines that we like to drink, of the kinds of food that we’re eating, of the way that we’re eating and drinking.”
Violago speaks highly of the current Canlis list, but says changes are certainly coming, including incorporating more of a global perspective from her many stints around the world. In addition to fostering a list that pairs well with Ibrahim’s distinctive cuisine, Violago wants to spotlight lesser-known wineries, focusing especially on those using sustainable, organic and more earth-mindful practices. “People who share our cultural values.”
She also plans to support vintners who may be struggling due to recent fires, vine diseases, tariffs and the pandemic, all while bringing more diversity, inclusion and equity into Canlis’ program. “It’s not just terms that we’re throwing around. It’s things that I deeply believe in.”
She hopes to further evolve Canlis’ overall approach to wine as well, making it a bit more open and fun. “[We] should be able to taste whatever we want, talk about it however we want, using whatever language we want and find our own way of talking about wine that feels right and feels natural and authentic so that we can communicate that to the guest.”—Collin Dreizen
[article-img-container][src=2021-09/tt_modern092321_1600.jpg] [caption=The Modern’s chef will continue serving elegant American dishes like chanterelle mushrooms and gnudi, complementing the wine program by Arthur Hon (right).] [credit= (Ellen Silverman)] [alt= Chanterelles and gnudi; the Modern’s wine director Arthur Hon ][end: article-img-container]
The Modern, a Grand Award winner in New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, reopened its dining room Sept. 17 after about 18 months of closure in response to the pandemic. New to the team is beverage director Arthur Hon, who joined the restaurant this summer before the bar room reopened in July. He previously led the wine program at Momofuku Ko, which held a Best of Award of Excellence until 2021.
Hon spent his first few months at the Modern "getting a better feel for the inventory that was essentially frozen in time since last spring,” and developing a blueprint for the program’s near future. He plans to maintain the breadth and international nature of the 3,000-plus label list and incorporate any changes gradually, starting with the by-the-glass program.
Hon is diversifying the selections to better represent the overall list, while skewing away from more expected and traditional selections to really wow guests. ”There are so many great restaurants in the neighborhood in Midtown around the Modern,” he said. “So my thought is that if there's anything similar that you can get elsewhere, then why would you want to come to the Modern and drink it?”
He hopes to foster even more of a beverage-centric and welcoming energy in the bar space. "We want to treat it as, you can just stop at any time and just be you. It doesn't have to be a very dressed-up occasion, but if you feel like it, please do. [We want to] really create an environment where people want to come to the Modern and drink."
He’s also adding a page of featured by-the-glass selections that will be available in the bar room as a way to introduce the voices of his team and present wines they’re passionate about at the moment. The featured wines will be tied together by a theme and likely change about three or four times a year. "What is really important to me is that I'm not treating this program as my program, but I'm treating it as a collection of my team,” Hon said, adding that he views his role more as an “editor at large.”
He’s looking forward to bringing a fresh set of eyes to the program, as the pandemic caused him to rethink his own perception of the high-end wine experience. “We're moving into, in a way, a brand-new world when it comes to beverage,” Hon said. “I don't know everything, but what I know is that I can surround myself with as many talented people as I can, and collectively, we can make this program better."
The wine list complements chef Thomas Allan’s refined American menu, which has undergone some format changes. Instead of the previous prix-fixe menu with course options, a set tasting menu is available in the dining room for $225 per person, and an à-la-carte menu is available at the bar. Hon says the menus are "super exciting and different and unique in comparison to what [Allan] has done in the past.” An optional beverage pairing is also in the works.—Julie Harans
[article-img-container][src=2021-09/tt_allavita092321_1600.jpg] [caption=Numerous Italian favorites are on the menu at Boka’s Alla Vita.] [credit= (Galdones Photography)] [alt= An overhead view of a spread of dishes at Alla Vita ][end: article-img-container]
Boka Restaurant Group, the Chicago-based brand behind Restaurant Award winner Swift & Sons, debuted a new spot on Randolph Restaurant Row. Alla Vita opened Sept. 13 in the space that formerly held Bellemore, the group’s since-closed elevated brasserie.
Wine director Kimberlee Beeler says the community of restaurants on the famed Chicago street have already been extremely supportive. “That’s one of the great things about Chicago, there’s great camaraderie within the hospitality industry,” she told Wine Spectator. “Right now, given the year that we’ve had, everyone is just embracing and excited to see something new on the horizon for everyone.”
With Alla Vita, the group is taking the space in a more casual direction, offering Italian classics from chef-partner Lee Wolen in a redesigned dining room. Wolen serves a selection of antipasti and house-made pastas and pizza, alongside family-style mains like wild-mushroom lasagna, whole sea bream with olives, salsa verde and raisins and classic roasted NY strip steak.
Managed by Beeler, the wine list follows suit with approachable and food-friendly selections mainly from Italy. She notes that Wolen developed the food menu in Boka’s kitchen while Alla Vita’s redesign was still in progress, giving her ample time to carefully craft a wine selection that matches the culinary vision. The resulting list includes about 100 selections, with 15 available by the glass and about 20 bottles on an additional reserve list. Depending on the status and safety of indoor dining, the team intends to offer wine-driven events in the restaurant.—Taylor McBride
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