For Nico's sommelier, rosé goes great with kicking butt | Bleader

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

For Nico's sommelier, rosé goes great with kicking butt

Posted By on 06.24.14 at 01:46 PM

Bret Heiar at Nico Osteria

PR people pitch what they have to work with, but this one sounded more like the pitch for a movie starring the Rock than an interview piece: Nico Osteria sommelier Bret Heiar, a former professional Muay Thai fighter, who now devotes much of his energy to pushing the girliest category of wine, rosé, on Nico's seafood-compatible wine list.

I imagined some seven-foot jock trying hard not to snap the stemware in his giant hands. But when I actually met Heiar, he was kind of sheepish about his past. I realized it was more a story about how someone winds up in the restaurant industry working for Paul Kahan and choosing wines from halfway across the world after starting in the least likely place. Which, in his case, was a small town in Iowa.

"It's funny the dichotomy, I've got Muay Thai tattoos on this side and wine barrels on this side," he laughs as he points to his biceps. "When I started in the service industry, I was very into martial arts of all kinds. But the more you travel, you visit wineries, you kind of get the bug a little bit. And as you get older, your focus shifts a little. Back then I was competing a lot in high school gymnasiums and VFW halls and county fairs—it wasn't on, like, Spike TV. So then the promoter wouldn't sell enough tickets, you'd go through training camps for nothing, your opponent wouldn't show up—as you get older, it gets a little old."

He started in food at the age of 16, at a truck stop in Walcott, Iowa. "I was a fry cook. The Greyhound buses would stop and the look of fear would go over everyone's faces for 30 minutes of chaos." As the wine bug got him, he says "the more you learn, the more you realize you don't know. The thing with wine is, you'll never learn it all. The politics of winemaking, geology, farming, vintage, chemistry—there's always more to learn, it's cool. Me and my friends play wine poker, that's how we spent our off time. Everyone brings a bottle in a brown paper bag and we throw a dollar in the pot, and you got one point for vintage, two points for region, three points for subregion and four points for the grapes."

In Chicago he worked for about a decade for Deb Sharpe at Feast and the now-closed Cru, as well as for her catering operation, which provided the backstage spread for rock bands playing in town. He was at Trenchermen before joining the team opening Nico, developing their wine list, which is largely Italian except for the champagne. I asked him how he approached pairing with a menu focused on mostly light seafood flavors and textures.

"One of my favorite pairings is salmon, with pinot noir," he says. "In Italy, a lot of people drink red wine with seafood; that's an old rule you can throw out the window. There's a lot of gray area and sauces that go with red. I think rosé is a wonderful compromise too." He adds, "unfortunately it has a seasonal stereotype. I drink it year-round, but I'll take the seasonality, if I can promote it. It goes great with our food. That little bit of skin contact [that produces the color] gives it a different level of complexity, a little tannin, but it's still accessible and refreshing and satiating. Not all rosés are equal, that's why I don't have a giant list. But I have about ten that I really really like."

One thing that's fairly unusual for a restaurant like Nico Osteria is that he tries to stock the wine list with reasonably priced wines going back ten to 20 years that he finds at auction. "Obviously I'm not going to fill the list with burgundy," which would only be in the price range of much higher-end restaurants. "But Italy has a thousand different kinds of wine. And I look for bargains and for underappreciated things that the winery has sitting around that you can get a good price on." He takes out a bottle of something called Piculit Neri, sort of a remote ancestor of pinot noir. "This is what the Romans drank. If someone came from 2,000 years ago, they'd recognize this wine."

The idea of scouring auction catalogs to dig up obscurities like these seems to light him up so much at the tail end of our conversation that I realize maybe I've found, at last, the connection between the kid who learned Muay Thai in small-town Iowa and the professional in Chicago. "So is it that you like the hunt, turning up things nobody else has?" I ask.

"Collecting is in my blood," he says. "My dad owned a baseball card shop for about 25 years. This is way before the Internet, before eBay, and he was a schoolteacher. So summers, we would get in the VW bus and go to the baseball card conventions. This is back when it was comic books, pro wrestling, and baseball all lumped into one. So you'd have, like, Rollie Fingers, Abdullah the Butcher, and Stan Lee together. We were a collecting family, and we'd do it for the love of the game. Those were fun times, going to Holiday Inn conference centers and campgrounds in Peoria and all around the midwest. It was a different time. A little more romantic before eBay."

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