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A Growing Retail Concept Imports Wine Country to the Heartland

Nestled between Olive Garden’s populist promotion of wine, the explosion of wine bars across the country, the resurgence of restaurant and micro brewery concepts and emerging trends like community hubs that make wine (City Winery in New York), is a growing restaurant concept that has its eyes set on importing wine country culture to the heartland.

A rising tide raises all ships; the more that a pragmatic wine culture is understood as comfortable, and not the province of the elite, the better.

Related to this, I was talking with family friends recently who are keen wine lovers (of the ‘normal’ buy and drink variety), who are aware of my total immersion in matters of the grape.  They asked, “Is it hard for you to find a wine culture here?”  “Here” being Indianapolis, IN, the Crossroads of America.  My answer was something along the lines of, “You have to work at it.  It would be easier if I were on the East Coast and living in a place that has a legacy, euro-centric wine culture and wine bars or the West Coast that has the embedded wine sensibility from production.”

Yet, slowly, but surely, the Midwest is chipping away. 

Local wines and the quality thereof are making inroads across the country.  New York State, Michigan, Virginia, Texas, Missouri and other states all make wine that can hold their own against West Coast wineries if only perception met reality in a favorable way…

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Taking a slightly different twist on what it means to be a winery while borrowing heavily from the aforementioned restaurant and microbrewery concept is Cooper’s Hawk winery and restaurant based in the ‘burbs of Chicago.

Founded by entrepreneur Tim McEnery in 2005, Cooper’s Hawk is the Midwest’s first winery and restaurant concept under one roof. The name, an homage to both the art of barrel making and the Cooper’s Hawk, a bird of prey found in the Midwest, is a clever and catchy take on the rootedness that denotes most winery names.  And, the concept is a mash-up of familiar, but uniquely combined elements that has created a new category of restaurant.

Plus, there is a little bit of genius involved in the concept, as well.  Given that upscale restaurants rely on their wine and beverage program to fuel profits, there is something simple and smart about cutting out the middleman to make all of your own wine and then have that wine program be simpatico with the restaurant concept.

Making their own wine akin to an on-premise microbrewery and restaurant, using the wine sampling concept that is de rigueur at Olive Garden, while creating an atmosphere that is super-charged winery tasting room and direct-to-consumer marketing program with a casual upscale restaurant attached, Cooper’s Hawk is poised for growth. 

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With four existing locations blanketing Chicagoland, the “don’t call it a chain and please call it a winery before restaurant” (my reference) is venturing out of state for the first time and opening a winery and restaurant in Indianapolis with additional expansion plans for two to three additional locations in 2011, with Missouri, Minnesota and Ohio potential destinations.

With a full winery production facility in Countryside, Illinois, and using varietal grapes from the west coast as appropriate, Cooper’s Hawk makes approximately 10,000 cases (50,000 gallons) of wine served in their casual upscale restaurants and via sales to their wine club.

According to Melanie Pierce, Director of Marketing at Cooper’s Hawk, “We really have a wide demographic range, mostly 21-65.  Our menu is designed to have something for everyone and part of our success is attributed to our broad appeal.”

She continued, “The restaurant drives most of our sales revenue, but the wine club is instrumental in the growth of the restaurant.”

Sarah Stukas, a Psychotherapist from Darien, IL commenting on the comfortable nature of the restaurant concept said, “The vibe at Cooper’s Hawk is lively and there is a lot going on at a time. On a typical Saturday night you will find a small group having a tasting party in the front of the restaurant, people in the bar watching a game or listening to the piano player, a private gathering in the barrel room and a dining room full of patrons.  It’s a fun place with attentive, professional service and consistently good food.”

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She continued, “One of the great things about Cooper’s Hawk is that there’s something for everyone. While you will often see singles and couples in the bar or wine-tasting areas, the dining room is filled with groups, families or couples out for a romantic evening. We never feel out of place dining with our two children (8 & 11 - who actually order from the adult menu), but we’ve also enjoyed it quite a bit out with other couples.”

A scan of Yelp.com for Cooper’s Hawk yields similar exuberantly positive feedback with the occasional grumble bunny mixed in.

Of course, being based in the Midwest, it wouldn’t be an appropriate winery concept if there weren’t wines to suit all types of wine drinkers.  Their wine list is an eclectic mix of sweet fruit wines, White Zinfandel, and varietal wines that cover the gamut of tastes and entry points for wine lovers across the spectrum of education.  And, this might, ironically, explain why Cooper’s Hawk has both a Shiraz and a Syrah at the same price on their wine list.

According to Pierce, Riesling is their number one selling wine. 

Overall, I’m somewhat ambivalent that a non-native restaurant is moving into Indianapolis, the capital of the free world for concept restaurants.  Yet, at the same time, I’m excited that the place is well reviewed, planning to grow in other parts of the Midwest and, most importantly, that they’re bringing a higher level of mindshare and acceptance to a wine tasting room environment coupled with high quality food that pairs well with their wines.

As I mentioned, a rising tide raises all ships and the tradeoff of exported culture (or imported based on your geography) seems to be a reasonable one if it brings a greater level of appreciation for wine to the province of cultural morass, truly bringing the U.S. into a wine culture from sea to shining sea and not just the coasts.



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Posted in, Free Run: Field Notes From a Wine Life. Permalink | Comments (7) |


Comments

On 08/24, Joel Goldberg wrote:

Other than the creation of a new wine-related concept, I find it sad that they’re making wine from California fruit in areas that are trying to educate people to learn and enjoy their own regional wines, which offer very different characteristics and flavor profiles.

Isn’t there already enough homogenization of wine styles without seeing a local winemaker head to California for the same juice that’s so readily available on every store shelf?

Dan Berger’s column that’s republished on MichWine takes an interesting, similar slant on the recognition of regionality.

When it comes to regional wines, perception will never meet reality until folks like these take the leap to produce and promote based on today’s reality, not yesterday’s perceptions.

On 10/25, hochzeit wrote:

Restaurants range from unpretentious lunching or dining places catering to people working nearby, with simple food served in simple settings at low prices, to expensive establishments serving refined food and wines in a formal setting. In the former case, customers usually wear casual clothing.

On 11/21, rash guards wrote:

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On 12/08, Iris von Arnim wrote:

I recently tasted this wine for the 1st time and was surprised that it tasted so good. Highly recommended from me.

On 01/17, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

As someone who frequents Coopers Hawk often, I really appreciate a restaurant like this that boasts a wonderful menu & a nice variety of wine in a comfortable atmosphere.  Indianapolis will enjoy this restaurant.  You don’t have to be pretentious to enjoy good wine, & neither does the place that serves it to you.  The wine club is great, if you purchase wine frequently & I love the tasting room & gift shop.  Wine tasting is a very smart move for them - I have learned to love several wines I may not have tried had it not been for that.  & I buy them right at the restaurant.  Now, if they would only make it to Columbus, where my cousin lives….

On 09/10, Lublia wrote:

This new wine concept can add more value to the final product and to the final price of the bottle.


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