Sommelier Josh Kaplan
mk | Chicago
Sommelier Josh Kaplan brings an energy and enthusiasm to wine service at MK, with a tableside manner that’s educational but not condescending, and an exciting and varied selection of pairings from around the globe. Kaplan studied English in school (the first thing he did when he joined mk was spell-check and fact-check the list), but was always drawn to wine. Kaplan has re-shaped the wine list since coming to MK over three years ago: he’s added an organic/biodynamic producer page, increased the half-bottle selection, added Pinot Noirs from Australia and New Zealand, and increased the selection of Italian wines. Kaplan focuses on wines “made by families and actual humans,” and has tried to eliminate wines made by corporations and committees. He has 700 labels on his list and 7,000 bottles in his cellar, and is currently excited about funky Italian wines. (Kaplan was the first person to serve us a Nerello Mascalese from Etna Rosso, Sicily, paired beautifully with a dish of squab, broccoli, and polenta.) Kaplan has taken the intro course for the Court of Master Sommeliers, and is currently studying for his advanced sommelier exam with Master Sommelier Alpana Singh of Lettuce Entertain You.
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Antoinette Bruno: How did you develop an interest in wine?
Josh Kaplan: I think it just happened – I liked it from a young age. My dad collected wine and I’d go into the basement and there was wine there. I liked the idea that there was something down there that was from the 60s (and this was the 80s). I’ve worked in restaurants since age 15 (I’m now 36), and have always gravitated towards wine. Once I started learning it was immediately fascinating.
AB: Describe your fondest wine memory.
JK: I think everyone has a meal where there’s just a revelation about wine and food synergy. Mine was a parent’s 50th birthday at a French restaurant in the suburbs called Le Titi de Paris. It was a meal with many pairings, and something just clicked.
AB: Where have you worked previously?
JK: I’m from Chicago but spent 5 years in Cleveland where I managed a wine bar called Varietals. Before that I worked at Lola’s. In Chicago I worked at Mantuano Mediterranean Table.
AB: What courses have you taken? Certifications?
JK: I’ve done the intro course for Master Sommelier and am studying now for the advanced level. I’m working with Master Sommelier Alpana Singh, who is the beverage director for Lettuce Entertain You.
AB: What is your philosophy on wine and food?
JK: You can pair by contrasts or by complement. I really like contrasting elements and I think that’s the most exciting thing in a match when you have acidity cutting through something rich. I also love when I’m given freedom – when the guests give me the freedom to turn them on to different things.
AB: How big is your cellar at mk?
JK: We have about 700 labels and 7000 bottles.
AB: How has it changed since you took over?
JK: The first thing I did was correct spelling, factual, and typographical errors. While working within the template set by our owner, I’ve changed the list quite a bit. I added an organic/biodynamic producer page. I think I was the first in the city to do this (I compulsively read other restaurants’ lists). I added a page to spotlight wines that reflect the season, and I increased the half bottle selection. Sometime in 2005 I became obsessed with Australian and New Zealand Pinot Noir, and increased those selections. I also added a lot more Italian wines. For Spain and Italy I listed the varietals grown in each particular province, so if someone ordered a wine from Campania they knew they were getting an Aglianico-based wine. I increased as much as possible wines made by families, and eliminated wines made by corporations and committees.
AB: What wines are you most excited about right now? What do you collect?
JK: On the list: the Etna Rosso Tenuta della Terre Nere. It’s like a pinot noir that is fruit-forward, and it’s friendly, but really interesting. For myself: my storage is limited, but I could drink Chateauneuf du Pape every day. I just bought a Bandol Syrah-Grenache blend. I also really love offbeat Italian whites with funky disparate varietals.
AB: Tell me about a perfect wine and food match that you discovered.
JK: I was a guest at a wedding here at MK and I had picked a Gruner Veltliner to go with seafood, but I still had some in my glass by the time we got to the bison course. It was an ‘03 with a lot of viscosity and ripeness, and I drank it with the steak – it was great!
AB: What is your favorite wine resource book?
JK: Tom Stevenson’s The New Sotheby’s Wine Book or Vino Italiano by Joe Bastianich. I have an old book by Victor Hazan called Italian Wine that is from the 80s, but really interesting.
AB: Did you attend culinary school?
JK: No, I studied English in school.
AB: What languages do you speak?
JK: Bits of French and restaurant Spanish.
AB: With which person in history would you most like to share a bottle of wine? What would you pour?
JK: Orson Welles, because he’s the greatest filmmaker of all time. He’s a Renaissance man and magician. I’d pour one of my favorites – a Quintarelli Amarone.
AB: What are your ultimate career goals? Where do you see yourself in 5 years? 10 years?
JK: I think that the next step for me is to run the beverage program for more than one restaurant and to do more than one list. I’d like to also be partner in a restaurant.
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