Spiaggia sommelier Rachel Lowe was a finalist in the James Beard Awards, which were just cancelled. (photo by Haas and Haas)

EDITOR’S NOTE:  Late last week the James Beard Foundation announced the cancellation of its 2020 awards, originally rescheduled (in virtual form) for next month; the organization also cancelled 2021, in light of—well, everything. Still, becoming a finalist is a tremendous honor, and just before the announcement, we caught up with Spiaggia Beverage Director Rachael Lowe, a rising star in the wine world whose light will not be dimmed by this disappointment.

While it’s far from (its always elevated and exquisite) business as usual, iconic Chicago restaurant Spiaggia is buzzing once more these days, and not just because of the creative contemporary Italian fare from recently appointed executive chef Eric Lees. James Beard Award nominations for Outstanding Wine Program in both 2019 and 2020 have put Beverage Director Rachael Lowe squarely in the spotlight—and it’s much deserved.

A veteran of French Laundry  and Michelin-starred Chicago fave Brindille, and a past recipient of the Food & Wine “Sommelier of the Year” and StarChefs “Rising Star Sommelier” awards, Lowe is an Advanced Sommelier and Rudd Scholar by the Court of Master Sommeliers, and has taken on Spiaggia’s epic list with aplomb. As Spiaggia continues the reopening process, the respected somm gives us the scoop on some of her favorite current pours and how she’s given the wine program her own spin.

What 3 words would you use to describe Spiaggia’s wine list?

Expansive. Italian. Depth.

The place is an icon. How have you put your personal stamp on things?

I wanted to respect the history here and the incredible wine list that has been built up through the years while also introducing new wines that would mix things up a bit. I expanded the sections of up-and-coming regions within Italy and added an ‘other’ Old World section to be able to work with French, Spanish, Austrian, and other countries’ wines as well. Lastly, I introduced a global pairing that would be available as well as an Italian pairing; this feature has changed with each seasonal menu so our theme shifted as well. We have in the past poured wines from France, Italian varietals from the New World, and Balkan wines, to name a few.

What’s the most challenging part of your job?

I would say inventory is always the most stressful part of any month; having so many bottles for the team to manually count is time intensive, and there is always room for human error.

What did the nomination mean to you?

Well, it’s an enormous honor in general, but I think most importantly it is an honor for a restaurant that is so deserving of this award, having withstood time, events, and changes for 35 years. For all the people who have worked here throughout the past and present, it is truly so incredible to be considered. It is also amazing being included on a list next to so many wonderful talents.  

What’s the first wine you can remember falling in love with?

That’s a tough one, because there were wines I remember first cutting my teeth on, and later wines that were memorable once I understood what I was drinking more thoroughly. So I’d say two: First, when I was a server just getting excited about learning wine, I tasted a Turley Zinfandel—I think it was the Hayne vineyard—and I thought the texture and richness was incredible. Later when I lived in NYC and was actively working as a sommelier, I was lucky enough to share a dinner with a collector friend where we drank a bottle of Armand Rousseau ‘Clos St Jacques’ Gevrey-Chambertin 1999 that, to this day, is still one of the most memorable wines I have enjoyed—so layered and elegant. 

What wine region are you loving right now?

Puglia, mainly because Spiaggia’s new summer tasting menu is focused on the region, so we get to feature some really cool pairings alongside each dish.

What three bottles would you take to a deserted island?

Chateau Rayas, Chateauneuf du Pape, Rhone Valley, France; Poggio di Sotto, Brunello di Montalcino Riserva, Tuscany; Emmerich Knoll, Gruner Veltliner Smaragd (any of his vineyards), Wachau, Austria.

If you weren’t in the hospitality business, what would you be doing?

Most likely something to do with animals—I grew up on a farm and have always been drawn to all types of creatures.