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Where’s the Wine in ‘The Bear’?

Where’s the Wine in ‘The Bear’?

Season three of Hulu’s The Bear opens with tortured Executive Chef Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto, Chef de Cuisine Sydney Adamu and the band of misfits from The Original Beef Chicagoland finally about to open their new venture: a fine dining restaurant where a beloved sandwich shop once stood. 

Through flashbacks, we learn of Carmy’s past in some of the world’s most celebrated and awarded restaurants: Noma, The French Laundry and Daniel, to name a few. He repeatedly utters a singular goal for his new venture: “We’re going to get a [Michelin] star.”

It’s an ambitious objective for a restaurant, still in its opening gambit, which obsesses over every detail in a nine-course, $175 tasting menu that changes daily. But during the season’s early episodes, in which the lofty dishes, sleek restaurant design and meticulous service style come into view, I couldn’t help but notice one important element getting shockingly little attention: beverage, and specifically wine. 

Each time Carmy prophesies the capturing of a Michelin star, I find myself muttering, “Not without a wine program, you won’t.”

“THE BEAR” — “Apologies” — Season 3, Episode 9. Pictured: Jeremy Allen White as Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto, Ayo Edebiri as Sydney Adamu. – Image Courtesy of FX

In actuality, however, he could. A restaurant technically doesn’t need a sophisticated wine program to earn a Michelin star, which is awarded entirely on the merit and consistency of the food. As someone who worked for several years in a two-Michelin-star restaurant, and briefly in another that earned a Michelin star in its opening year, I was shocked to learn this. 

How can wine or beverage not be a factor in whether a restaurant is destination-worthy?

A blog post from the Michelin Guide delineates how stars are awarded. While wine or beverage isn’t considered—neither is service—the guide’s website offers the following insight: “Restaurants that are serious about their food tend to also ensure they have an interesting wine list to complement it, so that element usually takes care of itself.” 

Alex Ring, wine director of Sepia, one of Chicago’s 16 restaurants with one Michelin star, agrees that this is usually the case. 

“Using the beverage program to enhance everyone’s experience, from non-drinkers to the most wine-savvy clientele, is in the best interest of any restaurant trying to step up their game,” Ring says. 

Zach Engel, chef and owner of Galit, another one-Michelin-star restaurant located in Chicago, agrees. 

“In order to be an exceptional restaurant, there must be a profound voice behind what is being offered,” stresses Engel. “Wine, and really all beverage offerings, should be a part of that conversation.”

To be fair, wine isn’t completely absent from the narrative in The Bear, even if it seems nobody is helming the beverage program in a serious way. Gary “Sweeps” Woods, a character from the original sandwich shop crew, is revealed to be taking “somm classes” and receives a copy of Richard Betts’s The Original Scratch and Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert. 

At first, Sweeps thinks he’s being trolled—he’s not. The guide is a well-respected one, written by a legendary sommelier. One episode later, however, Sweeps is shown struggling to open a bottle whose cork appears to be already 75% extracted. A handpull would have finished it, but he unsuccessfully goes after it with a wine key, chipping away bits of cork and swearing under his breath. 

While Michelin may not care, this doesn’t bode well for a restaurant whose funding hangs in the balance of an impending Chicago Tribune review.

“THE BEAR” — “Children” — Season 3, Episode 5 (Airs Thursday, June 27th) — Pictured: Matty Matheson as Neil Fak.
“THE BEAR” — “Children” — Season 3, Episode 5. Pictured: Matty Matheson as Neil Fak and Corey Hendrix as Gary “Sweeps” woods. – Image Courtesy of FX

I believe there is hope, however, for the future of wine in The Bear—both the series and restaurant for which it’s named. Previous seasons showed investment in other characters and their arcs from sandwich-shop flunkies to fine-dining professionals. Former bread baker Marcus hones his pastry skills in Copenhagen, line cook Tina attends culinary school and Richie embarks on an impactful front-of-house journey that transforms him from casual coke dealer to enlightened hospitality guru and oenophile. (“That’s a Cru Beaujolais!” he admonishes one customer.) 

I say all this—full disclosure—as someone who once Googled “What is Burgundy?” on the way to a job interview at the aforementioned two-Michelin star restaurant. I was a certified sommelier merely 18 months later. In other words, it’s entirely possible for a motivated neophyte to attain wine knowledge relatively quickly.

Perhaps we’ll see more investment in Sweeps in the next season as he grows into a potential beverage director role and—I hope—falls in love with wine. Of course, there’s every chance Sweeps could succeed in a beverage role just by being present on the job.

“There is talent and there is learned skill and knowledge,” says Engel. “I know some folks who probably could manage a wine program that quickly [after] starting wine education classes.” 

“Stranger things have happened in this industry,” adds Ring. “Learning about becoming a sommelier happens on the floor of a restaurant just as much—if not more—than in somm classes. Traits like curiosity, humility and being able to learn from one’s mistakes can take someone pretty far in this business.”

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