Wine and Song with Seth Wilson

Wine and song is an occasional series on Wine in Chicago featuring a local sommelier challenged to pair a great song with a great wine.​


“Feeling Good,” written by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse; recorded by Nina Simone for her 1965 album, I Put a Spell on You. It was never released as a single and found little attention for the next 30 years until it was used in a British Volkswagen commercial. Released as a single in 1994, it reached No. 40 in the UK and has since been covered by countless musicians and bands. It is an extraordinary performance and extraordinary song that delivers a sense of emergence against force, a bold refutation of the mantle of institutionalized sexism and racial prejudice Simone shrugs off like a moldy old coat then swaggers across it like royalty.


Pax Mahle Sonoma-Hillsides Syrah 2016, $145.00


Seth Wilson: sommelier at Boothe One – formerly The Pump Room.

Wine in Chicago took a table with Wilson in The Library, the lounge of the Hotel Ambassador, to which Boothe One is adjoined. The Pump Room was Chicago’s celebrity restaurant for decades. If you wanted to eat dinner in the same room as a Hollywood A-lister, this was the reservation you wanted. Though Boothe One has reconceptualized the celebrity aspect to be more in line with the less in-your-face paparazzi glamour of the 20th century, from our tiny table we could see a late night comedy legend with strong ties to Chicago waiting for someone in the lobby, whom Wilson confirmed was indeed the celebrity they seemed to be and thanked Wine in Chicago for not making a big deal out of it.

Wilson is tall, lanky, wearing a sharp suit with a vest and bowtie. He speaks carefully, thoughtfully, quietly with a command of the subject that is both academic and experiential. If you bumped into him in a bookstore, you’d assume he was a professor–and you wouldn’t be too far off. Wilson’s brilliantly educated with a B.A. in Cultural Anthropology and Languages from Vanderbilt, from which he graduated magna cum laude into a pedigreed status poised to launch him into a career in research or an office in an Ivy League university. Instead, Wilson worked in restaurants, finding a place in management, and after tasting a Château de Nerthe, Châteauneuf du Papes he bought for a colleague, realized his love of culture and facility with languages (he speaks at least three fluently) gave him an unusually adept foundation for becoming a sommelier.

Wine in Chicago: Tell me about Nina Simone. Tell me about this song.

Seth Wilson: “Feeling Good.” It’s an incredible song. One of my cousins is named after her, so I grew up listening to this song. I actually thought she was a man because her voice was so deep.

Wine in Chicago: It’s such a voluptuous song. Such a royal song.

Seth Wilson: Especially if you think about the time frame it was written in. This was in the mid-60s when you have women’s suffrage and the civil rights movement. So when you look at the words, she made them surround what was happening culturally at that time. So, “Feeling Good” is more about her personal experience of what is gonna be the evolution of what’s occurring in society around her. It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day is we are going to be able to get our rights. She was an advocate for civil rights and women’s suffrage. She was very outspoken, especially for her time, being a black female. She was incredibly ahead of her time. So she revolutionized not just the music industry but pushing forward what these rights were for her demographics altogether.

Wine in Chicago: Talk about her voice.

Seth Wilson: The voice itself is extremely specific. There’s this voluptuousness. There’s this broodiness and intensity. Nina Simone had a history of classical music training, so she played classical piano, but it was the voice that really transcended her style as much as she spoke for women’s suffrage and civil rights.  There was something that was really indicative of her voice that brought people in to what she was saying. I don’t know if anyone else could actually do that. 

Wine in Chicago: Bille Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” . . .

Seth Wilson: “Strange Fruit”– but with Nina Simone there was this anger. You listen to a lot of her songs and it emulated what that feeling was for that time which was just pure fury. Passionate fury.

“Feeling Good,” as you look at the lyrics it’s a very positive song, the way the song opens where it’s just her voice Birds flying high, you know how I feel then the trombones come in and it just rips you apart.

Wine in Chicago: Here’s what I’m hoping. I’m hoping whichever wine you pick, is not just paired well with the song but drives through all that back to the first time you heard it back to before you were a sommelier. It’s a thread between the first time you heard “Feeling Good” and maybe who you are now, who you’ve grown into.

Wilson opens a bottle of 2016 Pax Mahle Sonoma-Hillsides.

Seth Wilson: This is I think the way Syrah should taste. When I first tasted Pax’s Wines–a style that was very different when he first started producing wines. They were the bigger, bolder, saturated with a higher alcohol content. Then he went off for a little bit and started Wind Gap which all about representing the old world. It was a complete contrast to what he’d produced before. Wind Gap was when I first got introduced to his styles.

Seth Wilson: In thinking of what wine I’d choose to represent Nina Simone, well, it was Syrah. It is big. Brusque. Raw. Salty. Olive. Violet. There’s a rich broodiness, there’s this masculine quality that represents the baritone voice she has. This one is 100% whole cluster fermentation as well, so it’s got even more tannin behind it, more body. But then, it is still old world. So everything I’m saying right now, you’d think big bold California Syrah but no. It’s really taking what you’d get in the Northern Rhone and giving it a new definition coming out of California.

As your man in the field takes a sip of the Pax Mahle his eyes roll back into his dome and a distinctly unprofessional word escapes his normally chaste vocabulary.

Seth Wilson: Yes. Exactly. [That unprofessional word] is a really good way of describing this wine.

Wine in Chicago: There’s leather and pepper in there.

Seth Wilson: Pepper and violet and black olive. Cured meat. There’re so many layers. And going back to Feeling Good, there’s just something earthy . . . a newness. This wine is making me extremely happy. Anytime I’m able to serve it . . . it’s more of a hand-sell for those who don’t know what’s coming out of California. I’m always really satisfied with their reaction. I’m teaching someone: this is the cool thing that’s coming out of California.

Wine in Chicago: And it’s so soft, compared to with what I’m used to out of Cali, which is what I call frat boy cabs, this is, instead of a wine in a pop-collar alligator shirt and a Beemer, this is wine is wearing a fine Italian suit and reading Seneca. This wine has brains.

Seth Wilson: Yeah. It does. It’s the layers. And it just changes. There’s so much complexity behind it. Complexity is, again like that frat boy, has become synonymous with that big bold higher alcohol content. That’s not where complexity comes from. This is 12.8 percent alcohol, which is low for a Syrah from California. That’s where I think this wine can shine, when you keep the alcohol restrained and you’re really able to see the personality of the grape, what the winemaker – well, not even the winemaker. What the vineyard is trying to do.

Wine in Chicago: Yet even looking at it in the glass­ I would assume it’s a higher ABV.

Seth Wilson: It’s unfiltered and unfined so there’s going to be this cloudiness. It’s also whole cluster which really starts extracting color from the stems. It’s just a beautiful, beautiful wine in the glass. And looking at the wine, I mean, maybe it’s because I’ve been talking about Nina Simone, but it is big, rich, concentrated – but there’s also this elegance. You see it there on the rim, there’s this magenta, there’s this colorfulness. But in the glass it’s just . . . body. What you get on the palette is not what you get from the visual. I think that’s very similar to Nina Simone. She was big, bold, brash, body, you know, beautiful and intense. And you had this incredible, like, nuanced, delicate, well-composed creative sense behind what she represented on the front. There are so many layers, so much complexity behind what this wine is conveying . . . this wine is Nina Simone.

Wine in Chicago: Where are you in this wine?

Wilson takes a moment to think about this. I don’t think anyone’s ever asked him this question and from his off-kilter shoes to his perfectly dapper bow tie, he seems to freeze, to look into the middle distance, into the glass. Perhaps no one has ever asked ‘where are you in this wine,’ but that doesn’t mean Wilson hasn’t thought about it. He knows who he is. He takes a moment – but only a moment. He tastes it again.

Seth Wilson: I like curveballs. I like shocking people. I like taking something and making you think it’s going to be one thing and completely swaying you once you actually get into it. So my wine list  – and I train my staff this way as well – I like you to think wine is a certain way, I like you to visualize wine is a certain way and then I want to really take you for a tailspin once you actually get into the taste of it.

Even my by-the-glass list, I choose wines that even when you go into nose, even when you take them to sight, I want you to think of what this wine is going to be like but when it hits your palette it takes you down a different route. I want to show that what you’re getting involved in is not just two dimensional. It will take you down this rabbit hole that allows you to have fun and intellectualize and converse about what it is that this artist tried to do. This is an art form. You have a masterpiece sitting in front of you. So you have to respect that.

Wine in Chicago: Are you multidimensional? Are you a masterpiece?

Seth Wilson: I think we all are. I think you have to really see what that is, though. Everyone is multidimensional. I don’t think anyone is staid.

Wine in Chicago: I could introduce you to some people who could wreck that argument.

Seth Wilson: [laughs]

Wine in Chicago: What was the first wine that really did it for you?

Seth Wilson: A Châteauneuf-du-Pape. I was a server at P.F. Chang’s in Nashville and–

Wine in Chicago: Known for their wine list.

Seth Wilson: Exactly. And it wasn’t even a wine on the list. A manager there was leaving and I asked if I could get him a present and asked him what do you want I’m going to buy you a bottle of wine. What do you drink? And he said Châteauneuf-du-Papes and I had never heard these words together before. So I went to the wine store and I asked about the CNDP and I thought wow these words are really cool. I don’t even know what these grapes are because I didn’t know much about wine at this point. I got the Chateau le Nerte and I brought it to my manager, and he was extremely excited. So we opened it we poured it we drank it and I was like: This. This is what wine is. This is why I see people freaking out.

Part of my job as a journalist is to research my subjects for interviews. In reviewing Mr. Wilson, I saw picture after picture of him with a bottle of Clos Ste, Hune. It was almost a motif. There are some wines that reach a level of immortality. They are superstars of the wine world, standing out as the benchmark for a particular style other wines aspire to attain. Clos Ste. Hune, an Alsace Riesling made by the Trimbach family since 1626, is the gold standard Riesling. Wilson’s professorial demeanor fades. He’s suddenly taken with a boyish exuberance, an unrefined, unpolished excitement that bursts through his professional persona.

Seth Wilson: There is . . . there is something so delicate and so intense at the same time. That is manic depression. That is taking something and putting it into your palette and saying I’m so alive and so intensely immersed in . . . depth. There’s this razor-sharp acidity and concentration of fruit and earth and spice and, and . . . and it’s . . . there’s just nothing else like it. It commands high prices. But there’s a reason. When you taste it, you can see why you’d invest in this wine experience. It’s just mind altering.

Wine in Chicago: So some expensive wines are worth the money.

Seth Wilson: Yes.

Wine in Chicago: What is it you want to say to people about wine. What’s your message?

Seth Wilson: Have fun with it. Never forget all of us are just 12-year-olds wrapped up in older skins. We tend to take things a little too seriously. There is a game in everything. Even in the song, there is this childishness behind it. Within the depth you want to feel, there is something very juvenile about all of us that we should really, really focus on.  Don’t over intellectualize everything because life’s too short. I think we don’t play enough. We all need to go back to just being kids.







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