When star sommelier Belinda Chang issues a call, the wine world spills forth.

Belinda Chang

Belinda Chang threw down the gauntlet-a “tasting gauntlet,” that is, an open call to every wine importer and distributor in town to show her their wares. The 33-year-old star sommelier had been charged by her bosses, Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand, with writing the wine lists for Cenitare, a multi-venue enterprise that opens in Wheeling this month (see page 196 in Restaurants). While it’s common practice in Chicago for restaurants building wine cellars to see a handful of distributors, Chang issued a more exhaustive call: over 15 days in August, she planned to taste some 5,000 wines from about a dozen reps, each of whom had 20 minutes to present samplings of a particular type, such as full-bodied whites or Bordeaux varietals. I tagged along.

“Instead of letting them bring whatever they want, we designated specific days for specific genres,” explained Chang. “The time restriction forces them to make intelligent choices about what they present.”

Chang had plenty of her own choices to make. She planned to create a 700-bottle list for Cenitare’s casual Osteria di Tramonto, and to choose 1,000 selections for the formal dining room, Tramonto’s Steak & Seafood. She also had to stock the more than 10,000-bottle cellar, where, as wine and spirits director, she will preside over an inventory of expertly crafted cuvées, library vintages, and rare gems.

Belinda Chang pictured with Rick Tramonto

“Ooo, you brought Cuvée Des Enchanteleurs,” Chang purred on sparkling-wine day, as the rep of the venerable Champagne Henriot happily popped the cork of a $250 ’95 vintage. By the 13th day of tasting, her focus was on an ’03 cabernet sauvignon blend from California’s Bishop’s Peak winery, one of the nearly 300 wines on the day’s schedule. “This is probably the hardest way possible to construct a wine cellar,” joked Chang. “The beauty of it, though, is that I’m going to see every [wine currently] coming into the city.”

As the days passed, the reps began to resemble the royalty of the vine making offerings to a Dionysian descendant. Fortunately, the quality of their wares was not lost on Chang, who studied premed at Rice before deciding to use her exceptional intellect to become a wine geek. She greenlighted a Caldora “Terre di Chieti” pecorino, an odd vio-gnier-type grape from Abruzzo, that will retail for an economical $22. She also selected a Casa Marin “Litoral,” a $50 Chilean pinot noir with a cult status.

As the tastings continued, Tramonto dropped in occasionally, ostensibly to check on Chang’s progress. But it was really to get a dose of his wine director’s infectious enthusiasm for her work. “I’ve never seen anybody teach wine with such a fun and down-to-earth spirit,” he said. On the gauntlet’s final day, Chang started to show a little wear, but was eager to get to the task of writing the list-choosing the wines that best represented each genre. Inspired, I headed back to my own desk with the vigor and bravado of someone whose head had been dizzied by grapes.

Photography: Chris Guillen