Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurants has some of the most loyal fans. In addition to offering its own wines with its New American cuisine, the upscale-dining chain also operates one of the country’s largest wine clubs.
Members tend to be highly loyal because they receive more than just monthly wine deliveries. They can attend exclusive tasting events and even travel around the world for wine experiences with Cooper’s Hawk staff acting as guides.
How did a chain of 24 locations build such a passionate following in 11 years? Its success stems from the original vision: to provide guests with a memorable, easy-to-enjoy experience with wine and food.
Food Made For Wine
Cooper’s Hawk founder/CEO Tim McEnery, who has a background in restaurant management, recalls his initial inspiration for the business in 2002. He was at a winery for a tasting one evening with his wife Dana. “While enjoying a wine tasting, we searched the nearby area for restaurant reservations and thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to eat and continue drinking this wine?’” he remembers.
At the time, “Many wineries had small, limited menus and through research, I didn’t find any connected to a full-service restaurant,” he adds. Three years later, McEnery, then 29, opened the first Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant in Orland Park, IL, where the company is now headquartered.
Cooper’s Hawk today counts locations in Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Maryland, Ohio, Wisconsin and Virginia. A Coconut Creek, FL, location is scheduled to open in November; four to five additional units are slated for 2017.
The brand’s focus remains on making wine-and-food pairings approachable and understandable. All locations include large, onsite tasting rooms (922 sq. ft. on average), plus menus that pair each plate with a specific wine.
Cooper’s Hawk sells its wines in its restaurants and tasting rooms, and directly to members of the wine club. None of the bottles are distributed to outside businesses. “We’re basically the wine version of a brew pub,” says winemaker Rob Warren.
The company does not grow its own grapes; it buys them from about 20 west coast wineries and trucks them to a 32,000-sq.-ft. facility in Countryside, IL. Cooper’s Hawk will bring in international vineyards for special bottlings a few times each year. These might include malbec from Argentina, sangiovese from Italy, and varietals from New Zealand and Australia.
McEnery and Warren select the wineries for these bottlings, and are heavily involved in the process. Warren oversees production of about 425,000 cases of Cooper’s Hawk wine a year. His wines typically age for six to 18 months in oak barrels.
Partner vineyards are selectively chosen for their regions, the structures and aromatics of their grapes, production capabilities and their attitudes. “We’re very persnickety. We want to be in control of our grapes once we get them, and that’s a passion we want to share with the venues we chose,” Warren explains. “When you tour a vineyard and meet the people there, you can tell pretty quickly how much they really care about what they’re doing.”
Once a winery is onboard, its harvested grapes are loaded into refrigerated trucks and driven to Cooper’s Hawk’s facility. Fruit usually arrives two to three weeks after harvest; it’s then destemmed, crushed, fermented, aged, blended and bottled.
Wide Range Of Varietals
The many styles Cooper’s Hawk produces run the gamut. From sparkling rosé, prosecco and moscato, to sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and gewürztraminer, to pinot noir, shiraz and petite syrah. All these and more are available in the restaurants by the glass for $6.50 to $8.75, and by the bottle for $25.99 to $30.99.
For dessert, Cooper’s Hawk makes Ice Wine ($9.50 for a glass, $37.99 for a 375-ml. bottle) and Nightjar, a port-style wine ($8 a glass; $27.99 a bottle). There are also lux offerings for those who want premium pours, including the Lux sparkling ($9.50 a glass, $37.99 a bottle) and the Lux pinot noir ($13 a glass; $47.99 a bottle).
Winemaker Warren and Matt McMillin, vice president of culinary and beverage innovation, collaborate on the seasonally changing Cooper’s Hawk menus. McMillin and Warren systematically match every dish with a specific wine identified on the menu by its BIN number.
When pairing food and wine, they consider how many times each bottle appears on the menu. They try to get all the wines involved; any that have recently received awards or accolades are sure to be featured.
One recommended menu pairing (pictured atop) is the red-wine-braised short ribs with mustard sauce, Mary’s potatoes, roasted vegetables and crispy onion strings ($24.99) with the Cooper’s Hawk cabernet zinfandel ($8.75 a glass; $30.99 a bottle).
“The spiciness of the zin and the tannins of the cab cut through the fatiness of the short ribs,” Warren notes. “Food tastes better with that balance, that synergy. The whole becomes better than the parts.”
Another suggested match is the gnocchi carbonara with pancetta, chicken, sage and peas in a parmesan garlic cream sauce ($18.99) with the Cooper’s Hawk Lux chardonnay ($10.50 a glass; $37.99 a bottle). An Italian family business in Chicago makes the gnocchi and ships it frozen to Cooper’s Hawk locations.
“The rich, creamy, buttery sauce and the chardonnay is a match made in heaven,” McMillin says. “Like any pairing, the key is balance.”
Having now worked together for six years at Cooper’s Hawk, McMillin and Warren say that they can anticipate each other’s pairings when creating new dishes or wines.
“I’ll recall a cauliflower purée dish and tell him that I’m thinking of doing a new take on it, and he’ll already have the perfect wine pairing in mind,” McMillin says. “There’s not as much guesswork anymore.”