Sneak Peek at Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant [CEO Tim McEnery: ‘Wine Is Really Popular.’]

If you’ve driven down Boy Scout Boulevard anytime in the past year, you’ve no doubt noticed that it has turned into the Great Avenue of Protein and Wine. In rapid succession, Texas de Brazil rubs shoulders with Kona Grille, Fleming’s, Roy’s and Boizao Brazilian restaurant. Throw in the big boys across the street at International Plaza – Capital Grill, Ocean Prime, Pelagia Trattoria and Brio – and you’ve got yourself one crowded market when it comes to upscale dining.

Entering the fray on Monday is Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant, the wine-heavy Illinois-based concept that will now number at a dozen locations around the country. Plans call for two additional in Florida in the Orlando area.

Unlike the other restaurant brands on the boulevard, Cooper’s Hawk produces its own wines using California grapes at its winery in Illinois. Those wines are used for pairings with the lunch and dinner menu, for sauces in the kitchen and as a lure to oenophiles who want to belong to the restaurant’s wine club or sample in their tasting room.

I took an advance look today at the Napa-style restaurant, gift store and tasting room and sat with founder and CEO Tim McEnery, (pictured above), to talk about the restaurant’s food and wine concept.

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Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant in Tampa, Florida

You walk into the front entrance and through the gift store and see these huge barrels and walls of wine. Wine obviously is the massive non-vebal cue here.

Where did it start and how did it evolve?

I have more of a restaurant background than a wine background. I grew up in food. At the end of the day, we wanted to create a similar concept as we did with the wine concept. Very well done, very straightforward. I can’t tell you how many people when we told them we were opening a winery concept said we should have all of these very artisan, eclectic, off-the-mainstream dishes and such.

Lots of goat cheese.

Lots of goat cheese. Lots of lamb, lamb done 25 ways. But we wanted to focus on excellent, straightforward food. Doesn’t have to be American. Doesn’t have to be Asian. It can be anything and everything we want. Then we just try to work in the wine component into the dishes, and we’re always pairing as we’re developing.

How much do the wines you’re making – and the flavors they produce – determine the menu?

Really what we want to do is create as many wine-friendly foods as we can.

What does that mean?

There’s kind of an open canvas. A great pairing could be contrasting flavors, they can be similar flavor profiles. The easy one to understand is big flavors with big wines,.so our regular cabernet is not as big a cabernet as our Lux Cabernet or our Meritage blend. So when we’re creating sauces for our steaks, is it just leave the steak alone or do we want to crust it or put toppings? I don’t think there is any food that can’t be paired with wine.

We may say our wine is very red wine heavy versus white wine heavy, and look for opportunities there. We have more lighter dishes today than we did a long time ago.

Did it start out as a winery as a restaurant?

I started dating the woman who would become my wife. She said at the time, “You’re a restaurant guy. You should come to the winery by my house.” There was a wonderful winery in Illinois called Linford Winery that we modeled for Cooper’s Hawk. They purchase grapes from California, they have all the typical wine making equipment and a sophisticated winemaker and created a great line of wines. Just like California, but they take a two day truck ride to get here.

I went to dinner with her afterwards and I said, “It’s too bad they don’t have a restaurant at the winery.” And actually, that turned out to be a good idea. You think of all the brewpubs…

Which don’t have to grow their own hops…

2013 MenuMasters “Menu Trendsetter” winner, Asian BBQ Pork Belly Nachos

Exactly. The food is a representation of what I think mainstream America seems to enjoy. We’ve got an Asian influence, which I think is common.

We just won Menu Masters award from Nation’s Restaurant News for our Asian Barbecued Pork Belly Nachos. (Pictured at right)

Wait a second.

I just had a moment there.

Yeah. They’re really good.

I’m a pork belly freak and an Asian sauce freak, so…

Barbecue. Pork Belly. Nachos.

And then we get a monster truck. And then we get fireworks. And then we set it all on fire.

[laughs] See? Man, we would get along well.

I don’t smoke, but now I need a cigarette.

This comes along at a time when a lot of the mystery about wine has been peeled away. People are more adventurous, so they don’t mind odd pairings or trying to think what would go with Asian pork belly nachos.

You’re right. I was reading an article that said, “Cooper’s Hawk should do well because wine is becoming more popular.” Wine is really popular. That cat is out of the bag.

But now wine drinkers like searching within that category. It’s not just Chardonnay or Cabernet. They like finding the Malbecs. They like finding the other varietals.

Absolutely. It’s like that statistic about the average amount of time that passes between purchase and consumption. What would you think that time is?

I would say… about 45 seconds. It’s very short.

That’s right.

They buy it with a purpose. They don’t buy it to collect.

That’s the average wine consumer. So we try to get them in a very subtle and open way to say that you don’t have to spend a lot of money or be sophisticated to have some really unique experiences. I remember growing up in the restaurant business I thought red wine and chocolate was a traditionally great pairing. They’re not.

If you hit the high tannins of the red with the bitterness of the dark chocolate, it doesn’t work.

They have to work together. So if you have some incredibly awesome dessert, you want a refined port. For people to be able to have those experiences in a non-intimidating way where they can ask questions, there are no silly questions to us.

My father in law is retired now. He’s been a concrete foreman his whole life. He said, “You know what I love about Cooper’s Hawk? All the wines are well made, there’s one to choose from that’s reasonably priced and if I want Malbec, there’s one Malbec. It’s really straightforeward.

We have more wines, our Lux wines, that are a bit more sophisticated. We try to have something for everyone. In a group of six people, you’re going to have someone who has never had a glass of wine in their life, you’ll have the lush like we have in my family [laughs]

And the one connoisseur who annoys everyone at the table.

Right! … and a bunch of regular folks who just want pinot grigio or pinot gris with their meal.

What advantage does producing your own wine give you?

First of all, we make all of our own wines. We try to create wines that are right down the fairway. This is a prototypical California Cabernet Sauvignon that is well made and competes with any wine in the price category.

The advantage is we’re in total control over it. In April, we have our wine of the month club. Our wine is an international blend. We’ve created a San Giovese just for us that is blended with our Merlot we made from California. Some people might not know that they like San Giovese from Tuscany, this is a nice, subtle way of And if you like San Giovese and California wines, it’s awesome.

It’s your gateway wine.


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