Wine

(page 1 of 2)

The dominance of Chicago’s established wine sellers—Sam’s, Binny’s, Knightsbridge—shouldn’t preclude a jaunt to one of the city’s specialty boutiques, which pride themselves on their eclectic collections, civilized themed tastings, and articulate, opinionated staffers. Here, five excellent new merchants to try

HOUSE RED
A professional trombonist and a violinist co-own this Forest Park gem—which helps explain the baby grand piano that sits among the 200 or so bottles. “We wanted to capitalize on the social aspect of wine,” says Tara Nemeth, the violinist’s wife, who employs jazz-themed nights and a comfortable, loungelike atmosphere to entice customers to try new varietals. For zinfandel lovers, that could be a Torre Quarto 2004, from the Puglia region in Italy. For fans of hearty whites, maybe a full-bodied Schell-man 2005 Thermenregion in Gumpoldskirchen Cuvée that blends chardonnay with lesser-known grapes. “Because we try not to overlap inventory from other stores, we carry a lot of [unfamiliar] producers. So we have to do a lot of tastings,” says Nemeth, who will keep a record of your likes—and dislikes—and dole out tips accordingly. 7403 W. Madison St., Forest Park; 708-771-7733

JUICY WINE COMPANY
“Retail-plus” is how Rodney Alex describes his seven-month-old venture, Juicy Wine Company, a wine shop and bar, complete with a DJ’d sound system, wood-paneled walls, and a chill vibe. Many of the 200 or so bottles for sale are usually found only on restaurant lists—Juicy is able to offer these rarities because it has a tavern license (in addition to wines by the glass, the bar serves cheese, charcuterie, and a quirky butter flight). Look for a Kungfu Girl riesling from Washington State, which Alex was heartily endorsing before everybody piled on, and a Blackbird 2004 merlot-cabernet blend, not sold anywhere else in Chicago by the bottle. 694 N. Milwaukee Ave.; 312-492-6620

LUSH
Anyone who’s been to “smut and eggs” or sunk his teeth into one of Twisted Spoke’s burgers knows that fine wine is about the furthest thing from biker bar fare. Little-known fact: the Spoke’s owners, brothers Mitch and Cliff Einhorn, also happen to be wine lovers. So last year they opened Lush, a 300-bottle shop and tasting room in University Village and, in early 2007, an outpost in Roscoe Village. The focus is single-family vintners like Brochelle Vineyards in Paso Robles, California (Jessica Lerner, a manager,  adores the estate zinfandel), and eccentric options (consider a Tokaji dessert wine from Hungary). But what really sets Lush apart is its generous tasting policy: a dozen or so reds, an equal number of whites, and many of the specialty liquors are always open, with tastings offered for free. 1306 S. Halsted St., 312-738-1900 and 2232 W. Roscoe St., 773-281-8888

POPS SHOP
Last November, after 25 years in tree-lined Lake View, Pops for Champagne moved to glitzy River North. The move did more than sex up the venerable institution’s image. It gave co-owner Tom Verhey the opportunity to create the only store in the United States devoted exclusively to Champagne and sparkling wine. “Chicago is heavy on BYOBs, and Champagne and sparkling are the perfect foil for Ravinia and for festivals,” says Andy Farriester, the store’s private event coordinator. The 125-bottle selection tips toward offerings from grower-producers like Henri Billiot, who sells only 2,500 cases a year. That particularity means you’ll spend slightly more (Billiot’s Cuvée Laetitia—a staff favorite—costs $68) than at the typical wine shop. But there are values to be had, like a Michel Turgy Champagne Réserve Selection Brut Blanc de Blancs for $30. And with eight to ten rotating pours at the Champagne bar next door, you’ll know what you’re getting when the cork finally pops. 605 N. State St.; 312-266-7676

THE BOTTLE SHOP
“We’re hopelessly and ridiculously addicted to pinot noir,” says Joe Alter, whose refreshing plainspeak is reflected throughout the 350-bottle boutique in Wilmette he co-owns with Amy Lafontant. Though the collection skews French, Alter organizes wines by grape instead of region, which ups the chances that a shopper will try something new. Need a good tip? Every week the former Wine Discount Center buyer pens a clever e-mail newsletter  (in a recent issue titled “Let it bleed: Are you tough enough for pink wine?” he recommends a 2005 Torbreck Barossa Valley Saignée). “We’re a champion for producers who don’t have a lot of visibility,” says Alter, who coined his shop’s Overlooked and Underappreciated Wine Festival, inspired by the Roger Ebert film fest of similar appellation. 1138 Central Avenue, Wilmette; (847) 256-7777