Brian Duncan

Bin 36 wine director Brian Duncan and (below) his Brian's Blend XIII

BRIAN DUNCAN has just returned from Casa Silva Vineyard in Chile, where he encountered a wine made from the finicky viognier grape. He's too busy reminiscing about the varietal-usually found only in the Rhône region of France-to be distracted by the lunch crowd streaming into Bin 36, where he has just picked up a Beard Award nomination for outstanding wine service.

"My approach has to do with helping people wake up that five-year-old in them who hyperventilated the first time they saw cotton candy," says Duncan, for whom the adult equivalent is a custom-blended syrah that he produces with Beckmen Vineyards in California. He now has 25 wines that run the gamut from a riesling to a cabernet; by the end of summer, he plans to sell four new custom blends outside of Bin 36.

In June, Duncan will host Food and Wine's first gastronomic boat cruise, the highlight of which is a lunch with the winemaker Salvatore Ferragamo in Florence. When in Italy several years ago, Duncan befriended Ferragamo-the famous designer's grandson-and he has since spent time on the family's Tuscan estate, Il Borro. "I love the discovery aspect of it," Duncan explains of his enviable job. "What's most exciting is that I just get to be me."

For the 49-year-old Morgan Park native, staying true to himself means championing wines that, as he says, "drink beyond their price." (Right now that's a Bin 36 2005 pinot noir and the Vision Cellars 2005 sauvignon blanc/pinot gris blend.) Since he was a waiter at Topolobampo in the early nineties, Duncan has wanted to make wine fun and approachable. "You can't disseminate wine knowledge if your filter isn't hospitality," he says. "Other-wise you sound like a smart ass."


Photograph: Katrina Wittkamp