Advice for al fresco sipping
Published on: 05/17/07
Conclusive data from the Kulers Uncorked Center for the Love of Wine has confirmed that wine tastes better outside in a picniclike format. So before you hit the beach, grassy meadow or mountaintop, consider these four tips for outdoor sipping.
• Keep it crisp — Unless you're picnicking near the Arctic Circle, keep your selections pointed toward the refreshingly acidic, such as sparkling wines, pinot grigios, sauvignon blancs, gewürztraminers and dry rieslings.
• Keep it cold — While it is true that Americans tend to serve their white wines too cold, feel free to put your picnic wines at the bottom of the cooler. The first half glass may be on the chilly side, but 90-degree weather and direct sunlight will quickly bring the wine up from too cold to just right.
• Keep yourself hydrated — We're apt to glow (read: sweat) a little more in the warm out of doors. You're spoiling for a headache if you're drinking any alcoholic beverage and not drinking water. Shoot for about one glass of water for every glass of wine.
• Hold the ethanol — As the temperature rises, we can easily sip all beverages faster than normal. Manage your intake of alcohol by purchasing wines in the 10 percent to 13 percent alcohol range. Higher-alcohol wines tend to "taste" hotter anyway; and who needs that?
— Gil Kulers
A picnic test to find perfect outdoor wine
By GIL KULERS
Published on: 05/17/07
Our quest was simple but daunting. Sitting around a table brimming with sandwiches, salads, hard salamis and cheese, a panel of well-qualified judges would determine The Perfect Picnic Wine. Our qualifications? We all love wine, food and dining outdoors.
Besides myself, our group included Charlie and Anita Augello, proprietors of East 48th St. Market, and AJC readers George and Roxanna Young. We gathered on a sun-speckled meadow in Windwood Hollow Park. The temperature was a breezy 83 degrees. A better picnic environment you could not ask for.
I chose six categories, but only one style of wine would be crowned The Perfect Picnic Wine. They were sparkling wine, sauvignon blanc, riesling, dry pink wine, chardonnay and chianti from Italy. All the wines were under $16 a bottle and widely available, because picnic wines should be easy to find and easy on your bank account. The identities of the wines were hidden to prevent favoritism to certain brands.
I kept the selections, for the most part, on the light side. The last thing you want while picnicking, whether it's a warm spring day or a hot summer night, is a heavy red wine chock-full of alcohol. Why? The warmer a wine gets, the easier it is to taste the alcohol, which we perceive as hotness. Also, as the thermometer turns red, we tend to drink more, so high-alcohol refreshment is a no-no.
As for the food, I left that up to the deli man, Charlie, who whipped up five mostly Italian-style sandwiches at his nearby Dunwoody delicatessen. He also threw in his house specialty, roasted olives; a couple of pasta salads (one mayonnaise-based, one olive oil-based); dry sausage; and a chunk of pecorino cuvee, an aged sheep-milk cheese from Sardinia.
With the wines, the food and the people in place, here's what we found.
• 2005 Target, Wine Cube, Chardonnay,
South Australia, $16/3 liters
• The pros: To demonstrate that oaky chardonnays can have an overpowering effect on food, I brought one. And this theory was proven in spades. Everyone trashed the style of wine, but when they found out that it originally came from a box and didn't cost much, everyone agreed that the portability and increasing quality of boxed wines makes them perfect as picnic wines, just as long as it is not an oaky chardonnay.
• The cons: Anita Augello spoke for the group when she said: "It totally washed
out all the flavors of the food."
• Comments: Despite agreeing that the wine didn't particularly go well with the picnic food, terminal chardonnay lover Roxanna Young said: "I haven't met a chardonnay I didn't like. I'd drink this one."
Dry pink wine
• 2006 Domaine de Nizas Rosé, Coteaux du Languedoc, France, $16
• The pros: I was quite certain that this dry pink wine would walk away with the best picnic-wine title. I also thought Mike Hampton would win 20 games for the Braves this year. At best, the group was neutral. I liked it with the oil-based pasta salad featuring basil, tomatoes and provolone cheese.
• The cons: The comments were unanimous that, with or without food, the wine was harsh. Roxanna asked if she could have another glass of the sparkling wine instead.
• Comments: "It doesn't bite as much as the chardonnay, but it is still a little rough," said George Young.
• 2005 Wakefield, Promised Land, Riesling, South Australia,$13
• The pros: A split vote. Charlie Augello and I thought the riesling went fairly well
with all the foods, and we enjoyed its rich fruit and floral qualities. Anita Augello and Roxanna Young thought otherwise. George abstained.
• The cons: Anita and Roxanna agreed that the riesling didn't do anything with
the food. Anita, however, did warm up to the riesling during the post-picnic discussion period and asked for another glass.
• Comments: "I like riesling because I like wines with just a little sweetness but that are not too sweet," Anita said.
• 2006 39 Degrees Sauvignon Blanc, Lake County, Calif., $9
• The pros: Nice refreshing acidity and minerality came to the forefront when combined with the food. Perhaps because of its subtly herbaceous quality, 39 Degrees complemented the mozzarella, red pepper and pesto sandwich, which also had a green herb trait.
• The cons: Take away the food, and everyone had something negative to say about this wine. Whether it was too sour, too herbaceous or "too mineraley," this wine was not particularly pleasant on its own.
• Comments: "The food softens the wine's rough edges," said George Young.
• 2005 Ecco Domani Chianti, Italy, $11
• The pros: I picked chianti to show by comparison that lighter, crisper, chilled white wines make for a better choice for warm-weather picnics. Well, throw that logic out the window. This wine's red berry flavors showed brightly with the salty, vinegary picnic fare. In several comparative chianti tastings in the past, Ecco Domani always finished in the middle of the pack — not great, but not bad. This
time, the food lit a spark under this simple wine.
• The cons: The wine was not chilled but was kept cool. As the wine's temperature rose, the alcohol was more noticeable. As a group, we all liked the chianti with all the foods, and especially the cheese and sausage, but just not as much as the sparkling wine.
• Comments: "I normally only drink white wines, but I like this one," said Roxanna Young. "It sits well on your tongue," said George Young. "It reminds me of my father's wine. And he made great wine," said Charlie Augello.
• THE PERFECT PICNIC WINE: Scharffenberger Brut, Mendocino County, Calif., $14
• The pros: "It's crisp and refreshing," said Roxanna Young. "You just have to get over the idea that you need to have a special occasion to have [sparkling wine]." The Scharffenberger was the hands-down winner of our contest. Its simple, lemony flavors didn't screen out the flavors of the foods. In fact, it gave the
sandwiches with red peppers a sweet, fruity oomph that made them better for the pairing. The sparkler went surprisingly well with the sausage and cheese. • The cons: Try as I might, I could not get this group to say a disparaging word about the sparkling wine. They even praised the fact that you do not need a corkscrew to open it.
• Comments: "This reminds me of one of the best picnics I've ever had, which was on an island in the China Sea," George Young said. "They roasted fish and lobsters, and as we were snorkeling, servers would wade out with silver trays with sparkling wine on them. That was the best wine I've ever had."
Note: These are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents or a local distributor.
Wine shops pour on the entertainment as they vie for customers' attention, and wallets
May 16, 2007
Juicy Wine Co. can set one's head spinning. Walk in the door and the wall to the right is stacked with wine bottles for sale. But there's a bar to the left just made for sipping, and deli cases by the front window display cheeses and charcuterie. Clusters of folks gather around tiny cafe tables in the back.
Exactly what is this joint at 694 N. Milwaukee Ave.? Is it a wine store? A wine bar? A sleek lounge? A deli, even?
The answer is yes to all of the above.
To offer a little bit of everything to everyone is an increasingly visible trend in wine shops, as stores big and small vie to whip up a veritable cocktail of services, tastings, classes, performances, exhibits, even belly dancing lessons. Faced with increased competition from supermarkets, big-box stores and chains, today's wine sellers have to do even more to stand apart from the pack and draw in business.
"You want them to try fun stuff so they don't realize they're buying wine," said Juicy's owner Rodney Alex. "You have to get them into the store."
What does the consumer get, besides a presumably lighter wallet? For John A. Svoboda, a Chicago wine collector who loves to share his passion with others, these marketing efforts are "terrific" at dispelling notions that wine is intimidating or somehow not for Americans.
"They highlight the fact wine is more mainstream and really should be fun," he said. "The whole entertainment aspect is interesting. Any tasting invites discussion and breeds education and breeds fun comparisons about wine. This is great for the wine industry and great for the American wine consumer."
But getting people to realize that wine is, A. fun, B. mainstream and C. being poured at that little shop down the street isn't as easy as one might think, as Alixe Lischett of Glen Ellyn's Cabernet & Company has observed.
"You have probably had some input as to why people come to the small stores, but why do people go to the big box store?" she asked. "My theory is that American consumers have been trained to trust chains and big names. Look at all our fast-food restaurants, our shopping centers. Also, some customers feel intimidated by the intimacy that a smaller shop offers. They prefer to be anonymous in the 'Big Box.' It's up to us to ensure they feel comfortable in the shop, never talked down to."
The "they" or "them" that the small or boutique wine merchants are zeroing in on are aging Baby Boomers and young adults aged 21 to 29, two key American demographic groups with lots of disposable income who are thirsty for wine, said David "Bump" Williams, a beer, wine and spirits expert at Information Resources Inc., a Chicago-based marketing company. Williams said the trend is perhaps most evident in California and the West Coast, but the move toward multiple services is cropping up in metropolitan areas such as New York, Miami and Chicago.
"I think retailers and restaurants are looking for ways to get people in the door and there's nothing new about that," said Todd Hess, co-owner of H2Vino, a Chicago wine wholesaler. "What's different is they've expanded into the kinds of things that are tangentially oriented to wine.
"People want something more than just tasting wine. Creative retailers and restaurants are doing a good job responding," he said.
Certainly, Chicago has long been home to a series of line-blurring wine operations where retail is mixed with other services. There's Bin 36 restaurant and its sister, Bin Wine Cafe, where customers can go to dine and buy a wine to take home. Randolph Wine Cellars is joined at the hip to The Tasting Room, a
lounge where cheeses, pizzas and small plate nibbles are served. Pops for Champagne, settled into new digs at 601 N. State St., features a retail shop, wine bar, jazz club and small-plates menu.
But for Hess, Juicy Wine Co. serves as "the best example so far" of an entity that functions as both a retail store and a wine bar without being firmly identified as one or the other.
What Juicy represents, or underscores, is today's reality: Even the most "basic" wine merchant has to think holistically to capture more customers.
"We all need the other income streams besides people walking in the door, like wine clubs, private tastings and special events," said Tim Colestock of Oak Park's Cabernet & Company. "It's no secret that consumers expect higher prices [from small stores] than the big box guys, so we have to have great service, expertise and the ability to talk wine to a wide variety of customers from beginners to experts.
"It's a smaller customer niche to attract, and Chicago metro and suburbs have exploded with small shops over the past year," he said. "Suffice to say it's a tough arena to compete in."
But merchants can and do.
"We have grown since 2001 almost double-digits each year," said Larry Kaplan of The Wine Cellar in Palatine. He offers classes, pairings, at-home tastings and soon will be opening a wine bar, all in an effort to make sure people realize his business exists.
"I just have to work harder and smarter in getting wine and myself in front of people," Kaplan said. "And if I do my job right and get the right wine in front of the right people, I will make a customer forever -- or at least until someone else that works hard and smart takes them away."
Kaplan believes success feeds on itself. As The Wine Cellar got known for its tastings and educational programs, word of mouth started up and the business grew, he said.
"As that happened the better wines wanted to be in the store and as that happened the business grew and as that happened even better wines wanted to be in the store and that drew even more customers and so on and so on," Kaplan explained.
Back at Juicy Wine Co, follow the beat of the house music up the stairs to the second floor. Couples and groups sit in a sleek, dimly lit lounge on cubelike stools and curvy sculpted banquettes. A deejay does his thing in a booth built up high, almost to the ceiling. The young staff, all looking offhandedly hip, help guests through a food and wine menu heavily annotated with Alex's comments. Wines by the glass arrive in tall, showy goblets like the fancy restaurants use. There are two prices listed for each wine sold by the bottle. The first is the retail price, what it will cost to take it out of the store as-is. The second -- always $15 more no matter the base price -- includes the corkage fee, what it will cost to enjoy that bottle in the lounge.
Lean back into the banquette and savor just how well the Abbazia di Novacella Kerner from Italy's Alto Adige region works with the artisan cheese and charcuterie platter, and it would not be hard to think, "Man, this sure is a fun club."
It's easy to forget that Juicy Wine Co. is indeed a 150-bottle wine shop, even though Alex insists retail is the core of the operation. Such a soft sell appeals to other entrepreneurs and to consumers.
"We wanted to do more than sell wine," said Tara Nemeth, co-owner with Neb Mrvaljevic of HouseRed in Forest Park. Their small store, located on a lively stretch of Madison Street, opened last fall but has hosted an astonishing assortment of tastings, food and wine classes, an art exhibit, jazz performances and, yes, belly dancing lessons.
"We wanted to emphasize how people gather around wine," she said. "We thought there was a larger interest in wine. ... In other cultures, people get together to drink wine, sing, talk. We wanted to have a space where people could come and gather. We wanted to make it more than a retail space."
Also championing the indirect approach are Charlene and James Pontrelli, who own the WineStyles franchise in Woodridge.
"What my husband and I like to do is create an experience rather than a transaction," she said. "We have so many customers who think of this as their home away from home. ... We want everyone to feel they are part of the store."
Lischett of Glen Ellyn's Cabernet & Company (she also holds a majority stake in the Naperville store) believes a warm personal atmosphere is important. She describes her space as "brick walls, wooden floors and racks, dust -- lots of dust -- and two cats named Ernest and Julio, for obvious reasons.
"Customers love the cats," she added. "It makes the shop less threatening."
To have patrons feel they belong is also the wish of Robert Owings of Vintages in Arlington Heights.
"The goal is to build a community of customers," he said. "A family of people, who feel connected, who stay informed about events, and who introduce their friends and neighbors to the store. Building trust is key. Integrity is critical. Passion is invaluable. Events, like tastings, tours, educational seminars, dinners, are the vehicles that reliably bring customers into the store."
It's a weeknight, and the crowd is thinning a bit early at Juicy Wine Co. The mood is low-key, exactly the way Alex likes it.
"We purposefully didn't have a full bar," he said, explaining that wine drinkers tend to be "a lot more mellow and calm" than those drinking liquor.
Does this all-in-one concept work? Seems to. Just watch that guy who had been drinking at a corner table upstairs linger by the door choosing a bottle to take home.
Alex said the idea for Juicy Wine Co. evolved from Plumpjack Cafe in San Francisco, which began offering wine at retail prices in 1994, and Bin 36. The question now may be for whom will Juicy Wine Co. serve as inspiration. For there are a lot of stores out there in play.
"My problem is that many of the wine shops, large or boutique, tend to all be doing the same sort of events," said Larry Ellis of Antioch Fine Wines and