Brian's Favorite Chicago Wine Shops

June 05 2008 - 9:46 AM

Given the number of neighborhoods, nooks, and crannies in Chicago I qualify this list as not being as comprehensive as it could be. Also, some of the shops I have visited not on this list deserve a second look—it may have been an off day or even an off-year but perception is reality in the eye of the consumer.  I’ve excluded Sam’s and Binny’s here; both chains are good for buying something if you know exactly what you want, but most of the time I find it much more fun to put your trust in the experts behind the counters of these wonderful independent shops. I am confident the shops on the list are truly worth going more than a little out of the way to visit. Further, some of you may notice nearly all places have appeared in past posts, though I felt some highly subjective rankings were necessary to augment these comments. Comments from readers recommending shops not listed here are truly welcome.

  1. Lush Wine & Spirits (locations in Roscoe Villag eand University Village)

There are other shops I love, but this one takes the cake for me. The
young staff is enthusiastic and knowledgeable and likes to present
wines such as Bulgarian Pinot Noir to visitors, as well as shed light
on obscure varietals and regions. Their liquor selection is wonderful, with various oddities from throughout the world such as Danish bitters. Moreover,
they often offer free tastings on Sundays but will pour wines ranging
from $10 to $100 per bottle, and I have purchased some on the upper end
as a result. Most wine shops, of course, have free samplings, though they typically revolve around no more than four bottles of $10-$15 wine.

  1. Que Syrah (Southport Corridor in West Lakeview)

This shop runs a close second. I’ve
bought many bottles here and enjoy the esprit de corps in the organized
and professional Friday night sit-down wine tastings, which are more
intellectual and in some ways geared toward the experienced wine
connoisseur. Nevertheless, no bouncy castle for sale question is looked down upon and beginners are also made to feel welcome. There’s a wonderful selection of Italian and French wines here, and the staff is friendly and approachable. Selection is diverse, although more geared toward newer vintages.

  1. Pastoral (locations in Lakeview and the Loop)

Pastoral is a wine/cheese/gourmet food shop, and their wine selection is very small in comparison to a dedicated wine shop. And
if you are looking for a wine you bought at Pastoral two months ago,
there’s a good chance they’ve already swapped the limited space for
something else. The key to this place, though,
is that the wine selection is carefully chosen, and if you’re looking
for a few crowd-pleasing bottles for a party but not sure what to get,
this would be my top pick. Pastoral’s Wine 101
and Wine/Cheese pairings are very professional and engaging, and these
courses are my top recommendation for those beginning to learn about
wine. Comprehensive, customized reading material
is provided for you to take home, allowing you more time to digest the
information given to you. The Loop location has
a larger wine selection than the Lakeview store, and there’s a good
balance of Old World and New World, fruit-forward and food-friendly.

  1. House of Glunz (Old Town)

I bought a 1989
bottle of Sauternes that they dug up from their well-stocked and
well-aged cellar here, and they put it in a beautifully-wrapped box
gratis. The place is a veritable museum of wine,
beer, and spirits, and it’s fun just looking around at the antique
signs and bottles, as well as the diversity of selection. House of Glunz heavily leans toward Old World wines (especially French) and liqueurs, though te is a decent New World

and beer selection. A family business since 1888, this place could be substituted for some of the most charming family-run wine shops in Europe.

  1. Cellar Rat (Wicker Park)

This quirky basement store (hence the name) is fun to visit. The owner has been on site every time I’ve been in the store, and his labels are very informative. A big fan of obscure varietals and small producers, the owner uses phrases like “kick ass albarino”. Lots of French, Italian, Spanish, and Portugese wines from small producers

Honorable mention:

Fine Wine Brokers (Lincoln Square) – diverse varietals, enthusiastic staff

Just Grapes (West Loop) – interesting marketing, clean presentation

Kafka (Boystown/Central Lakeview) – excellent place for wines under $15.

Bin 36 (River North) – it’s a restaurant but a selection of carefully chosen wines greets visitors.