Know and Love Vin Chicago

December 13 2013 - 9:00 AM

“We’re here because we love wine. Period.”

It’s a simple sign-off, tossed out after exchanging thank-yous for an afternoon of chatting, but I come back to it later realizing it symbolizes more. On my visit to the newly renamed Vin Chicago on Elston Avenue (formerly Wine Discount Center), the same words crept over and over into the conversation. Passion. Dedication. Excitement. Romance. And, of course, love.

Our internet age is steeped in such over-the-top descriptors, but speaking with Vin Owner Peter Schwarzbach and Manager Mike Baker there is no sense of hype, no sense of self-promotion. The superlatives instead flow genuinely and the attitude is infectious.

“Simply put,” Schwarzbach tells me, “our job is to send people home with wines that they will enjoy. More than enjoy, actually. We want them to be delighted – both with how much they and their friends enjoyed drinking the wine and with how much they paid for it.”

Vin Chicago

Now these words could be spoken by any proud proprietor, but Vin Chicago actually delivers on this promise. The four Chicago-area stores (the others are in Highland Park, Naperville and Barrington) straddle the difficult “Goldilocks” middle ground of wine shops. They are not too small – where choice is limited to well curated, but often intimidatingly expensive exclusives – and they are not too large – where the overwhelming number of options lend no sense of quality or value.

Vin Chicago instead specializes in the just right. “We combine the personal service of a boutique,” Schwarzbach says, “with prices that are as low (and often lower) than the big national chains.”

Wine -- Vin Chicago

Wine shops can be intimidating places for the average imbiber, but Vin Chicago’s chief asset is its amazing staff who excel at placing customers at ease. Mike Baker, manager and chief wine buyer for the Elston shop, is one of only a handful of professionals in Chicago to hold the certification of Advanced Sommelier and is working hard to earn the even more exclusive designation of Master Sommelier, a title belonging to only about 200 in the world.

Vin Chicago’s Naperville store manager, Michael Matonte, also holds Advanced Sommelier status and Barrington’s Jennifer Blair is only one level behind, recently passing her Certified Sommelier exam as top in her class. It is just such dedication that sets Vin apart from other shops and helped establish their reputation of quality blended with value.

“Having the right staffing is huge,” Schwarzbach tells me. “Distill our business down to its essence and we really only do two things: we buy wine and we sell wine.  Without a talented, passionate staff we wouldn’t be able to do either well.”

Mike Baker -- Vin Chicago

With this in mind, Baker shows me some limited release sherries that he’s recently become excited about, and we talk about the curious barreling practices used among Savagnin wines from Jura. After I mention that I’ve been loving Rioja recently, he pulls a bottle off the shelf from R. Lopez de Heredia that is one part icon and one part iconoclast and as the conversation switches to reds, he finds me a floral Frappato from the unique terrior of Sicily. In front of a case of Lapierre Morgon, we slide into talk on biodynamic winemaking and the importance of relationships when it comes to importing.

It is clear to me that this viniferous effluence comes naturally. When you’ve dedicated yourself to a subject as fully as Baker has to wine, you can’t help but emote. It can only be described as… Passion. Dedication. Excitement. Romance. And, of course, love.

“Peter told me some people were coming in today and we’d have fun talking wine,” he says, laughing. “I thought that’s what I do every day.”

If you haven’t been to Vin Chicago yet, give yourself an early holiday present and pop in today. Sign up for the store’s monthly mailing list to hear the staff’s comments on new arrivals or check out the weekly tastings held every Saturday from 12 noon to 4 pm at all four locations. (Each week’s updated schedule is posted on the Vin Chicago blog.)