Insiders explain Chicago's Wine Market

Chicago’s world-renowned culinary landscape has been altered by innovative chefs who have highlighted regional specificity, sustainability and the craft movement, and the city’s wine professionals are eating it up. It’s a wine scene that requires practitioners to balance classics with the undiscovered, remaining alert to culinary and consumer trends and bringing the passion and creativity to present it all in fresh and intelligent ways. Chicagoans are lucky to have an abundance of such wine professionals. Scott Saunders speaks with five of them.

Rachel Driver Speckan, Viktorija Todorovska
Rachel Driver Speckan, Viktorija Todorovska

Tom MacDonald 

Co-founder/owner of Webster’s Wine Bar, Chicago’s oldest and one of the nation’s five best, according to The Wall Street Journal’s Lettie Teague. MacDonald has shepherded Webster’s from a modest, mostly domestic list and an electric pizza oven to a deep selection of wines by the glass, more than 500 labels in the cellar, and a top-notch kitchen. 

There has been a true renaissance of dining and drinking in the cities that lie between America’s east and west coasts, and Chicago has been quite literally central to this paradigm shift. Exactly how it happened is debatable, if not outright impossible to define, but clearly the rise of the superstar chef has played a major role, with Chicago’s Charlie Trotter and Rick Bayless having a huge impact.

As Americans began spending more time watching chefs on TV and less Judge Judy, the nation’s palate improved, restaurants responded (or died), and the spark was lit that gave rise to craft movements at all levels: from the rise of the organic and local food movements, to the birth of more chef-owned and farm-to-table restaurants, to locally made craft beers and spirits, and to the renegade “garage” wine movement.

Gone are the days when customers routinely ask for a Milwaukee macro brew, a mass-produced vodka, or wine by simply mentioning a grape variety. We’ve acquired greater sensibilities, tastes and knowledge, and there’s no going back.


Rachel driver Speckan

Former general manager of LUSH Wine and Spirits, Speckan now directs the drinks list and leads wine tastings, classes and events as beverage director for City Winery Chicago, a fully functioning urban winery that also serves up intimate concerts and fine dining.

More folks are drinking wine, talking about it, and studying it. The dialogue is rich and more complex than ever.

There is interest in the quirky and avant-garde, but also a return to the classics. Weird is cool, but not too weird. And, the beauty of simplicity will be celebrated (I hope) with as much gusto as the exquisitely crafted, complex, intellectual wine.

Brand name recognition is still a major player, but there is some adventure brewing. Diversity will win! I envision folks will still keep a stash of the tried and true favourites, but experiment with a new grape, 
region or producer.

The trend of “New California” is picking up momentum and will just crush it this year. Perhaps a few of our beloved winemakers and farmers toiling away on the edge of it all will be profitable! Provenance, place and a personal story will dominate the drinkscape.

I really want to see fortifieds and amari make a play for the highlight reel, but I still think hordes of ravenous Sherry drinkers are not yet on the horizon — which suits me fine, for I will continue to drink it, teach it, and study it in the meantime. Soon. It will happen.

Viktorija Todorovska

Author, accredited sommelier and WSET Wine Instructor, Todorovska oversees the wine programs for The Chopping Block and Paired Wine. Her most recent book is Provence Food and Wine: The Art of Living.

Until recently, consumers tended to ask for easy-drinking, fruity, off-dry (or even fully sweet) wines. The wine world offers thousands of choices, but Chicagoans tended to ignore many of them.

In the last couple of years, though, consumers have started appreciating more diverse and unique wines. It is now common to hear a request for an Alvarinho, a Portuguese red, or even a Cru Beaujolais. But no category has enjoyed a success as meteoric as that of dry rosé.

As consumers fall in love with dry rosé, they become more discerning and appreciate the uniqueness of rosés from different regions: pale, lighter ones from Provence; fruity, rounder ones from Italy; and more structured, fuller-bodied ones from the New World. The colour alone, a point of pride for Provence producers, also draws attention: the pale shades of pink tempt the eye as well as the taste buds.

Recently, a customer looking for dry rosé wanted to know why Provence rosé is so highly prized. We are not only drinking more rosé, but we’re learning that rosés from different areas are unique. And that is a sign of a mature wine market — the consumer appreciates the choices and is not afraid to try new things.

Jeremy Quinn

One of Food & Wine magazine’s top sommeliers of 2012, the award-winning Quinn at one point simultaneously directed the wine programs for Webster’s Wine Bar, Bluebird, Telegraph and Reno. He is currently in Tbilisi, Georgia, working on a documentary on the origins of winemaking.

Chicago is in a current state of change, which reflects a widespread liberalisation of established “wine rules”. In recent years, among both consumers and trade, I’ve seen a rapid decline of interest in and knowledge about the historical “classics” like Burgundy, Piedmont and Bordeaux. In parallel, a thirst for more exotic locales has sharpened. Wines from regions formerly unknown, such as Arbois, Bekaa, Tenerife and Txakolina, are becoming more common on lists across the city.

While still a factor in consumer choice, brand recognition is slowly giving way to questions about vineyard practices, organic certifications, and authenticity. As quality is becoming a first priority, stylistic preferences — sweet or dry, rosé or sparkling, red or white — are becoming more relaxed. Abstract ratings no longer matter; even for retail, the “100 Point” system has become irrelevant. As a whole, there are more wines available from more places than ever before.

Yet in the last decade, “foodie tourism,” the celebrity chef phenomenon, and the growth of a robust craft beer and cocktail culture has drastically transformed Chicago’s dining scene, challenging wine’s primacy at table.

But the city’s on the move. A very recent rise of the “niche” restaurant, specialising in the culinary traditions of one region, has brought a new focus to wines that speak of their place. Retail owners and wine buyers are partnering with Chicago-based importers to hand-pick their own selections from abroad, and a new raft of reconcepted wine bars are slated to open in the next 12 months. I, for one, am excited to see what the next year will bring.


Doug Jeffirs

Director of wine sales for Binny’s Beverage Depot, Jeffirs oversees sales and merchandising, wine education, and Binny’s presence at major wine events. With 31 Illinois locations, Binny’s is a top-of-mind destination for most Chicagoans looking for wine and wine education.

Wine and wine culture have long been a more integral part of the east and west coast scenes. What they have in common and what stands between them is the key — the Midwest.

The Chicago market takes the best of both coasts: the diversity of the east coast and the domestic pride of the west.

From James Beard Award-winners to Michelin-starred restaurants, the food scene is a mix of tradition and innovation — and everyone is hungry! With the wide range of restaurant offerings, there is no shortage of sommeliers (and master sommeliers) eager to experiment and find the perfect pairing.

The retail landscape is healthier than ever as well. Competitive and complementing, there is a place for every smart retailer. Chicagoans (and Midwesterners in general) are less concerned with scores and critic reviews and marketing, and more about learning, trying the wine and hearing the family’s story. Attesting to this are year-after-year strong increases of not only traditional categories like France, Italy and Spain, but also younger categories like South America and the Pacific Northwest.

Rosés are on fire, especially from France and Spain; so are blended reds with a little residual sweetness. Malbec drinkers are becoming much more selective. I think whatever the Chicago wine scene is, it’s driven by authenticity and coming into its own.



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