Chicago's new wine culture
Wine has become cheaper, easier and streamlined.
I’m standing in front of Square One’s self-serve wine machine and pushing the button for a $1 “taste” of white Burgundy. Two tablespoons rush from the spout into my glass, and then from the glass down my throat. This will work. I push another button and receive a full $8 glass. I go back to my seat at the bar.
Thirty minutes later, I’m back. This time, I don’t bother tasting. I press the button for a $4 half glass of red Burgundy. I drink it.
A few days later I’m sitting at City Winery’s bar, scanning the taps of wine (soon to be made on premise; for now, shipped in from the restaurant’s New York location). I order a glass of pink. “Whichever is the drier of the two,” I tell the bartender. There’s no drawn-out wine talk, and the glass of grenache rosé is in my hands in seconds.
Afterward, I walk down Randolph Street to bellyQ. There, from a list boasting just five wines (all of which are named by varietal alone), I order the “lean and clean” sauvignon blanc. I have no idea where it’s from, or what the vintage is—the list doesn’t tell me. All I know is that this, too, comes from a tap. For me, that’s enough.
There are a lot of ways to classify these wine experiences. You might call them quick, simplified, or, if you’re feeling prickly, dumbed down. I call them progressive. Lifestyle journalists have pronounced a new casual wine culture for years. Now, it finally seems to have arrived.
Wine lists have been streamlined. Troquet, a French bar in Ravenswood, has a miniscule list, where all still wines are $7; all bottles are $24. (The lone sparkling is $8/glass, $30/bottle.) Eliminated is the hunt for the second-least-expensive bottle on the list—that bottle doesn’t exist.
The big lists (there are still plenty) have become easier to navigate, too. Because they come with people. You’ve never heard of 90 percent of the wines on Telegraph’s list, but sommelier Jeremy Quinn’s sole purpose is to pick and pair them for you. Was it ever really fair to have this task fall to you?
These steps have brought wine down—or should I say elevated it?—into the daily drinking territory where beer resides. And that’s apt, since they now share the same taps. And just as there’s no societal pressure to stick your nose into a glass of beer (yes, even craft beer—stop fooling yourself), the pressure to do the same with wine has never been lower. Hell, at Square One, wine now has all the intimidation of a vending machine. Do you swirl and sniff your Diet Coke?
There are losses in the new wine culture. Streamlined lists have no room for rare, special bottles; unique, small-production wines never will be made in quantities suitable for taps; some drinkers will no doubt see seven-item wine lists as limiting, not freeing—and they have a point.
But rare Champagnes and vertical port tastings aren’t going away (particularly the rare Champagne—for that, there’s RM). It’s simply being supplemented. Now, in between special birthday bottles of Pinotage and anniversary-dinner magnums of bubbly, there’s the $8 Burgundy you get from a machine. On all three occasions you’re drinking wine—so tell me, what have you lost?