As I find myself falling more deeply in love with wine—its pleasures, its history, its nuance and subtleties—I also find myself more reflective of how I am where I am now. I was never a huge wine drinker before, and even food was a passing interest, nothing more than the food I shoved down my gullet. A lot has changed, though, from when I graduated college in 2009 to now, and I’ve become so boring: I only want to eat and drink, and travel to those places where I can eat and drink. I want to consume, not just the food and wine themselves, but also their contexts, their histories. I’ve “found my passions,” and I feel like it’s been a long time coming.
I’ve lived in New York for a little over a year, but the year before that, I was a recent journalism grad in Chicago, six months out of school. I couldn’t find work in my desired field (surprise, surprise), so I set off to find something I could do in the meantime. My friend Raquel worked at a large-ish wine boutique and finagled an interview for me. I got the job.
This wine boutique was huge and pristine. Wine bottles were the sole decor, horizontally shelved with gorgeous labels facing out, standing out against olive green walls, literally stacked from floor to ceiling. Think “gallery loft.” On the shelves, every international varietal was well-represented: Cabernet, shiraz/syrah, merlot, pinot noir, sauvignon blanc… They were all here, shelf talkers touting and shouting scores by Steve Tanzer and Robert Parker and the Wine Enthusiasts, Spectators and Advocates.
The shop also had a tasting room set up in the back of the store, used for classes and corporate events. Situated in Chicago’s West Loop, the shop was a draw for both commuters running to the Metra and for the C-level companies running their operations in the glass palaces surrounding the shop. The shop’s owner aimed to please, and having come from a corporate wine background himself, knew what to do to get those dollars spent in his shop.
Being young and fool-hardy, I was not suited for this environment or the owner’s micro-management. While I enjoyed the process of learning about wine from my coworkers, who each taught me a lot about the grapes and the process of enjoying vino, I left after seven or eight months. Unable to enjoy the leftover bottles from events, or the decent discount on wine, I went back to my normal bottles of Ravenswood and Yellowtail magnums.
Fast forward to now.
I manage a wine shop in Brooklyn, less than a third of the size of that Chicago store. The only thing my current shop has in common with that old one—besides some overlap in stock—are the olive green walls. This humble little store in the heart of Clinton Hill doesn’t tout scores or even fairly represents major growing regions (CA gets little play in this shop). The owner stocks what she likes. Natural wines, organics, biodynamics and small producers all get their due shelf space here. The clientele is different, too. Whereas the Chicago shop catered to suits, my little shop in my little corner of Brooklyn sells to the neighbors, friends, and residents of the neighborhood we live in.
Ignoring the different business models and styles of each shop, I’ve had the pleasure of learning about wine from two different—yet equally valid—philosophies. On the one hand, I got to taste and gulp highly priced, highly scored, “Big Wine”-produced bottles on a weekly basis in Chicago. On the other, I get to enjoy reasonably priced wines by interesting indie producers almost nightly here in New York. It’s a world of difference, and as Eric Asimov, Chief Wine Critic of the New York Times mentions time and again, context counts for a lot (if not everything) when it comes to wine. And food, for that matter.
At the time in Chicago, I was unhappy at the wine shop, dealing with a management style I didn’t enjoy under a boss whose personality I found particularly trying. In addition, I was working on a beginning level of wine knowledge, so could not appreciate the nuances of the wines I was tasting, intimidated by the shallow winespeak of tasting notes. Now—armed with deeper passion and knowledge—I enjoy the simple pleasures of uncorking, sniffing, slurping and drinking poetic wines in a context I set the parameters for: in the comfort of my home or out, with food or not, by myself or with loved ones.
I’ve spent a lot of the last few years trying to stamp out the pretensions and affectations that a young person adopts to mask insecurities, and that has bled over into how I enjoy my food and wine, let alone my other pursuits. While I don’t necessarily regret my time at the Chicago shop, and while I may have many grumpy moments at my current store, both experiences have shaped my current understanding of the wine world. I know what I’m tasting, where it comes from and how it relates to where I am going. I am sincerely grateful for this new context.
(Photos by Joseph Hernandez, Flickr: herbrm)