In the popular imagination, Chicago is a beer-swilling, steak-eating city with big—nay, huge—whiskey-soaked shoulders. While it's true that Chicago boasts one of the best craft brewing scenes around and our steaks are delicious, Chicago's wine lovers are hardly left out in the cold. While there might not be a ton of great wine produced around these parts (with a few notable exceptions), we have some wonderful wine shops that can help you learn to appreciate the finer vintages. Or, if you're a bit less interested in building up a cellar, these shops can just help find a quick bottle of wine for dinner.
The stores on this list range from warehouse-sized to boutique, from multi-location behemoths to tiny neighborhood places. What do they all have in common? Each one has friendly staff, an atmosphere that isn't too intimidating and, most importantly, not a whiff of snobbery.
Wine Discount Center
The Chicago location (there are others in the suburbs) of this no-frills wine store on an industrial stretch of Elston Avenue might not catch your eye from the outside, but in-the-know bargain hunters head here first whenever they have a party. As the name implies, this is a great place to find good options on a budget.
This isn't just a random discount barn. Wine Discount Center employees taste and rate every bottle themselves, so their number score is recent and heartfelt, not just taken from the pages of Wine Spectator. The amount of information attached to each wine is extensive, with a novel's worth of paragraphs of small print on informational card after informational card throughout the store. If that's not your thing, ask the staff for their favorites—the person you chat with may have been the one to write up the card in the first place.
Wine Discount Center also has a small selection of beer and spirits. Chicago craft beer geeks will love that they have the complete run of Pipeworks Beer, which has been getting awards from all over the country.
Provenance Food and Wine
Unlike some of the larger wine stores on this list, the two locations of Provenance Food and Wine are both small, and their wine selection is very limited. But the owner of Provenance, Tracy Kellner, insists that's a good thing. "While we can't carry everything, that forces us to choose wines we really love, and that we know our customers will love. We get really geeked when we find a wine from an area that's under the radar at a significantly lower price point for similar quality." They'll likely guide you to Cremant du Jura instead of Champagne or Nebbiolo d'Alba in lieu of Barolo, hoping to introduce their customers to new (and well-priced) wines. Their stock rotates very frequently, so you won't often find the same thing twice.
Every wine at Provenance is tagged with a helpful description and pairing recommendations (stuck adorably in a wine cork), so even the wine novice can feel relatively safe and knowledgeable. Their friendly staff loves giving recommendations, and at the Lincoln Square location, Provenance also boasts a full cheese case so you can buy something to munch along with your wine. In the Logan Square shop, the food focus is on packaged gourmet items, so if you're the type who likes to search for the perfect exotic olive oil or locally-crafted jam to buy with your bottle, Provenance is a great pick.
Lush Wine and Spirits
"I've tasted a ton of bad wines so you don't have to," explains Lush owner Mitch Einhorn. At each of the three locations of Lush, guests are confronted with an extensive selection of wines from all over the globe, including everything from Michigan-grown Gamay to classic Burgundy, with attention paid to grapes you might not have heard of before. Lagrein, anyone? Don't be intimidated—every single wine has been handpicked by Einhorn and his staff, who spend one full day each week just tasting. You can attend classes and free Sunday wine tastings in the stylish stores...or even rent the space for your own events.
Chateau Nomad, Einhorn's own label, is only available at Lush. Einhorn took his experience as a store owner and created five different wines that he thought his customers would love. Apparently, he was right, as the first rosé has already sold out.
Lush Wine and Spirits: 2232 West Roscoe Street, Chicago IL 60618 (map) 773-281-8888; 1257 South Halsted Street, Chicago IL 60607 (map) 312-738-1900; 1412 West Chicago Avenue, Chicago IL 60642 (map) 312-666-6900; lushwineandspirits.com
Perman Wine Selections
This is the only wine store in Chicago that might be mistaken, from the outside at least, for a fashionable boutique selling handbags or shoes. The bright, airy space isn't stuffed with hundreds of wines—in fact, the shelves may look a little empty to some used to a more overstocked experience. That's because Perman's specialty is curation.
Rather than stock a huge amounts of wine, owner Craig Perman acts as a wine concierge, picking out wines to suit the tastes of his customers in tiny batches. This doesn't mean the wines are expensive; their most popular program is the "6 for $60-something," where customers can subscribe to a monthly allotment of new, inexpensive wines. If you're a spirits lover, you'll be excited to visit Perman, since almost every bottle of spirits in the store is open for sampling. Try before you buy—but don't overdo it, because if you're not careful you might walk out with a few cases.
Fine Wine Brokers
Fine Wine Brokers feels like the well-stocked library in the fantasy 19th century mansion that you never had. Except, instead of books on the high wooden shelves, there are hundreds of bottles of wine. They even have library-style sliding ladders! Despite the scary name (it took me months to get up the guts to venture inside), Fine Wine Brokers is a regular retail wine store that focuses on small producers. How small? They don't want to stock something if the producer makes more than 300 cases.
Fine Wine Brokers has a particularly good selection of North American reds, but you can find just about anything you need in the large two-room store. Confused about your wine geography? Huge chalk maps of France, Italy, and Spain are high up on the walls so you can remind yourself where the Rhone is. Every Thursday night, in conjunction with the Lincoln Square farmers market, the wine store offers a discount, so you can grab some fresh produce and a bottle of wine to wash it down.
Got more Chicago wine shop recommendations? Share them in the comments section below.
About the author:Anthony Todd is Food and Drink Editor of Chicagoist.com. Follow him on Twitter (@FoodieAnthony).