It wasn’t long ago that the idea of wine education might have seemed a daunting task. Nearly everyone has been in a class where the instructor’s mealy mouth has made the students wish they were doing something exciting, like watching paint dry. And, as for the intimidating subject of wine? One could only imagine the glowering from behind the lectern – a menacing tastevin swinging beneath the piercing, all-knowing eyes.
It’s amusing, though, how the convergences of a recession, curious Millennials, social media and the rejection of snobbery have made wine education a joy. And one can experience that passionate display at MainStreet Wines in suburban Countryside with its ever-vivacious Wine Director, Nancy Sabatini. She is exuberant about all things viticulture, and provides an education without all the intimidation – but plenty of info with the passion to make it all interesting.
Nancy, who believes there’s “a time and place for all wines – a weekday wine, a weekend wine, and a monthly wine,” is a social media enthusiast. But that pales compared with her devotion to the beverage while socializing with customers by the many bottlings at MainStreet Wines. Chicago Budget Wine Examiner had a chance to speak with her recently about the store and the industry.
Chicago Budget Wine Examiner: How did you decide to get involved in the wine business?
Nancy Sabatini: I’ve always had a lot of passion for wine. I had been in the advertising industry, but the market really bottomed out. When social media started getting traction, I started watching and listening to Gary Vaynerchuk. This was right when Twitter started. I was initially enamored with the way Italian wines were produced – I also got to explore my ethnic heritage. Also, a group of women and I started getting together, called Wine Tuesday Girls. We’ve been doing this for nine years – and lots of wine has been tasted! During this, I realized that I was doing things to make others happy, and I really wanted to follow my passion, and what made me happy – and for me, that was wine. What is so great about wine is that it’s never the same: every vintage is different, the terroir is always different, and every winemaker’s (method) always changes. Many winemakers do what they do not just for money, but also because of their passion.
My start in the industry was in wine education. I worked at Joliet Junior College and Illinois Valley Community College. Some classes were the basic, “101” types, and others were very advanced, and dealt with extremely specific regions of Italy and France. Here at MainsSreet Wines, I’ve combined my P.R. and advertising backgrounds into the promotion of wine. It’s been a very natural fit, and I remain a strong believer in wine education.
CBWE: What do you think has changed the most in the industry during the last five years – except the move to lesser-priced wines during the worst part of the recession?
NS: I’d still have to come back the precept of education, because it’s not only me: People are really clamoring to learn more about wine. They ask “What about these grapes?” “Who is the winemaker?” “Where does it come from?” And, social media has catapulted wine enthusiasts to a whole new level of interest and involvement, plus it has also accelerated accessibility. Wine once had more of a snooty character, in that you had to make such-and-such amount of money to afford it. Now, of course, there are great wines out there that don’t make you have to tighten your belt to buy them.
CBWE: How does MainStreet Wines distinguish itself from other medium/large stores that are not chains?
NS: We offer tremendous customer service. We’ll do just about anything we can to get a wine. If you can’t find a wine anywhere else, you go to MainStreet. We have a large selection of very obscure places where wine is made, which aren’t really well known. Before I arrived here, there wasn’t a lot of Portuguese wine, other than Ports. Now, we have four Portuguese wines on our shelves. There’s a fine line between a liquor store and a fine wine and beer destination. Our beers are selected by an actual brew master. That’s why we changed the second part of our name from “liquors” to “wines and spirits.” We share our customers’ passion for wine and beer and spirits. And, we have a tasting every Saturday from 2-6 p.m., where we offer eight wines, along with the cheeses that we have, too. We’ll often range from a $9 bottle to an $80 on the tastings. And they’re themed, so you can have a general idea of what the wines will be.
CBWE: It often seems that men dominate the world of chefs and wine directors, but that’s changing. What’s happening to the Chicago wine world’s gender gap, and why?
NS: It is still a man-dominated industry, and it always has been, but a lot of that is changing. In Chicago, this is the case. Barbara Hermann is a very powerful buyer, and I take pride in being an influential buyer here. Rachel Driver from City Winery runs their wine list. She’s very young, dynamic and personal. Many women who have been working their way up in the industry are finding it’s a viable way to get ahead. Every industry has (this issue). I’ve been trying to start an organization called Women in Wine Sense. There’s one in California started by Margrit Mondavi. It was just a way for women in the industry to get together, educate each other and learn how to promote and market wine. I’m really into helping other women who are passionate about wine.
CBWE: Any trends you see over the next 1-2 years in the industry?
NS: New World red blends are just flying off the shelves; the American palate really loves these Bordeaux-influenced domestic wines. However, I’m personally very fond of Old World wines, so I turn people on to them. Burgundy has really been an area of exploration for people here. And some Burgundy producers have begun to put “Chardonnay” on the labels for the American consumer. And again, I have to come back to education. We’re going to do more in-store seminars, in addition to the tastings.
CBWE: What are your two favorite value wines – both a red and a white – priced under $18 per bottle?
NS: For a red, I like the Albert Bichot Bourgogne, which is $16.99 – and would pair it with portabella mushrooms stuffed with artichokes and a mild cheese. The wine is very earthy, and there are some wonderful cherry notes on the finish. It’s a crowed pleaser, and from a small producer, too.
A white that I really like is the Mandra Rosso Fiano from Sicily. It’s got a terrific finish of pineapples. It’s very much like a Sauvignon Blanc, because it has nice acidity, but without that extra bite. It has elements of the sea – a tiny bit of saltiness. I paired it recently with a leek, red pepper and Kalamata olive salad. And it’s only $9.99