Many still recall the jarring moment the great recession hit: mortgage shenanigans and a financial crisis a few years ago. How appropriate then, that a West Town mortgage office on Chicago Avenue somehow stood vacant in late 2008. But, a storefront that was once a testament to ignoble fiduciary practices would soon be occupied by more upright owners – though dedicated to beverages that can induce the occasional supine posture.
Though Noble Grape – the friendly neighborhood wine shop at Chicago and Bishop – has a somewhat lordly name, its approach to a sometimes intimidating beverage is anything but pompous. The store’s amiable demeanor ranges from frequent free tastings, to a rewards program that ensures an enthusiastic repeat business. It has resulted in a 1,600-square-foot expansion next door, due to open later this month. The personification of this happy vibe is co-owner Alex Basich, who sat down with Chicago Budget Wine Examiner recently to discuss the wine industry:
Chicago Budget Wine Examiner: Tell me about how you decided to get involved in wine, and the concept behind Noble Grape within the small, neighborhood store niche?
Alex Basich: After finishing college, I got really sick of the box wine lifestyle and ordering the cheapest wine on a wine list. I really wanted to become knowledgeable about the beverage. At the same time, I was marketing beverage promotions for a company called Liquid Intelligence. That work made me realize that there’s a young demographic that doesn’t want to be talked to, or talked AT, and that led to “sophisticated and approachable” as a concept I embraced. People want to be talked with, where there’s a conversation, not a soliloquy to an audience.
My brother and I opened Vintage Wine Bar at Damen & Division in late 2004, with an eclectic wine list, and had a good 4 ½-year run, but we closed it. By late 2008, I was back in marketing & promotions. One day, I was at nearby Five Star Lounge, and looked at our current location, which was an old mortgage office. My partner, Milan Patel and I, well, we’d constantly been talking about going into business together. We thought that selling wine and spirits and beer in an easy, approachable way would really take off at the location. We started building the business in late summer 2008, and opened in July 2009.
Our philosophy is to have the vast majority of our wine priced less than $20 per bottle, and we emphasize friendliness and simplicity. We circled back to my marketing concept of “sophisticated and approachable.” That philosophy means we want customers to feel that whatever they want, we’ll get it, as long as it’s good juice for a good price. We think this niche fits in the area; I knew that Chicago Avenue would be the next big area – not as much as Wicker Park, but still very vibrant.
CBWE: What are some of your best-selling wines in the value sector? Is there anything that’s been more popular in recent months?
AB: We recently met with people from Portugal who represent a Vinho Verde called Casal Garcia. It’s just terrific with sushi, and it does really well. People buy it by the half case. It’s $8 per bottle. It was a hot summer, and it really caught on with people. And lately, our best red has been the Charles & Charles Red – a French guy and a Washington guy got together and made a Cab-Syrah, which goes for $13 per bottle. It works nicely, because the Syrah provides a nice fruitiness and the Cab provides some tannic structure. Pinot Noir is slowing down a bit; people want to find other varietals that are like Pinot – fruit-driven and lighter – such as Gamay or Barbera.
CBWE: Any particular promotions or incentives?
AB: We have a rewards program that not only helps people remember what they get, but also for their repeat business. We like to offer education, offering two tastings a week – Wednesdays and Fridays from 6-8 p.m. – which are free. There’s no pomp and circumstance about these; no such thing as a silly question. During the holidays, we’ll add Thursdays to the mix. Also, customers get 10 percent off when they buy a half case; 12 percent off with the purchase of a whole case.
CBWE: Are there any trends, in terms of varietals or regions, which you predict will gain traction in the upcoming year?
AB: I think Cabernet Franc is going to finally make its presence known, as well as Gamay. Both of those grapes are really diverse, too. Gamay gives you that light, fruity quality that you want – it’s just perfect for Thanksgiving. Cab Franc is unique for its peppery, sage-like qualities. When it’s made by a great winemaker, it can have great weight – almost savory. It’s something people are picking up more.
CBWE: You’re expanding, which is a testament to good business in an otherwise down economy. What really allowed you to do this?
AB: Well, even though I’m a wine lover, I have an appreciation for beer. And, beer has grown exponentially. When we opened, beer was 25 percent of our sales; now, it’s 35 percent. And with so many microbrews, beer has seasonality about it. The new space gives us the room to offer other products like gift baskets, plus gourmet food products – such as cheeses and charcuterie. Also, our rewards program has made us really popular in the neighborhood: We have almost 2,500 members. And, when people feel they can experience something they really like, that resonates. We understand that people want to go to places other than bars to enjoy wine and beer.
CBWE: Please name your favorite wines – both a white and a red – priced at $17 or less, and what you would pair with each if serving at home…
AB: For a white, I like the Berger Gruner Veltliner. It’s a liter-size bottle for $15, and we get a lot of customers doing BYOB with sushi restaurants in the area. There are 10-15 sushi places within a half-mile radius of us. What I like is that if I go out with 4-5 people, I can get 4-5 full glasses out of it, and it’s really crisp with good acidity. At home I’d serve it with shrimp scampi. When it comes to red, I like the Vintae Garnachas de Espana, all Grenache. It’s both fruity and dry at the same time, pairing nicely with lamb, and it also works really well with Cuban cuisine