Chicago and Toronto are sister cities. Although they share the same Great Lakes climate (collective shiver this winter), and cosmopolitan atmosphere, they couldn’t provide more dissimilar wine experiences for the retail customer.
Gints Brencis, a Toronto native who moved to Chicago to study medicine, didn’t arrive with the intent to be a full-time oenophile. But the abundance of wine, along with events dedicated to the ancient beverage lured the young chiropractic student away from the straight and narrow, so to speak. “I never really thought I’d work with wine as a vocation,” he says.
Brencis began a process of self-education in the realm of wine, from blind tastings to voraciously reading the trade press. Several years of study later – Brencis is a Certified Specialist in Wine – he is the Director of Fine Wines at DiCarlo’s in north-suburban Mundelein. He has much to say about the industry, and the value sector as well:
Chicago Budget Wine Examiner: What made you really want to understand and appreciate wine?
Gints Brencis: The wine bug bit, and it bit hard, when I moved to the Chicago area. It was being like a kid in a candy store. Here, you have numerous competitors; everyone has their own deals, their own pricing. The selection also varies from store to store. It was a revelation. I came from a land where there’s just one retailer: The Liquor Control Board of Ontario. All the stores had pretty much the same wines and prices; discounts on any wine were few and far between. And, they’re not allowed to sell a wine for less than $6.95. Here, at DiCarlo’s we have a $2.99 value bin. And, as an example, wines that I have here in DiCarlo’s for $7 would be about $20 per (the regulations involved with) the Liquor Control Board of Ontario.
I came to Chicago for school in chiropractic medicine. But between classes, I went to a lot of public tastings. The formats either had nominal fee, or to free events, and even started collecting, too. Going for my degree, I thought wine would be merely a hobby. I was interning in the West Loop in late 2002 and early 2003. Nearby was Randolph Wine Cellars, which had both a retail store and a tasting room. In between appointments, I’d go check out wine, and get to know the wine buyer. Eventually, I picked up some odd hours around my schedule and my wife’s schedule and started to work at Randolph Wine Cellars – mostly on the retail side, but in the tasting room, too. It was my first experience in the actual world of working with wine. It just snowballed from there. Eventually, wine took over my chiropractic aspirations.
CBWE: When did you start with DiCarlo’s, and how is the store different from other large stores, or volume stores, that are independent.
GB: Mike DiCarlo offered me the position of Director of Fine Wines in 2007. It was thrilling, because it was my first autonomous wine buying opportunity; I truly could shape the wine program here. Now, as a large retailer, it’s imperative that the macro-brand and the small-production items both are available. When it comes to wine, we must labels like Yellow Tail and Lindeman’s, and we’ll also have high-end ones, plus boutique brands. But with some chains, you’ll find the same wines in all of them – no matter the demographic – regardless if it’s a fit for that area or not. With us, any customer who comes through the door, if there’s a wine that they’re looking for, we’ll seek it out. We’ll go to the source – either the winery or the importer – and see if there’s local distribution. If so, we’ll order what’s needed, be it one bottle, or multiple cases. So, we do a huge amount of special orders. Every retailer will tell you they have the best customer service. But, I truly believe that precept should be the top priority: Develop a relationship with the customer and have them return time and time again. When they repeatedly ask you for your opinion and then compliment you on your selection, that’s how you know you’re successful.
CBWE: When the recession hit, the high end was clobbered. This dovetailed with Millennial experimentation. What did younger wine drinkers ask about during these years, for both value and interest?
GB: One region that exploded at the time was Spain, especially Spanish reds. And they’ve just continued to grow in popularity. Jorge Ordonez has produced a lot of catchy labels. The value in his Spanish portfolio really over-delivers. Wines arrive from 50- to 100-year-old vines around the $10-$12 price point. For the ratings-driven clientele at DiCarlo’s, the Ordonez wines were getting great value and they garnered 90+ scores. The ratings do play a role. And, many customers (in this suburban location) want the modern, fruit-forward style. They’re looking for something they can understand. But, at the same time, a Millennial would look for a Priorat more than someone who is middle-aged. Spanish wine generally provides bang for the buck, and the fuller-bodied, big wines. The benefit of speaking one-on-one with the wine customers here, young or old, is getting to know their palate. You can direct the open-minded customers to satellite regions, such as Mendocino or Paso Robles, and find great-priced Cabernet or Cabernet blends. Young people aren’t going to drop $25 for entry-level Napa Cab.
CBWE: What types of promotions have you implemented, other than specific price reductions/close-out sales?
GB: Twice per year we’ll have our big wine, food and craft beer festival (at the Mundelein Doubletree Hotel). It’s truly a unique event. There are 300 wines and 100 craft beers, plus local restaurants that showcase their best menu items. For $30, people can experience many wines and beers in one location on a Saturday afternoon. And you get to spread your wings and sample things that you wouldn’t ordinarily select off the shelf. Also, in the store, one of my most successful marketing endeavors has been the “Sweet 16” rack: 16 wines for under $16 per bottle. Many of our younger clientele will shop that rack almost exclusively. I taste everything, and these are exceptional for the money. I rotate them almost monthly, or whenever the mood should strike. People have come to rely on and trust the Sweet 16 rack. Another rack is dedicated to wines acclaimed by the press with high ratings. So, you have your selections for either value or your expert points. And yet, big scores don’t always go to the big brands; people are looking past the name more than in years past.
CBWE: What red and white wines would you recommend that are priced for less than $17, and what are your food pairings?
GB: A red that’s terrific is the Gerard Bertrand “Grand Terrior” (Tautavel, Côtes du Roussillon-Villages, France) for $15.99. A satellite appellation of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, Tautavel was a revelation for me. It’s a classic Rhone blend - Syrah, Grenache, Carignan. Big dark fruits with plenty of structure and terroir, but most of all: balance. Pairs perfectly with numerous grilled meats – pork, game (rabbit or duck), but could easily accompany mature, hard cheeses.
For white wine, I recommend Louis Latour Macon-Villages “Chameroy” - $13.99. A great value and a lovely, pure expression of Chardonnay. Floral with classic apple notes, slightly candied tropical fruit all framed by lovely minerality. Great for those who say that they do not like Chardonnay, yet is a wonderful old-world option for Chardonnay fans, as it undergoes malolactic fermentation and has that creamy mouthfeel and plenty of ripe fruit. It would pair nicely with fish, shellfish, lighter poultry, veal and simpler pasta dishes.