On December 5, 1933, the official amendment was passed that ended prohibition. Local wine boutique, Vin Chicago had special reason to celebrate. Vin Chicago, previously known as Wine Discount Center, gets its roots from Famous Liquors all of which have been owned by the Schwarzbach family. The family was one of the first in Chicago to be granted their liquor license in 1934 following the official end of the prohibition in 1933.
The current owner of Vin Chicago, Peter Schwarzbach talked to me about his family's ties to the prohibition, and the history and transformation of the business over the past eight decades.
Peter, how did it all begin?
The family was one of the first in Chicago to be granted their liquor license in 1934 following the official end of the prohibition in 1933. My family was actually in the cemetery business. When prohibition ended, my grandfather was one of the first in line to get a liquor license and opened up a store which he ran as a side business until my father joined him in the late 1950s and began to expand and focus more on fine wine.
How has the business changed?
When we first opened in the 1930s, we offered counter service. The customers would tell our clerk what they wanted and he would pull it off of the shelf. In the 1950s, we switched to the self-service model that we're all familiar with today. The change to website and email based commerce in the past 10 years has been the next big change. With our new website and our weekly emails, we're able to provide a huge amount of information to our customers that they could otherwise only get in our store.
Also, back in the 1960s, if you wanted fine wine, you'd buy a bottle from Burgundy, Bordeaux, Chianti or maybe this new upstart region called Napa Valley. Now, there is amazing wine to be found not only from those regions but also from Spain, Austria, Argentina, South Africa to name just a few. The quality and diversity of wine over the past 15 years has improved tremendously!
Have people's tastes changed?
The average person now is looking for a wine that is a bit bigger and more powerful than in the past.
How would you describe Chicagoan's taste in wine?
Visit a store in California and you'll find a great selection of Napa Valley wines, but very little from France, Spain, Italy, Austria, Argentina and the rest of the world. Chicagoans like to experiment and are willing to seek out the best wines and the best values from anywhere in the world.
What wines would you recommend right now?
It's hard to pick. A few of my favorites right now are the Herencia Altes Garnacha Negra 2012 and the Daou Cabernet Sauvignon 2012. The Herencia Altes sells for only $8.99, but is totally delicious and very well balanced; it just earned 91 points from Wine Advocate which is amazing for a wine at that price! People who buy traditional name brands will pay that price or more for a mediocre, mass-produced bottle; we pride ourselves on offering a significantly better value than what folks will find at the grocery store. Another favorite is the Daou Cabernet Sauvignon 2012. For those who like a classic bottle of California Cabernet, this really hits the sweet spot. At $21.99 and it's our favorite Cali Cab deal right now.
What champagne would you recommend?
We have such a cool selection of Champagne, including a load of small-batch bottlings that it's hard to focus on just one. The Henriet-Bazin "Sélection de Parcelles" Brut Champagne is one favorite; it's a tiny-production, Premier Cru estate and their quality is outstanding. We give it 93 points and, since they don't have a big national importer taking a markup, we're able to sell it for around the same price as the mass-market brands.
Why should someone shop at Vin Chicago, and not somewhere else?
Not only do we offer a hand-picked selection of wine and not only do we sell them for some of the lowest prices in the country, we also have wine shopping fun and easy. Every wine in our store has sign with a description of how it tastes and a numerical rating. And our stores are staffed by people who are passionate about wine and love helping matching people up with the perfect wines. To really understand what makes Vin Chicago so special, you really need to stop by and check us out. Every Saturday from noon until 4:00 we have some of our latest arrivals open for tasting, so that's a great time to visit!
What is the best part of what you do?
Tasting wines is fun (to find the 50 or so selections that we feature in our monthly newsletter, we have to taste over 500 wines), but turning a new customer on to a cool wine that they'd otherwise not find is definitely the most gratifying part of the job.
If you could go back in time to the prohibition era, what do you think it would have been like for you?
Without wine to drink with dinner, it would not be a very happy place!