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Wine’s amiable ambassador: Jerry Kohn of Cardinal Liquors

Jerry Kohn, the Wine Expert at Cardinal.
Jerry Kohn, the Wine Expert at Cardinal.Thomas Caestecker

To find a wine shop with both an immense selection and personal touch can be tough in the Chicago market. The intimate, singular places on the corner offer great customer service, but might not have that known brand one might need for a label-driven friend. The big-box places have the selection, along with a vast array of brands, labels…. and aggressive merchandising mixed with monotone sales staff.

Palatine’s Cardinal Liquors, with roots as Dobby’s, might be one of the last holdouts as a place with great wines, super service – and square footage to boot. There, it’s all about people. It was one of the first retail stores in the area to host large-scale wine tastings. Back in the early 1990s, Jerry Kohn – who was in school studying to be a math teacher – found the sum of the parts when he added up the main formula for retail wine success: good knowledge, a friendly disposition and dedication to customer service.

“This is a very common-sense job,” he says. “And I’m well-suited for it, because I just love talking to the customers and hanging out with them at my tasting table. There’s no place for pretentiousness in this business anymore; maybe there once was, but at the end of the day, it’s just grape juice.”

Jerry took a few minutes to survey the Chicago area wine landscape:

Chicago Budget Wine Examiner: What made you really want to understand and appreciate wine?

Jerry Kohn: The wine bug really didn’t bite me at any one particular time. I started working here part-time as a cashier. Then, during the first big wave of microbrews in the 1990s, they asked me to take over the selling of craft beer. Then, very suddenly, I was able to step into the wine department and take over, without being asked or being formally promoted. We established some real firsts in the industry: Dobby (Abraham Dobkin) introduced a large selection of French wine at the retail level back in the 1980s. He offered in-store wine tastings as far back as the 1970s, which also blazed trails for this area of the industry. He really was a genius, and I’m fortunate to say that I trained under him. And when I started conducting those wine tastings, I fell in love with it and really wanted to learn everything I could.

CBWE: How is your store different from other large stores that are still not chains?

JK: While other large stores have big wine sections, the goal here is to make wine the real emphasis. The new owner, Bruce Garfield, wants this to be the best wine store in the (Chicago metro area). Our events are what separate us from the others. When we do our tastings, we’ll have maybe 55 wines being poured with 10 distributors on hand, and they last five hours – it’s a real festive atmosphere. We also have a wine pairing dinner program at local fine restaurants: Five dinners for $200 ahead of the events, which is very reasonable. The dinners are at different restaurants in the area. If you attend the first four, the fifth one is free. It’s called The Wine Dinner Tour.

CBWE: What are some of your best-selling wines in the value sector? Is there anything that’s been more popular in recent months?

JK: There are a couple of wines that are big sellers: Twisted and Lucky Star. For what they are – affordable and approachable – they offer great quality. There’s a new line of wine that just started catching fire recently: Stark Raving Cab, Stark Raving Red (blend) and Stark Raving Malbec. They all go for $9 per bottle. What’s funny about those wines is people say they don’t like sweet reds, but they like the Apothic and Stark Raving wines, which are jammy and fruity. The sommeliers might point out all that residual sugar, but it’s hard to argue with what’s selling! Malbec is still very hot, too. But, there’s no loyalty at all to any particular Malbec brand.

CBWE: Do you think the emergence of lesser-known grapes and regions during recent years will continue through the foreseeable future? Is wine experimentation with us to stay?

JK: I’d say “yes” to both of those questions. Those days of everyone drinking Kendall Jackson Chardonnay are over. The emergence of Spanish wines has really done a lot to make reasonably priced wine legitimate. Grenache (Spanish: Garnacha) offers that fruit that people want, but there’s a nice structure when it’s blended in a Rhone style of wine.

CBWE: The blends used in Languedoc region of France are nice values, too.

JK: Yes! I just did a Languedoc tasting recently, and all the wines were absolutely beautiful. Everything was between $10 and $20 per bottle, just a great buy.

CBWE: What are some examples of wine in this category that should be best suited to take off, and be as hot as Malbec?

JK: I had mentioned Spanish wine before, and I think it still is going to burst on the scene even more than it has already. I have a whole section stocked with it, hoping that I’m right. Carmenère is another possibility. It’s having a hard time getting its foot off the ground. When we pour Carmenère at wine tastings it sells out, but people don’t always come back to purchase it again. It has a spiciness that makes it really interesting, and it’s the characteristic that’s made other wines, like red blends, really take off. It also has some good fruit, and it’s a good summertime red that really pairs with grilled meats and barbecued ribs.

CBWE: Please recommend a white and a red, priced at less than $18, and what you would pair with each.

JK: For a white wine, I would definitely say The Federalist Chardonnay. It’s the best Chardonnay bang for the buck under $20 ($16.99). It’s creamy and buttery, a better version of Rombauer at a lesser price. I’d pair it with Dover Sole.

When it comes to choosing a red, I think the Kiara Cabernet Sauvignon from Paso Robles, CA, is the best overall deal in red wine. Also $16.99, I get a little bit of pine in the aroma, plus aspects of mocha and tobacco. It’s a really good wine for having with steak, burgers and pot roast