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Brian Duncan Makes Wine Accessible

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All photos by Patty Michels

I know less about wine than I do about music so I asked Bin 36’s wine director Brian Duncan to give me a crash course. Turns out you can love wine without hating humanity, but I’m pretty sure you still have to smack your lips a lot. Not that Brian did that. Rather, he kindly educated me about everything from cork vs screw top to how to choose quality wine on a budget.

Our Town So, do you have to be pretentious to be a wine guy?
Brian Duncan The answer is no!  You do not have to be pretentious to be a wine guy. No one that loves wine desires to make others feel insecure or uncomfortable about wine.

OT Starting out as Bin 36’s wine director, what were some initial goals?
BD [Owner] Dan Sachs was interested in doing another restaurant concept that behaved differently than typical wine bars and restaurants.  We both discussed the less than friendly atmosphere around wine consumption, marketing and education that seemed to be inherently attached to wine and saw an opportunity to solve many of the misconceptions and even the fear factor and uneasiness attached to the wine experience. We created sort of a punch list itemizing all of the things we disliked about the way wine was being presented such as:
Inferior quality
Overpricing
Lack of information
No information other than what you would be charged
Limited choices
No options for sampling
Wine flights that featured wines that had no relationship one to the other.

OT Sounds like a major goal is to make wine accessible. How you do go about that?
BD I offer quality and affordable choices.  Providing lots of choices offers guests an opportunity for discovery.  Discovery of personal preferences, unfamiliar grape types, blends and a world of various wine styles. and experience. Wine buyers and sommeliers that seem stuck on pricey wines, and are obsessed with wine scores are lazy and uninterested in showcasing the wealth and bounty that exists in the world of wine. I conduct classes, seminars and tastings where attendees can bring all of their questions, myths, misconceptions and most importantly their curiosity.  These sessions are lively and heaven forbid, fun!

OT Give me a crash course in wine--just the basics--what do I need to know to get by in sophisticated company?
BD  There’s no need to “get by” when it comes to wine company.  If you mean they are wine snobs, then chat up someone else that is interested in your questions and curiosity about wine.  
[But] here’s what you need to know:
Wine grapes (vitis vinifera) once picked when ripe convert sugar to alcohol during fermentation.
There are possibly 10,000 wine grape varieties.
Some major white grapes are Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc
Some major Reds: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Grenache, Tempranillo, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Malbec.

OT What’s your favorite wine region?
BD This one’s difficult.  My tastes are constantly evolving.  It depends on where I am, what time of year it is, and whom I am with at the time.  However, if stranded on a desert island, unequivocally Blanc de Blancs Champagne for a few reasons.  First of all, every morning I wake up and realize that I am stranded, having Champagne would immediately lift my spirits.  More importantly, Champagne goes with a broad array of food, and let’s face it, I would be surrounded by seafood and shellfish.

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OT Can you offer a wine recommendation for the price conscious?
BD Seek out Spanish wines like Tinto de Toro (another variety of the red grape Tempranillo).  It is fuller bodied with lots of personality. Spanish wines in general offer a lot of complexity for the price. The Central Coast in California produces quality affordable wines like Grenache, Syrah, Zinfandel, Chardonnay and many more. Washington State is great for Bordeaux grapes and blends that include Cabernet, Merlot and Cabernet Franc and Semillon.  Syrah is a superstar here as well. Chenin Blanc is a real winner from its homeland in the Loire Valley, France and from emerging regions including South Africa and yes, Peru.

OT What do you think of the change involving switching from cork to screw tops? Does it affect the flavor of the wine? Does it cheapen the experience?
BD The corks traditionally used are produced from trees in Portugal and Spain primarily. Once the trees are about 25 years old the cork is stripped from the trunks every ten years.  The supply is dwindling. The Australians were the leaders in looking for alternative closures. Many consumers mistakenly believe that all wine improves with age. The truth is that the majority of wine is meant to be consumed in the first couple of years  after being released.  Something like two-percent of the world’s wine will improve or is meant for long term aging. Screw caps are great!  Plastic corks proved to be problematic imparting undesirable aromas and flavor.  Someone told me they preferred the romance of the cork.  I encouraged them to look for romance somewhere else.  I’m for anything that will preserve the soundness of wine.

OT Are organically grown grapes inherently better?
BD Organically grown grapes are better in the sense that the elimination of commercial pesticides and fertilizers is always healthier and better for the environment.  However, it should not be assumed that a wine made from organic grapes is better or superior in terms of the quality of taste.  In the same way an untalented chef can ruin good ingredients, a winemaker is capable of producing less than tasty wine. It’s just that simple.

OT You’ve helped to create retail wine brands including one that bears your name. What’s that experience been like?
BD The best part of the whole winemaking experience for me is that I get to experience every aspect from beginning to end.  It is very satisfying to work with great fruit, deliver it at an affordable price, and to ultimately move around the country and see who’s hands the wines ends up in.  I love that people say, “You know you could charge more for these wines.”  I want folks to feel like they got the better end of the deal.  I’m getting a front row seat to see where America’s wine drinking experience is as a country.  I can report that it is a bright future for wine becoming a part of our culture as many of us in the industry have hoped for many years.

BIN 36’s signature wine-education series, BIN School, is back for another semester. Register here for Summer Wines on the Patio on July 17th.

A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," (Soft Skull press) is available for pre-order here. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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This page contains a single entry by Sarah Terez-Rosenblum published on June 27, 2012 2:20 PM.

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