Adding a unique, urban flavor to your wine tasting experience.
If you haven’t checked out City Winery, which opened this past August, you need to. It’s unique to Chicago and certainly echoes Louis Sullivan’s ‘make no small plans’ advice. This one-of-a-kind facility can feed, teach and also entertain hundreds of people at a time with live music.
City Winery founder Michael Dorf brought the restaurant/concert venue to Chicago after successfully launching City Winery in New York in 2008. The Chicago West Loop facility, formerly a warehouse, is 32,000 square feet – much larger and about three times the size of the New York location. The eclectic Mediterranean menu offers both seasonal small and large plates, ranging from braised duck tacos and Cornish hen to flatbreads and seawater tofu steak. Grass-fed beef from Meyer Farms is served, and there’s an impressive selection of cheeses and artisanal salamis.
The impressive wine list features over 400 producers from around the globe, plus 14 eco-friendly wines on tap created in their winery with no added sulfites or preservatives. And like most taste-obsessed sommeliers, Chicago City Winery Beverage Director Rachel Driver Speckan is trying to convert onlookers to the joy of wine as an experience. Her role is comprehensible, yet full of complexities. “I maintain and kind of curate our beverage selection. We have an all-encompassing beverage program that offers tastes from all over the world,” she says.
Not only are new musical acts featured each month, but new classes – ranging from wine tasting to wine making – are also conducted by teachers from all parts of the world. And on top of teaching wine pairing classes and organizing the extensive wine list, Ms. Speckan has taken on a new task when it comes to wine pairings. The beverage selection is suited to match the live concerts City Winery hosts.
Each week, the trendy concert hall welcomes top-notch artists to patrons seeking a comfortable seat while listening to their favorite beats. From sassy blues to soothing acoustic sets, Ms. Speckan is able to work with a diverse variety of moods and emotions for her pairings.
City Winery offers diverse artist selections for private parties as well as general admission guests. There’s even a separate menu for those attending concerts, but there’s no required minimum payment so you’re able to enjoy the concert without obligation to the menu. “Our schedule of concerts and wine-themed programs has achieved our goal of providing world-class talent from both the music and wine worlds in an integrated whole,” says Mr. Dorf.
Ms. Speckan is thrilled to work in a functional winery setting, but working for City Winery is not like most winery experiences. Because there’s clearly no space for a vineyard on Randolph Street, City Winery imports majority of their grapes from California, Oregon and Argentina. From there, Winemaker Robert Kowal makes the wine on site. “It’s so nice having a winemaker on the premises. If we have any questions, he’s there with a chemistry lab to teach us,” shares Ms. Speckan.
One of her favorite memories is when the City Winery team worked together to make some of the first barrels of wine. “We had our whole staff here de-stemming grapes and schlepping crates of wine all while covered in grape juice and sticky sugar,” recalls Ms. Speckan. “We got to see and touch the experience we were going to give to customers.” And this is what drew Ms. Speckan to City Winery, which fully encompasses wine from the berry in the vineyard to the glass she hands to the eager wine taster.
Mr. Dorf’s vision goes beyond entertaining; he believes his company has a role in helping repair and care for the world. Since opening in New York in 2008, City Winery has given about 10 percent of their production every year to a variety of causes and continues this initiative in Chicago via Barrels for Benefit.
Through this philanthropic endeavor, non-profits help arrange for a celebrity, chef, musician, et cetera, to endorse a barrel of wine and sign custom wine labels to help sell or auction the bottles to raise money for the organizations. For $8,000, which is deducted from the proceeds of the total sale amount, City Winery provides organizations with 240 bottles of high quality wine — produced on location – with a custom label signed by the endorsee. And with the non-profits selling or auctioning the wine bottles for at least $100 each, they can raise a minimum of $16,000 after production costs to City Winery.
City Winery has received immense amounts of recognition in the short months it has been open. Ms. Speckan has learned how to adjust to having 700 people in the building at once, and she continues to keep her staff educated on the latest trends in the industry. Mr. Dorf is thrilled he’s been able to create such a cultural experience for Chicagoans. “It’s quite an achievement to see the space packed with people enjoying wine and music,” he says. “There’s a large audience in Chicago of sophisticated people with a refined palate who love music and wine. That is very clear.”
By Hannah Towler