The state of wine in Brew City
"Bar Month" at OnMilwaukee.com – brought to you by Hornitos, OR-G, Party Armor, Red Stag, Absolut, Fireball and Malibu – is back for another round! The whole month of February, we're serving up intoxicatingly fun articles on bars and clubs – including guides, the latest trends, bar reviews and more. Grab a designated driver and dive in!
We talk a lot about beer in Milwaukee, but as in most places, wine's always had a place on the table in Brew City, too. It's just easy for the grape to get lost amid the grain.
During Bar Month, we wanted to make sure the vines had a chance to speak. So, we contacted some of Milwaukee's most passionate and engaged oenophiles – including Toni Johnson, who recently left Milwaukee to take an executive wine director position at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Napa – to get their take on the state of wine in Brewtown.
Here's what they had to say:
Owner, My Wine School
I moved back to Wisconsin in 2006, and I remember being surprised to see the diversity of wines available and the overall knowledge of the trade for a city the size of Milwaukee. As owner of a wine school, I have seen first-hand over the past five years the demand for wine knowledge at both the consumer and trade levels. There is, in fact, much interest on the part of the consumer to become an informed consumer of wine, and as consumers become more educated, they put pressure on the trade to know more.
I do think it is a slow process, and certainly not uniformly happening at all levels of retail nor hospitality. I still wish those in charge of wine lists and at retail stores would take more risks and aim to include more esoteric wines in their selections, especially with wine by the glass programs, as restaurants in Chicago and New York do. It is such an effective way to inspire a more educated wine community, at both the consumer and trade level, because the investment to trying something new, the cost of a glass of wine, is relatively small.
I remember being a sommelier in New York and helping mold one of the country's best wine lists (The restaurant was James Beard Best New Restaurant of 2005) and our goal was to find wines no one else could get their hands on. I know this isn't New York and it is a completely different market, but I also think some Milwaukee restaurateurs underestimate the Milwaukee diner and his/her knowledge and/or curiosity about wine.
That said, however, I also think restaurants of a certain caliber and especially those who decide to take risks with their wine programs should have staff who can advise and answer basic questions regarding the wine list. As the Milwaukee restaurant scene continues to improve, there will be a critical mass of diners who will invite and eventually expect that their wine experiences match the quality and excitement of what's happening in some Milwaukee restaurant kitchens.
I also think that there is a significant amount of demand at the consumer level to know more about wine, but the current options for wine education tend to be inconvenient, expensive or not compatible with each person's personal objectives and /or schedules.
This realization was the driving force behind My Wine School, and in response, we have created a forum for wine education that makes learning about wine more fun, accessible and affordable.
Toni Johnson, CWE
Advanced Sommelier/Executive Wine Director at La Toque, Napa, Calif.
I think that buyers in Milwaukee are absolutely more knowledgeable than they have in the past. In some restaurants and retail outlets buyers know good producers from smaller estates and single vineyards wines and rely less on a salesperson letting them know who and what they should buy.
Great examples of retailers are Waterford Wine and Wine Cellars of Wisconsin. Ben (Christiansen) and Joel (Freeborn) have great selections of lesser known producers and can tell the story, which is great for the consumer. Anyone can put wine on a shelf and sell it. But if a customer picks up a bottle and the salesperson can wax nostalgic about the wine makers, the property, the regions etc. that's when the customer really wins. They are not just leaving with a few bottles, they are leaving with the spirit of whats in the bottle if that makes sense.
My friend owns Wine Styles in Brookfield and, although that is a huge corporate entity, Rendall (Thomas) has really bucked their buying philosophy and has tons of new interesting smaller producers and he can tell the story behind each and every one of them. It is impressive how many dedicated customers he has and how much they trust him.
Wauwatosa really lost a great asset when Marc (Beaudoin) left Ristorante. He could tell you all of the wheres and whys of every bottle on his list and every shift he opened a bottle for the staff and told them everything he knew about the wine. That is so huge for the guest to not only have a great bottle of wine but to get information on the region and the passion of the winemaker. It makes their experience so much richer.
I think that wine buyers also see the importance of getting good wine education, which is impossible in Milwaukee. Programs like the Court of Master Sommeliers emphasize self-study and more and more buyers are getting their certified credential with them. I think wine lovers should seek the restaurants out that have credentialed managers as they have the potential to have interesting wine lists by the bottle and by the glass. Mason Street Grill has two certified sommeliers that do a great job. Meritage does a great job and Pastiche has a very well thought out list that has great prices.
I think this is one of the main hurdles that wine lovers face in Milwaukee when it comes to restaurant wine lists: restaurant employers don't see the value in having dedicated people to create awesome wine programs that makes each restaurants unique. There isn't a single restaurant in Milwaukee that has a dedicated sommelier.
Although I was a sommelier at the Capital Grille, I really was just a server there. The powers that be didn't see Milwaukee as a viable market to pay someone to just sell wine. It will be an awesome day when an owner understands that they will be the only restaurant in Milwaukee to have a dedicated sommelier on the floor. Customers won't have to go to Chicago to feel as if they are in a wine-savvy restaurant. People feel extra taken care of when there is a wine person there guiding them along.
Although there are a ton of wineries domestically and internationally that are not available in Wisconsin, there are lots of great wine available. Some distributors really get it and have brought awesome new wines into the state. Wine lovers can definitely go to wine shops and ask for newer producers from smaller distributors. The wine buying customers in Milwaukee have gotten exponentially more savvy in the past few years. As customers ask more of restaurants and retailers the owners will hopefully follow suit.
Jaclyn Stuart CS, FWS, WSET-Certified Sommelier
Owner, Vintage Elkhart Lake (due to open in about six weeks)
I definitely feel that Milwaukee is still "brew city," but more Milwaukeeans are diversifying their libation interests. This is very obvious in the expanding wine lists and retail selections. Even wine distributors and importers are starting to take notice of Milwaukee's blossoming wine scene, expanding their portfolios and sending more winery representatives to Wisconsin.
The Bartolotta restaurants have always been great wine destinations, along with other Milwaukee restaurants like Sanford, Chez Jacques, Sabor, Mason Street Grill and La Merenda; but now there are many places to go for an amazing glass – or few – of wine like Thief Wine's two locations, Balzac, Thirst & Vine, Indulge and Pastiche. There are also wonderful wine education opportunities with Ray's new tasting room, weekly classes at Waterford Wine, festive tastings at WineStyles, and the innovative new online classes available through Jessica Bell's My Wine School.
You can also take a "staycation" to one of the area's local wineries like Cedar Creek or Chiseled Grape. Just a quick visit to localwineevents.com will prove that there is definitely no lack of wine-filled activities available to wine lovers in Milwaukee.
The big challenge that Milwaukee's wine lovers face is the fact that Milwaukee is and always will be a beer town. With a handful of amazing microbreweries, it can be hard to find a decent glass of wine at the same corner bar where you could find a specialty $6 microbrew. This shouldn't discourage wine drinkers, though.
Instead, I recommend seeking out places that offer a variety of potable selections that will likely please everyone in your group. Balzac, Rumpus Room, Thirst & Vine and Thief all offer selections of beers and spirits that will please everyone while you enjoy a soothing glass of Cabernet.
I also think that there is also a limit to the variety of wines that are available at retailers in Milwaukee, though I wouldn't say that we are deprived. There are more wineries and countries represented on Milwaukee grocers' and retailers' shelves than ever before, yet I still hear complaints of travelers that can't get their favorite wine from California or Italy – or wherever they just were – in Milwaukee. This is often because wineries either don't produce enough to sell their wines everywhere, so they focus on certain markets or they don't think that their wine would be well-enough represented and sold to make shipping it here worthwhile.
But many wineries are changing their opinions on Milwaukee as a wine market.
If you have someone full-time on the wine, then pricey price is justified. But short of that wine in a restaurant is a rip off. If you are just getting into wine and are on a budget (not much money), go to Trader Joe's and try many different wines in the $5-$8 range to find what you like, then experiment going up the cost curve. You will be surprised that price and taste/quality are not always correlated. The mid-range is very competitive for the dollar and produces many good wines. If you start to drink a few bottles per week, get a wine refrigerator. Never store red wine in your normal refrigerator. Go to Target and get the Riedel Merlot wine tumbler glass (x2); you will spill less wine and it tastes just the same as a stemmed glass. Also buy a decanter to pour the bottle into and let the wine breath for at least 30 minutes. Never use detergent to wash your wine glasses; only use very hot water and fine linen cloth to dry.
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