I learned at a very early age that most people don’t know anything about wine.
In fact, it was when I was 16.
That’s when I started working at my Uncle Tony’s liquor store on the South Side of Chicago. It was an enormous liquor store built in an old supermarket at the intersection of two very busy streets. It was smack dab in the middle of a hard-drinking Irish neighborhood that was mostly cops and firemen. Plus the precinct across the street was dry.
In other words, Uncle Tony made bank.
My job was to restock the shelves and help customers find what they needed, including wine.
Obviously, at 16 I had very little experience with wine (other than perhaps the occasional Boone’s Farm or Richard’s Wild Irish Rose), but I quickly started to learn the difference between cabernets and merlots, between sparkling wines and champagnes.
At first I was astonished when customers would ask my opinion about certain wines. I mean, come on! I was only 16! But I learned fast and soon I found myself starting to look forward to being able to help people understand and appreciate wines.
Most of Tony’s customers needed a lot of help. While they all knew what beer they liked (Hint: It was always Old Style), picking up a bottle of wine for a special occasion left most of Tony’s customers flustered.
I remember one guy who kept asking where we kept our clear wine. Clear wine? He meant white.
Others would come looking for a wine called “CHAB-liss”. What they wanted was chablis.
Although I didn’t drink wine back then, I occasionally would enjoy a liebfraumilch or a good French champagne when we had “staff tastings”. That was the beginning of my lifetime love affair with wine.
At Tony’s there were two days per year that the store made as much money as all the other days of the year put together: Christmas Eve and the day of the South Side Irish parade.
Wine sales were brisk on those days, but so were liquor sales, beer sales and sales of everything that wasn’t nailed down. At the end of both of those two days, it looked like a plague of locusts had descended on the store and eaten it clean.
New Year’s Eve was another big night. I remember one New Year’s Eve, after a very busy night I helped close up the store before going to a party. On the way out I bought a case of cheap Andre champagne (yes, very illegal, but the store is now closed so I think the statute of limitations has expired. Also, Uncle Tony was not aware of this. Sorry, Uncle Tony!).
As the midnight hour chimed, I walked into the party with a case of chilled champagne on my shoulder handing out bottles to my friends. Since Andre only sold for $1.50/bottle back then, the cost of being a hero was only $18!
Tony sold the store in the early ’90s and some other people ran it for a few years before it was torn down to make room for a parking lot for a cultural center. But helping people select wines in those busy aisles was where my journey of enjoying wine first began.