By Katie Murar
Lakeview East’s wineHouse is not a corner liquor store. It’s a boutique shop that serves a dose of education with every bottle.
The small store, opened on Nov. 17, 2014, had a successful first year, despite the abundance of competition in Lakeview. In its first year, wineHouse sold in excess of 40,000 bottles of wine, with the average bottle costing between $15 and $17. The store has 1,800 newsletter subscribers and 280 wine club members.
“There are a lot of liquor stores in this area, and a lot of people asked us why we would open up a wine store. And that’s because our focus is wine, customer service and a commitment to the community,” said Steve Greenberg, who owns the store with his husband, Jeff Mono. “We’re not a corner liquor store where you can get cash at an ATM or lotto tickets, our focus and expertise is wine, and I think that made it easy for the city to take us seriously and not view us as yet another corner liquor store.”
With 35 BYOB restaurants in Lakeview, Greenberg and Mono thought a wine store would be a smart business move that would be received well by neighboring businesses and the community.
“My husband and I love wineHouse,” Katie Feldman Lefsrud, a wine club member since 2014, said. “The team there is really knowledgable, they have a good selection of little-known and more easy to find wines. They’re connected to the neighborhood and host really fun, no-pressure but well-executed mingle and learn-about-wine events.”
Greenberg, who already owns another business, was drawn to the community aspect. He wanted to open a store just as cohesive as the neighborhood. With a background in retail, the part that is usually hard when opening a business came with ease to Greenberg.
“I think when people have a dream about doing something they don’t understand the process of what it takes to get a retail perspective up to opening doors, and how to do the business aspect and that was something that I was very comfortable with,” Greenberg said. “The formula is the same whether you’re selling wine or clothes or haircuts. It’s the same concept and process, so all we needed to do was find Melissa and go from there.”
Melissa Zeman is the manager for wineHouse, and came onto the scene about a month before the store opened. She learned about wine through her previous experience as manager of a wine store, and through classes at the American Wine School.
“I wanted to get into wine because it’s challenging every day, and there is so much to learn. Even to master sommeliers, there’s going to be a grape that they haven’t heard of before. It just happens,” said Zeman, who is in charge of wine selection and hiring for the store. “Tasting and trying new wines are the best way to learn about the industry, piece by piece.”
At any given moment, wineHouse has hundreds of different wines available. Not including Zeman, the store maintains 5 part-time employees.
When considering which wines to buy from the store, Zeman takes many things into consideration, such as season and variety, and says that as an independent store wineHouse has more agency to work with around 25 different distributors to obtain a variety of wines.
“As a small boutique shop, we get the chance to listen to the community and to work with smaller distributers and wineries, and we can find things for people that they’re having trouble finding, listen to feedback and take those ideas and make it a reality,” Zeman said. “It’s been fun to mold with the community as we’ve been here.”
When opening the store, Greenberg said, the biggest obstacle was getting through all of Chicago’s ordinances.
“The city of Chicago makes it somewhat difficult to get a license and with good reason, they want to make sure that there are good honest people running wine stores,” Greenberg said. “The community has been extremely supportive of us, and we are very grateful for that.”
The wine club, spearheaded by Zeman, was put into place to help foster customer loyalty and to spread wine knowledge to younger wine drinkers, which Zeman says is their main client base.
“We wanted to make it simple and affordable so it would encourage people to look at it and think, ‘oh, that’s actually something I could do,’ even if they just graduated college, which is the case for a lot of our customers,” Zeman said.
Zeman has witnessed a noticeable shift in the ages of wine drinkers, which she thinks has been positive.
“I think there has definitely been an increase in young people drinking wine. We see it plain as day with our customer base, a significant part being recent graduates with an interest in learning about wine,” Zeman said. “Younger people are not yet set in their ways and are a bit more open to drinking outside the box, which we encourage at any age.”
wineHouse hosts free wine tastings every Wednesday and Friday, a staple which began shortly after the store opened. Greenberg said it costs virtually nothing, as distributors’ representatives come in and bring their own wines to the store.
“It’s a social and educational experience, and it introduces new wines to people, giving them the opportunity to taste the wine for free, and if they love it, which often happens, they can buy it,” Greenberg said.
Elke Girresch, a Midwest representative for Rudi Wiest, a German wine importer, has done four wine tastings at wineHouse, and views these tastings as a means to spread knowledge about the culture of German wines.
“When I pick the wines to bring for tastings, I think about what I want to represent from Germany, and try to bring attention for these wines,” Girresch said. “I’ll try to bring a variety so people will not continue to think that Germany is just Riesling land.”
One of the wines Girresch brought was a pinot noir, priced at $21, which she convinced one wine taster to try despite her aversion for red wines.
“It’s smooth and light,” Girresch told her.
Greg Peterson, a 26-year-old law student at Northwestern, came to wineHouse for his first time after seeing a sign advertising a free wine tasting. Peterson, a Lakeview resident, said he was impressed and would come back to the store, especially considering his appreciation for wine.
“I drink a great deal of wine,” Peterson said. “Me and my friends love wine, there’s so much going on with it, there’s always something new, there’s always something exciting.”
Girresch echoed this quality, claiming wine is not just a beverage, but an avenue for understanding history and diverse cultures.
“Wine is not just a beverage, it’s about education. You learn about history and geography and it connects you with all different kinds of people,” Girresch said. “It’s all about learning and being open to learning more.”
wineHouse has also been involved in charity and fundraising events, such as the Lakeview East Art Festival last year, and the Lynn Sage Cancer Research Foundation benefit in the fall. Greenberg says fundraisers are a new and rewarding way to give back and stay connected with the community.
“Through our commitment to the community and connecting with our customers, we’ve been able to hold fundraisers and raise money for important causes through wine tasting events,” Greenberg said. “That’s been a huge personal thing for me because that’s what life is all about: contributing and sharing.”
With the first year success of wineHouse, an added location is being discussed.
“I think Lincoln park would be the most likely area for our next store, though Andersonville is a possibility as well,” Greenberg said. “It would happen within the next year or year and a half.”