Two years ago I studied abroad in Florence, Italy where the wine is cheaper than water, and certainly cheaper than Italy’s version of my usual drink of choice, Coca Light. After four months under the Tuscan sun, I returned home somewhat plumped from copious servings of everything and teeth, to my dentist’s disdain, tinted purple from habitually making the more economical choice of hydrating myself with the house vino—a thrifty decision in terms of saving Euros. And the more fun one.
Part of this wine-drinking four month rendezvous can be attributed to the fact that I was enrolled in my Italian university’s wine tasting class (a more fitting name for the class would be Wine Guzzling 101). We talked about a region in Italy, opened up a few bottles of vino from said region, and drank until we realized class had been over a couple hours ago. Donato, our fine Italian professor – or so he said – taught us about the wines by asking us what we tasted and by always agreeing.
“YES!” Donato would shake his head furiously while pointing at the student in absolute agreement no matter what.
“YES!” went Donato. (A student was just asking her friend if she wanted some candy.)
While I retained very little of the actual curriculum—come to think of it, I’m not so sure there was a curriculum—I returned to the states with an appreciation for wine and an unexpected appreciation for my own taste buds. We can’t all hold Merlot in such contempt as Paul Giamatti in Sideways.
Two years later, enter LUSH Wine & Spirits into my life. I was late to a friend’s party where I’d promised to bring wine and had, of course, forgotten to pick any up. Running in the rain looking for a liquor store, I passed LUSH on West Chicago in the Ukrainian Village. I entered disheveled and desperate. The store looked and felt as warm as library, with wines as numerous as books.
“Can I help you?” asked a woman behind the counter.
“Uh…Do you have any not really fancy wines?” I asked, camouflaging my tight budget.
“I don’t like to say any of our wines aren’t fancy, but we have a great assortment of wines under $10.”
I liked her immediately. She helped me find a $10 pinot grigio that I loved and was a hit among my friends later that night.
My experience at LUSH was comfortable, enjoyable, and even, educational. The spirit of LUSH counters the belief that owning the taste buds for wine is as difficult to obtain as entry to the Old Boy’s Club. LUSH believes that you can begin your experience right then and there.
In order to learn more about LUSH and its credo, I interviewed West Town LUSH’s GM, Rachel Driver, to get a closer look at the store from an inside perspective.
If I learned one very important thing from Rachel, it’s that I am apparently not drinking enough. If I learned two things, it’s that the people at LUSH are extremely passionate about their business and want you to join in the fun.
Here’s what Rachel had to say:
Q: The world of wines can seem snooty to people who would never know how to properly sip a wine let alone identify tannins, count legs and say things like “Ah yes, lovely. I do smell the merde de poule.” (chicken shi- droppings). What makes LUSH different?
A: LUSH is about exploring wine and finding what fits you. Each staff member is selected for their personal preferences, personality, and palate. No cookie cutters here! And, each of us is a serious nerd…extremely interested in the topic of all things fermented. We are always attempting to expand our knowledge through reading, researching, and putting the juice in our mouth…talking about it and sipping some more.
We bring this to the table with each client, encouraging customers to sip with us, chat about it, and create a personal vocabulary for what they like or do not care for. We really won’t judge what anyone is drinking…we encourage being adventurous and crafting a comparative experience with various styles of wine.
Q: The fermented drink is an ancient thing, but LUSH makes wine a modern experience from the physical layout to its customer service. There is even the virtual LUSH: You have a website, you tweet and you blog. How has the web influenced your business?
A: We use all available mediums to get the word out. I think we do the most legwork in person, specializing in face to face personal relationships with our customers. But, it would be silly not to utilize the available, free social media platforms. And, again, we like to keep wine playful and fun, even when we are dead set serious about the subject. So, we have a very small presence on Facebook, but our managers often Tweet, and the blog is such a great way for each of our staff to share random snippets of research, episodes of drinking at work and elsewhere, and document what we are excited about at any particular moment. We are rather chatty, and these forums give us an outlet to further indulge.
Q: What is your go-to wine? Tell me everything about it.
A: Oh goodness, I was afraid that might come up. I very very rarely drink the same bottle more than once. With so many amazing choices and new options presented each week, I am always tempted to taste something new and exciting and different and weird. But, I tend to gravitate toward Italian wine…Piedmont or the Marche, and sometimes Campania…I like my wine to taste like dirt, the earth and the place it came from, the tradition and careful innovation, even.
Lately, I have been drawn to low alcohol, light and mineral-ly European reds…a lovely old vine Grenache from the Languedoc that is tossed in whole cluster with carbonic maceration, native fermentation, and aged in concrete vats, or a gritty, herbal Austrian St. Laurent…or, to totally twist things around, I have been mostly taking home off dry whites to pair with my dinner or a good read…Oh, I could go on…but, I didn’t even answer your question! My apologies.
[It’s okay, Rachel]
Q: LUSH seems to have an education credo. Where did it come from and how do LUSH staffers perform this on a daily basis?
A: I am the child of two teachers. It was inevitable that I would bring education to the forefront. But, as a business, we are very interested in drawing back the curtain on the mystery and snob factor that is associated with wine, sharing the love of booze with one and all. And, as a staff, we tend to be highly educated academics with a penchant for loving the quirky and eclectic nature of wine. So, if you ask a question, we will be on a mission to answer it or find the answer.
The training regiment at Lush is fairly intense, mainly due to our focus on having each staff member intimately know our products, the producers, the grapes, the land…it is more about wine as an experience than a commodity, and we want to be able to keep the consumer informed. And, we want anyone to be able to walk in and grab a bottle and be confident that it will be tasty rather than a gamble. Part of working here is becoming immersed in the minutia of the vine. We all love it so much and are thrilled to share.
Q: [I can’t help but ask] Do you ever get drunk at work?
A: Drinking, or rather sipping and spitting, is encouraged and a mandatory part of most work days. However, this is a business and we remain professional while on the job. A tight balance, yes, but our policy.
Q: What is something about wine that you wish more people would know? What do you teach your customers? What do you want your customers to leave with?
A: Grapes are the only natural medium through which the land in which it grows is an important, even critical, determining factor in taste. The vine absorbs pivotal flavors, minerals, and essence through the water and the dirt, tingeing each grape with an essential character that should be evident in the glass. And, wine is basically a raw, natural product crafted by farmers into a lovely, edible piece of art. Of course, you can manipulate the wine, but you can also let it shine. Also, I am obsessed with unfiltered wines that are aged on the lees…the texture and the flavor and the dead little yeast cells with B vitamins are just so intriguing! But, in relation to our clients, I really, truly, want each customer to drink what they like. I am all for experimenting, trying new things, getting educated and such…but drink what tastes good! Your tastes and preferences will necessarily change over time, and knowing how and why is what we attempt to teach. I want each client to take a bottle home that they like, that fits in with their lifestyle and tastes! I highly recommend being playful, though, and always learning about the juice! We aim to have customers trust us, but also engage in a dialogue, interact and get hands-on with wine.
LUSH Wine & Spirits has three locations in Chicago: Roscoe Village | University Village | West Town
You can meet Rachel at the West Town shop.
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