Diana Hamann

The Wine Goddess

08/28/2015

Diana Hamann is a wine expert and the proprietress of The Wine Goddess in Evanston.

What specifically do you offer here?

We sell wine, craft beer, and artisan spirits, and have educational classes every two weeks. That’s my background and strong suit. For eleven years prior to opening this joint I was the wine director for The Chopping Block, the nation’s largest recreational cooking school. I taught all of their wine classes. We’re a wine bar, so any time that we’re open you can come in and have a glass of wine, cider, or beer. We do artisan cheese plates and charcuterie, with bread from Hewn. We now have a sidewalk cafe, in our summer months we serve all of the above outside. And because I will try everything once in this life, we are also now a music venue.

We have been able to get a lot of local and nationally-known acts play the store in a series we call Wine Goddess After Hours. Usually the shop closes up at eight or nine, but on these music days as soon as the store closes we dim the lights and light the candles and the artist plays right up here in the window. We’ve found that the spot is great acoustically. One of the artists, Nicholas Barron, surmises that it has something to do with the bottles flanking the walls.

What principles guide you as you curate your inventory?

We do not seek to carry everything, but to carry the very best in a genre at the very best price. You can’t come in here and say, “I want to see twelve different Verdicchios from Italy.” We’ll have one or two at different price points. We tasted a bunch of Verdicchios already and chose this one to be the most textbook example.

One of the things that people say to me, and it’s a total point of pride, is they’ve never gotten a bad bottle here. The old Sam’s concept, where they sought to carry everything, was great for people like me: I’m a wine geek, I know all the wines, so I was like a kid in the candy store. But the people that come in here are not wine experts. They’re doctors and lawyers and teachers and policemen. They look to someone like me to whittle down the selection for them, because they don’t have time for it.

We do a great craft beer business. Our beer selection is killer, and I can say that without being boastful because I don’t do it. [laughs] We have a beer guy named Morgan Hobbs, he’s a beer genius. We’ve gotten a reputation of being a place to come for hard-to-find beers.  We do this Google Maps thing: we start off in Evanston, and then we move to Chicago, then the Midwest. You will find some beer from California or Colorado, but we definitely move out from where we are. You can drink local with beer, you can’t really drink local with wine. Our spirits selection is the same thing, we start with Evanston and Chicagoland as the epicenter.

Is the goal to provide the best traditional wines, or expose your clientele to weirder stuff?

We get them to try weirder stuff all the time! And not because I’m hipster and avant-garde and I gravitate towards the weird. Often, the weirder stuff comes at a lower price tag. I want people to drink wine every day, and believe it or not many people don’t. [laughs] I think wine is an absolutely integral part of the family meal. Like that great Ben Franklin quote: “Wine makes daily living easier, less hurried, with fewer tensions and more tolerance.”

But we’re not all wealthy people sitting on piles of money. If you want to have a glass of wine each night with your meal, it behooves you to seek out the lesser known appellations, the lesser known grapes, because they come at a lesser price tag. And often the quality of a Lemberger from the Columbia Valley in Washington State is better than a Pinot noir from the Willamette Valley, or a Cabernet from Napa Valley. These are all tried and true wines that we pay the big bucks for because they’ve already proven their market share.

How do you get people to trust you instead of outlets like Wine Spectator?

That is something we work hard for. We refuse to put scores in the store, to have them anywhere near the bottles. Number one, I think that a 100-point score system for these artisanal bottles of wine is silly. At the end of the day it’s just one dude’s opinion, and it’s full of hubris. We carry wines that we love, or else we wouldn’t have it in the store. We have these little notes on a lot of the bottles. We open up a lot of wine, we do tastings Fridays and Saturdays, and in each we taste six different wines. Not only that, but we always have our wines by the glass list, so there is ample opportunity to taste the juice before you buy it.

I cut my teeth in this business out at a now-defunct company, the original Wine.com. Way back in the day, in Napa in ‘99. It was called Virtual Vineyards then, riding the dot com wave. The cool thing about that company, may it rest in peace, was that it was run by actual wine people.  Not Silicon Valley people, but wine people. Peter Granoff, the guy in charge, was a master sommelier. The wine team was two master sommeliers, a master of wine, me and another guy. Actual sommeliers, wine people, they hate scores. You’re taking somebody’s life blood--- not to sound overly florid, but somebody’s artistic output--- it’s like affixing a score to Mozart.

They said, “No, we are the experts. We’re not gonna put scores on our site because we’re not gonna sell a wine if it’s not amazing.” So that’s what I do. It’s easy here because we don’t seek to carry everything. We’re tasting every vintage of every wine when it comes through the door, and by virtue of that you don’t have to worry about scores here. A wine store like this, if I sold you a bottle you could walk right back in and say, “No, that’s not what I like.” And we can steer you in a different direction.

How does your expertise differ from that of a sommelier?

A sommelier is someone who procures wine for a restaurant, and works the floor at a restaurant pairing wine with food. I am a straight-up wine expert, or a wine merchant, and a wine educator. There are two major different post-nominals in wine: the M.S., which is the Master Sommelier, and then the M.W., which is the Master of Wine. The latter is administered by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, a London-based outfit. M.W.’s are the more bookish, nerdy people. [laughs] They care about science and vineyard cultivation. The most famous M.W. is probably Jancis Robinson, she edits the Oxford Companion to Wine. They’re more inclined to be wine educators, giving talks on canopy management, or trellising, or the soils of Priorat. That’s what I am going after.

What percentage of wines that you taste end up on the shelves here?

A small percentage, much to the chagrin of my wine sales reps. The cool thing about being a dinosaur in this business is that I’ve known the same guys and gals for fifteen, twenty years. So they’re very casual, these tastings. Because of the three-tiered system, a vestige after Prohibition, wine has to go from winery to wholesaler to retailer or restaurant. These guys are the sales reps that represent the various distributors that we work with. I taste a lot of wine. That’s how you stay current. The laws of Chablis, they’re not going anywhere, not much is changing. I will call out to the distributors and say, “I need Chablis. Go.”

There are two major, huge wine distributors but I don’t work with them. I work with the smaller, boutique-ier, more artisan distributors, because the quality control is absolutely there. And the other two distributors are a big pain in the rump to deal with. [laughs] We’ll taste through eight to ten wines in a sitting, and I might pick two out of that. One or two. And sometimes I’m like, “You tried your best, somedays are diamonds, some days are coal.” [laughs] “It didn’t work out for you today.” We’re small, there’s only so much room on the shelves.

As you grow your business, how do you make the time to keep up with wine culture?

That was a rude awakening when I first started. There are so many nuts and bolts to running a business that the books don’t tell you about: “I can’t just put tables outside? I have to have a patio license? So then I have to get an architect to draw it up? And I have to submit it to which departments within the city? Really, that many departments? There’s not just a patio guy?” [laughs] No, there’s not.

So unfortunately I don’t get to give as much TLC to the wine geek part of it as I would like to. That part, of course, is the reason I got into this business in the first place. But I don’t think it’s reflected in the business itself. If I was just solely concentrating on wine… you can get lost in that world. People come in and bring you back to reality: they don’t need a treatise on why they should buy Bonny Doon ‘A Proper Claret’ for $16.99 to go with their lamb chops. They just say, “I’m making lamb chops, what should I buy?”

Has the Evanston legal landscape given you any trouble?

I battled for the ability to serve wines by the glass, in a retail store. Usually how liquor licensing goes is you’re either on-premise, that’s a restaurant serving wine and beer in-house, or you are off-premise, that’s packaged goods or a liquor store. It’s a new concept, especially for Evanston, for one to be able to come in here and buy wine as a packaged good, and also be able to take a wine off the shelf, pay a small corkage fee, and drink it in-house. Or go back to our wine bar and order a glass of bubbles. The other unsavory thing, which is the bane of my existence, is a large liquor tax here in town. I think it’s awful and I’ve been very vocal in my opposition to it.

What is the value of having all these different facets to your business?

Everybody told me this before I started, so it was no surprise: retail is tough. Especially wine retail, the margins are poor. Like really, really poor. If I was selling candles or jewelry or clothing, the markup is 100%. We are lucky to eke out a 45% markup. It’s not like anyone is rolling in the dough in the wine business. You get into it as the proverbial labor of love. All of this extra stuff we added on was to feed my family. [laughs]

People have a lot of choices when it comes to where they pick up their booze. From day one we’ve tried to ingratiate ourselves into the community. It was always my vision to have this place be a community hub. We have gotten to know our customers. I know their kids, husbands, and wives, I know that they just went to Spain on vacation for three weeks. They come in here not only to buy wine, but also to talk to me and the staff, to gossip and hang out. They often see their neighbors in here, and this is a place that they can either connect while picking out a wine off the shelves, or sit down, have a beer outside, and talk the good talk.

It seems like a lot of your decisions boil down to “I like this, let’s do it.” Is that fair?

That’s exactly what it is. Take, for example, the music. Yesterday, I sat down at my computer and I asked all these famous people to play. People that I like: The Mekons, Robbie Fulks, or Jeff Tweedy. So I emailed them, and the next day they all got back to me. Two said yes, and one said no. Tweedy. [laughs] Why did I invite him? Because I like him, because I think it’d be a kick in the pants if he came and played at my shop. How cool would that be?

You can do anything, which is the great thing. We do board game night, we could do freaking karaoke night if we felt like it. Some things are ragingly successful, and sometimes three people show up. But we get to play board games. [laughs] We come up with stuff that we think would be fun. Invite people you think are cool to come and share the space, and a moment with you. That’s a neat thing. We have to be here anyways, so we might as well be listening to the music we want to listen to, and playing the games we want to play. There’s so much freedom with that. It’s a paradox, you’re free but not free because you physically have to be here all the time.

How do you balance that personal impulse with the expectations of your customers?

I am forever indebted to my customers: they seem game for whatever we throw out there. [laughs] There’s definitely been some issues with the city, but that’s with any municipality, you’re going to have some “No, you can’t do this. Yes, you can do this if you fill out these forms and go to this meeting and come back for another meeting.”

The other thing is that Evanston is a sleepy town. Especially the mommy and daddy set, which is my friend base. We all have kids, we can’t rage like we used to, go to this new opening or that restaurant in the city. A lot of people find themselves looking homeward for their Friday night kicks, so we give them stuff to do, or bring music from the city to them. It’s a lot easier to get a sitter and walk two blocks here.

How do you fit into Evanston’s larger food and drink community?

It’s lovely. There’s so much community support, we all share ideas. No “I am a rock, I am an island” type of vibes at all. I’ve never owned a business anywhere else, but I imagine it’s unique, the lack of competition. We all work together, we all patronize each other’s joints. We’re free with information about a point-of-sale system, or a credit card processor, or a vendor. I called Steve Schwartz at Campagnola: “Do I buy a dishwasher, or do I rent?” “You need to rent, call my guy and tell him I sent you.”

Steve has done a great job bringing the hip to Evanston. Union Pizzeria has been jumping from the get go. It looks cool, it’s very urban, the people are great, the food is great. Before Union, there weren’t many places where you could go out for a night on the town and still feel like you were in somewhat of an urban environment. Brian Huston, the chef at Boltwood, he was at Publican forever and made a great name for himself. But he has four boys now. Restaurant hours are already long, and then you tack on an hour on each side… It was easy for all of us, once we had kids, to say “I can’t do this commute any more.”

We worked hard making a name for ourselves in the city--- and now we can do that here, in our backyard. Even if we have a smaller pool of people to call from as far as a customer base, we’re also serving our friends and our neighbors and people in our mommy group, and people at our kids’ school. You see these chefs at school drop-off each morning. This is a great community.

The Wine Goddess