Help Given Gladly

I have always told you to seek help…many of you should but for different reasons. My kind of help refers to guidance in selecting what wine to drink with whatever you are about to eat or are even thinking about eating. In fact, gentle readers may recall that I’ve touched on this subject before regards restaurant wine lists. Today my friends we’re going retail.

With help in mind I set off to talk with three of the better known wine guys in the area. Collectively I think they represent the highest level of sales, service and customer involvement.

John Randall is Wine Manager at Binny’s in Elmwood Park, Jeff Sukowski is Wine Director at the major independent, Famous Liquors and Wine Super Center on west Madison street in Forest Park and Neb Mrvaljevic, Proprietor & Wine Director of House Red Vinoteca in the midst of the Forest Park restaurant district on east end of Madison street.

They are very well informed, capable people who work to serve their customers, but take note of the subtle differences on how they get there. Let me also point out that I asked each to recommend three red wines in the $10, $20 and $30 price range, I think you’ll find the results interesting and no I didn’t get to try the wines.

“I get paid to be a salesman”, says Randall who’s been with Binny’s for 11 years, “But the fun part is talking to people who love wine and food as much as I do and to share new products with them as well as learn from my customers who often may know more than I do”.

#1 John @ Binnys

How difficult is it to establish a taste memory relationship with the customer? “Well hopefully it’s not a one and done if you pick something they don’t like, you have to be careful as everything I recommend is something I like but that doesn’t mean the customer will necessarily like it too. I’m always sharing new wine information with regular customers because they’ve expressed their interest in brands or styles of wine.”

In terms of feedback, Randall says “People do come back and say they loved a wine rather than it was awful (smiling) even though that does happen too”. He cited a recent example of a customer who wanted to match wine for a dinner featuring Spanish food. “I worked with them to find wines at their price point” he explained, “We found some Grand Rioja’s that were a pretty good bargain and worked well with their meal – they were quite happy with the experience and of course I was to”.

John’s suggested wines:

  • 2010 Evodia, Old Vine Grenache: “medium soft with the same qualities as Pinot Noir, tremendous value” – $7.99
  • 2010 Monsanto Chianti Classico: “year in year out an elegant rendition of Chianti” – $21.99
  • 2011 Saint Domien Gogondas: “big and bold and very close to Châteauneuf-du-Pape at a third to a half of its price – $28.00

#2 Jeff @ Famous

“It’s important to develop a relationship with the customer” says Jeff Sukowski of Famous, “It’s the reason I’ve been in this business for 30 years. I try to help a customer based on their need; what price range they’re comfortable with, what they’re having for dinner”.

He says people are always looking for what’s new, “Wine has a romance to it and people want to hear about new wines and the story behind them. They’ll move up in price range based on the occasion or whether there looking to impress, is the bottles name recognizable – everybody has a different reason to buy that bottle of wine”.

As to the perfect match – “The whole fun of the business is helping customers pick out wine that’s going to work for them”, Sukowski says, “I’ve had some absolutely great moments when customers return and tell me that the wine worked perfectly and then tell me here’s what we’re having for dinner tonight.” And what about mistakes? “Absolutely, were only human and everyone’s palate is different maybe that wine isn’t really what they wanted, what was the problem, so let’s try something softer or firmer and find something that does work.

As a major independent Sukowski says competition is tough. “People still come here to find selection and pricing and as a stand–a-lone we have to work twice as hard to be competitive just to stay in business.”

Jeff Suggested wines:

“Cab is a personal preference for me so it’s easy to recommend the 2012 as not only a special year but maybe the best of the decade”

  • 2012 Carnivor Cabernet, California: “Big, full fruit rated 89 points” – $10.59
  • 2009 Lodi Estate Cabernet: “Lush, ripe, very juicy, medium to full-bodied and drinking well” – $19.99
  • 2009 Adeline “Howell Mountain” Napa Cabernet: “phenomenal and impressive Cabernet with Howell Mountain designation – $24.99

#3 Neb @ House Red“Our clientele knows us and trusts us to show them good quality and good value in wines” states Neb Mrvaljevic of House Red, “I am focused on small production, estate grown grapes and sustainable farming. He started the wine shop in 2006 when he says laughing, “The economy was great” but now also having a restaurant gives him a leg up when it comes to tasting new wine.

“We have an advantage as I can offer people samples of 15 to 20 wines and establish their taste palate. I tell first-time customers to match food to wine, don’t drink wine as a beverage, drink wine that is complementary to your meal so youyour brain connects to your palate” Once we get to that point I’ll find a wine that’s going to work for them”. He says the younger generation has become much more educated and is more open to wines from nontraditional sources (Neb is from Serbia).

Mrvaljevic says 70% of his business is repeat customers, “So we must’ve developed a positive and interesting relationship somewhere and yes sometimes we’re wrong about a wine pairing and we learn from it, there’s always a right wine open here somewhere. I’m a simple, humble guy, this is my passion not my work”.

Nebs suggested wines:

  • Stobi VARANEC, Macedonia: Rich full-bodied dark cherry flavor from the same lineage as the Zinfandel” – $12.00
  • Zlatan Plavac, Croatia: “Small production, oak aged similar to Syrah” – $24.00
  • 2011 Beckham Estate Pinot Noir, Oregon: “extremely small production of a lovely rich and smooth wine” – $35.00
  • Naked Plug: Do yourself a favor and go eat at Na Siam Thai restaurant, 6851 W. North Ave. in Oak Park, 708-613-4447. New people in former restaurant location, bright, fresh food with new tastes and wide selection, it’s terrific and BYO!

See you at Famous Grill Fest June 21st!


That’s my whine and I could be wrong.

Woody Mosgers, cooks, caters, drinks and matches wine and food at