Fruits of the Vine

Any novice who’s wandered the aisles of a warehouse outlet like Sam’s or Zimmerman’s knows how complicated and intimidating it can be to select a good wine. But Dan Sachs hopes to demystify the process in early December when he unveils the first Bin 36 at Marina Towers. Part retail store, part tavern, and part tablecloth restaurant, the 13,000-square-foot establishment will function as something of a wine school where customers can eat, drink, shop, and get educated. Proprietor of the highly regarded restaurant Spruce, near Fairbanks and Ontario, Sachs likes to compare his new project to the popularization of fancy coffees. “Bin 36 is not about perpetuating an elitist sensibility about wine, something that wine makers have been guilty of doing in the past,” he says. “We hope the shop will function, in a way, like a wine-themed children’s museum for adults.”

Sachs wants to avoid overwhelming his patrons with possibilities. They’ll choose from a carefully edited list of 50 wines–20 reds, 20 whites, 5 sparkling wines, and 5 dessert wines–and have a chance to sample them by the glass. The retail shop will feature graphic displays showing, for instance, a wineglass filled with the different components that suggest the flavor of a chardonnay. Staff will explain the fine points of uncorking a bottle or properly decanting a wine. In the more casual of the two restaurants, the Tavern, menus will list wines available by the glass and suggest wines to complement bistro dishes such as soup, steamed mussels, or pates. In the formal dining room, the Cellar, Sachs will offer a boutique wine list for connoisseurs while providing options and information for novices. Brian Duncan, the veteran wine steward at Spruce, will choose most of the wines offered at Bin 36, and Sachs has hired Bernard Laskowski, former sous chef at the Four Seasons, to develop a menu that will include items like pork loin and rotisserie chicken.

Bin 36 isn’t the first Chicago restaurant to educate wine neophytes: the Hudson Club at Wells and Illinois has pursued the concept since it opened more than three years ago, offering 96 wines by the glass and a “flight” of four different samples for as little as $10. According to “wine guy” Curt Burns, sales of wine at the restaurant have risen every year. “There’s been a trend of more wine consumption among young adults 24 to 35 for some time now,” he says. If Bin 36 catches on, Sachs hopes to open other locations around the Chicago area and eventually target other markets. While he knows of no similar concept in the U.S., he cites as a European precedent Chez Nicolas, a French chain of 400 stores that’s developed a more egalitarian approach to marketing wines without sacrificing its reputation for quality.

Ink Under the Bridge

William Bolcom’s A View From the Bridge may not be as much of a crowd pleaser as Carmen or La boheme, but it’s undoubtedly the most remarked upon opera of the decade. The New York Times has been publishing a nine-part series on the opera’s genesis, the last installment of which will appear after Times cultural writer Bruce Weber attends the final performance at the Lyric Opera this Friday. Some observers say they were so sated by the Times coverage that they lost some interest in seeing the work when it finally debuted on October 9. But Susan Mathieson, director of marketing and communications for the Lyric, dismisses that notion: “You’re never going to hear me complain about too much coverage in the New York Times.”

The production has also been reviewed by no fewer than 85 international critics, though according to Mathieson, Bolcom’s McTeague still holds the Lyric record of 100; its world premiere in 1992 coincided with the Chicago convention of the American Music Critics Association. Many reviews have been mixed, but A View From the Bridge is already assured a second major production in the U.S., something denied to many new operas in recent years. A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Opera in New York confirms that it will stage the work in fall 2002, and next year the Lyric will stage John Harbison’s opera of The Great Gatsby, which debuts at the Met in December.

Making Way for Frank

So close and yet so far. Abigail Deser, resident director at Roadworks Productions, was all set to make her main-stage debut at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in February, with a production of Patrick Marber’s Closer. But a few weeks ago Steppenwolf artistic director Martha Lavey informed Deser that the play’s opening date was being moved back to July so its spot on the schedule could be given to Frank Galati’s new project, Valparaiso. Galati, who directed Ragtime and the Lyric Opera’s A View From the Bridge, is in great demand these days: he’s currently developing the new musical Seussical for SFX Theatricals, the theatrical producing and presenting arm of SFX Entertainment, Inc. Adapted from Dr. Seuss stories by Ragtime composers Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, Seussical had its first workshop production this August in Toronto, and a second workshop is reportedly slated for next summer, with a major production soon after. Meanwhile, Deser says she’s delaying any final casting decisions for the four-character Marber play: “We had some offers out to members of the Steppenwolf ensemble, but nothing is definite yet.”

Oh, the Humanities!

The Chicago Humanities Festival celebrates its tenth anniversary this year with an expanded schedule of events spanning two weekends, November 4 through 7 and 12 though 14. According to executive producer Eileen Mackevich, the festival had been cramming so many programs into a single weekend that venue operators were complaining about insufficient setup time, so the board decided to add a second weekend. This year’s festival of 118 different events, about a tenth more than last year, will be the biggest ever. The first CHF operated on a budget of $85,000, but this year’s festival, along with some related seminars and workshops throughout the year, will cost $2 million. Because of the $3 advance admission to all but a few special events, the festival grosses only about $80,000, but Mackevich says she’s had no trouble making up the difference: “From what we’ve encountered, this seems to be a good time for finding funding for the arts and humanities.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.