For Kathleen Foley, owner of the seven-month-old shop Wine Crier, inspiration came in the form of a bottle of wine she received 14 years ago. A 1978 Chateau Lynch-Bages, to be exact. “The owner of my company gave a bottle to everyone as a way to celebrate a good year,” she recalls. “It was like drinking velvet….I said right then and there I wanted to go to school to learn more.”

Foley has always been one to pursue her interests–a must, she says, growing up in a household of ten kids. Armed with a degree in broadcast communications from the University of Minnesota, she moved to Chicago in 1985 and found work with Ebel Productions, which makes TV commercials, quickly moving up the ranks to executive producer. Over the next few years she worked with clients like McDonald’s, Huggies, and Boeing. “I traveled all over the country,” she says. “We had great clients with great budgets, and that meant great dinners.” Having read a lot on the subject since that fateful bottle of Bordeaux, she “became the person at the table who ordered the wine.”

After a shoot in Los Angeles in 1990, she went to Napa Valley for a weekend with some friends. The wineries there reinforced her “passion to do something new, that I didn’t know enough about,” Foley says. “I could open and close a commercial in three weeks, but the wine business, there is so much more to know, it’s never ending.” In 1993 she enrolled in her first class at the Chicago Wine School, where founder and instructor Patrick Fegan became a strong influence. “He has such a great approach to teaching,” says Foley. “The way he combined the teaching of wine with the country’s own history…the way that land, climate, and soil affect the grapes. He gave us lots of historical references. I minored in history, and liked learning about the people who tended the vines.”

She took more classes from Fegan over the next several years, and slowly started acquiring more information from other sources. By 1996 she had returned to Napa several times, saved a lot of money from her production job, and met and married her husband, Joseph. “I was getting tired of the film business,” she says. “I was the number two person at a $6 million company, but I wasn’t a partner, and I wanted to run my own thing.” In the summer of 1997 she quit her job–still freelancing on occasion to earn a few extra dollars–and dove headfirst into the full-time job of researching, fund-raising, and putting together her vision of a personalized wine shop.

“I traveled everywhere, asking questions and learning as much as I could,” she recalls. The high point was a week in London, where she visited the city’s “top ten” wine stores, interviewing the owners and taking pictures. She also visited wineries in Oregon, the Bordeaux and Champagne regions in France, and the Piedmont and Tuscany regions in Italy. Between trips she began looking for the right retail space in Chicago. “It was just like my old job–location scouting, running the numbers. It took me a while before the right deal came up.” Permits proved to be elusive in Lakeview, and parking was too scarce in Wicker Park. Then Foley heard the Travelworks store on Clybourn wanted to downsize, and she struck a deal. She got a lease for 1,400 square feet in the coveted 60614 zip code.

“It’s half barrel-fermented and half malolactic-fermented,” Al Letizia is telling Foley and her wine buyer, Norman Kaehn. Letizia works for Select Estates, a marketer and seller of fine wines, and the focus of his attention is a 1998 Laetitia chardonnay that retails for $15.99. Every Tuesday and Wednesday, distributors spend time with Foley and Kaehn in a back office, tasting and discussing new products. Of the more than 400 bottles the store carries, about half are from California, a third are from France, and the rest are from an assortment of places: the Pacific Northwest, Australia, Italy, Spain, and Germany.

“You can bring a wine in here that I might only have five cases of, and they’ll take just one case,” says Dominic Caruso, the regional sales manager for Vin Divino, a local distributor. “At some of the larger stores in town, they’ll make you sell them everything, which means we can’t spread it around the city. Kathy is true to what we’re all about: working with smaller producers.” Foley and her staff do carry some interesting labels: a crisp, highly structured, somewhat cultish 1999 Dr. Burklin-Wolf Riesling; a similarly elegant Loimer Gruner Veltliner from Austria; a 1997 Byington Alliage, a Bordeaux-style wine from California; and a lesser-known 1997 Castell del Remei from Spain, which combines three grapes: tempranillo, merlot, and cabernet. “We definitely can do things the big guys can’t,” says Foley, sitting in front of the store’s roaring fireplace.

She and her small staff constantly edit their list of wines, offering only 45 chardonnays where other stores might feature more than a hundred. “By having a smaller, compact list, we can be sure that all of the employees have tasted all of the wines,” she says. “We also keep a database on our customers–which we do not sell off–so we can pull up any past purchases and make recommendations based on their preferences.” And a permanent tasting table is set up just to the left as you enter the store, usually featuring a white, a red, and maybe a dessert wine or port. “This is the best part of the store,” says Foley. “Tasting the wine, seeing what you like, and making an informed decision.”

The Wine Crier is at 2070 N. Clybourn, 773-404-8684. –Steve Dolinsky

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