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A new wave of Chicago bars aims to change the way you learn about wine

Chicago is no stranger to wine bars, but a new wave of openings aims to transform the way you learn about vino—one sample at a time.

Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas

Chicago bars are changing the way you drink wine

If you don’t know the difference between sangiovese and syrah, you’re in good company. A handful of new Chicago wine bars take the snobbery and exclusivity out of the classic vino-tasting experience. With the help of thoughtful menus, laid-back and highly educated sommeliers and a dash of patience, the aim here is to create fun, educational experiences for newbies and enthusiasts alike. (Yes, even those of us who swear by Two-Buck Chuck.)

Leading the charge is the Lunatic, the Lover & the Poet, a new three-story wine and fine-dining refuge in West Loop. The folks behind the concept know there’s nothing revolutionary about a new wine bar in Chicago, but their approach is what’s special. “Wine has always been very celebrated in Chicago, but I’ve often wondered to what degree in the last 15 years the wine community did a good job of embracing the public,” says Tom Powers, managing partner.

Powers describes the Lunatic’s wine list as “a handshake,” or a mix of familiar and unfamiliar options. Guests can approach the menu in two different ways: Consult the bar staff or grab an iPad and start browsing. The tablets are loaded with Chicago app Uncorkd, which outlines the menu and provides digestible notes on each offering. And for drinkers who are curious about the nuances between two sauvignon blancs, for example, the staff is generous with samples. 

“We give a lot of tastes so that people can discern what they like,” Powers says. “Wine has gone back to being an exclusive endeavor that was always intended to be inclusive. By taking the time and being friendly and letting people taste things, you can help them find what they’re looking for.”

In Edgewater, another culinary-focused wine bar is establishing roots with a similar mentality. Income Tax is the kind of place where you can’t help but think the staff is constantly geeking out over wine—and you wouldn’t be wrong. Behind the scenes, the bar crew might be ogling a 16-year-old riesling brandy, but with customers, they play a friendly game of 20 questions to find the right glass. Employees are trained to converse with guests in a way that’s casual and humble.

For those dipping their toes in the wine pool for the very first time, Tapster offers a choose-your-own-adventure approach. The pour-your-own-drink bar in Wicker Park has a selection of eight wines on tap that guests are encouraged to dabble in and explore. Bartenders roam the space and give feedback, but it’s a safe zone for beginners.

More important than high-tech gadgets and wine samples is the noticeable shift in attitude. Chicago’s new hot spots aren’t dumbing anything down; they’re simply letting newcomers in on the conversation.

Meet Chicago's newest wine bars

The Lunatic, the Lover & the Poet

This multilevel wine bar brings vino and upscale bites to the heart of West Loop. The first-floor bar is where you'll want to hunker down for happy hour or leisurely weekend sipping. A list of 75-plus wines are available by the glass or bottle, and guests are invited to read more about each selection on an iPad version of the menu. As a bonus, the Lunatic also offers a variety of truly unique cocktails and rare pours of absinthe. Chef Jessica Nowicki offers elevated food pairings, such as charred onion soup, confit chicken leg and a must-try burger. 

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West Loop

Income Tax

Generally speaking, income tax isn’t something we’re thrilled about; it’s more of a necessary evil. Income Tax, a new wine bar in Edgewater, on the other hand, is a place you should get excited about. It’s more than your run-of-the-mill wine bar, offering excellent service, above and beyond tasting notes, comfortable digs and outstanding small bites. If you’re looking at wines by the glass, the list is focused and concise with one page of options. For bottle seekers, prepare to be indulged with five pages of decisions, including eau de vies, brandies and beer. But we recommend ditching the menu altogether (unless you’re a total wine expert, then help yourself) and asking your server where to start. 

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Edgewater

Tapster

Chicago's first self-serve bar offers 32 beer, eight wine and 12 cocktail taps accompanied by a friendly staff of bartenders to guide guests through the experience. For those nights when you don't feel like drinking, choose from kegs of kombucha, craft soda and local cold-brew coffee. The Wicker Park space also boasts a curated food menu with options like grilled cheese with chipotle cheddar, corned beef sliders, cheese fondue and gelato. 

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Wicker Park
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