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Wednesday, June 6, 2007 12:58 am

Whine time is over, Springfield oenophiles

New shop makes excellent, affordable wine its focus

Untitled Document “Well,” says the guy across the table, breaking into the discussion, “I like Opus One.” My husband and I catch each other’s eyes with the look of complete understanding that people who’ve been married as long as we have develop. We manage to suppress our smiles and look suitably impressed. We are having dinner with people who enjoy good food and wine. Several of the men (and they are all men) are serious oenophiles — guys who have the passion and means to collect fine wines. “I have more wine in my basement than I can possibly ever drink in my lifetime,” sighs one. “But I just can’t seem to stop buying more.” The discussion around the table had been about the various merits of grape varietals, harvests, vintages, and wineries. Undoubtedly some of these folks are in it for the snob value, but others are compelled by the endless mysteries, nuances, and variations of wine itself. Our dining companion’s Opus One pronouncement clearly places him in the former category. What he is really saying is that he likes — and can afford — very expensive wine. Unfortunately for him, what he also unintentionally tells everyone is that he doesn’t really have a lot of knowledge or experience with wine. Opus One is just too easy — a bit like someone in a discussion of cars saying that he likes Rolls Royces. There’s no doubt about it: Opus One does have a certain cachet. I remember going into a Napa Valley restaurant several years ago for lunch. Four people sat around a table that was clearly the most prominent in the room. Three empty bottles of Opus One stood on the table, and a fourth was being poured into their glasses. We immediately knew that either they were a) from the Opus One winery and had brought their own or b) very high rollers. Actually, if they were from the winery it was pretty much a sure bet they were both. Opus One was the brainchild of Baron Philippe de Rothschild, owner of one of France’s most esteemed wineries, the first growth Château Mouton-Rothschild in Bordeaux, and Robert Mondavi, trailblazing visionary of the California wine industry. In the 1970s the two formed a partnership with the intent to make California’s first ultra-premium wine. The two spared no expense to produce a single wine: the traditional methods used to make Opus One are extremely labor intensive and, in first growth tradition, the almost $1,000 a piece French oak barrels are never reused. As Tim Mondavi (Robert Mondavi’s son and Opus One co-winemaker with Mouton’s Patrick Léon) said, “The standard is not to be excellent here, it is to be perfect.”
The venture has been wildly successful. A case of the first ’79 vintage sold in 1981, before its official release, for $24,000. At that time, it was the highest price ever paid for a California wine. Those first wines were priced at $50/bottle at a time when the most renowned California wines were selling in the $15-$20 price range. These days prices for Opus One start at around $150/bottle and can go up to into the thousands, even though the winery now produces some 30,000 cases a year, up from its initial 2,000. My husband and I have enough knowledge to take part in the discussion around that dinner table, though we’re not really serious collectors or students of fine wines. We’ve been lucky to have friends and family who are, some of whom are also in the business. Because of them, we’ve been able to sample some of those “ultra-premium” wines and have had a great time doing so. We’re glad and grateful to have had those experiences, but they’ve been only a small part of our exploration of wine — and in many ways not the most interesting or fun part. For me and (to a lesser extent) my husband — the first criterion of any wine is how well it pairs with food. Many, though certainly not all, of those big deal wines are crafted to be impressive and powerful, not necessarily to pair well with food. We like the excitement that finding wonderful, food-friendly wines from obscure and often new and/or unknown wineries, regions, or grape varietals gives us. Perhaps most important, we’re always looking for good wine that’s affordable. Though we occasionally buy pricey bottles for special occasions, it’s especially satisfying when we find delicious wine we can routinely drink with dinner. That’s why I was glad to find out about the opening of It’s All About Wine, a new wine shop opening this week. Other area wine shops/liquor stores have moderately priced wines, but It’s All About Wine is making excellent, affordable wine its focus. They’re offering more than 200 wines priced under $25/bottle, many of which are substantially less. Those that cost more are primarily fortified wines, such as Port. It’s All About Wine is a joint venture between Joe Volenec, John Roman, and David Fuiten. All worked for Famous Liquors; in fact Volenec was the corporation’s Chicago-based president, with over 30 years experience in the business. About a year and a half ago, as is not uncommon in this day of mergers and consolidations, the company was sold, and the three decided to strike out on their own.
The trio feels that their years of experience will give them an edge: “We’ve tasted thousands of wines,” Volenec says, “and only a tiny fraction made it into the store.”
In addition to quality and value, service will be a primary focus: “Anyone who shops here can be assured there’ll be someone knowledgeable to assist them,” Fruiten says. “But we also feel that the person who walks in the door is the expert. Whatever type and style of wine they want, we’re here to help them find it.”

It’s All About Wine, 1305 Wabash Ave., Suite M, 217-546-WINE (546-9463). 

Send questions and comments to Julianne Glatz at realcuisine@insightbb.com.
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