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Warehouse Wines

At Sam's, Chicago's legendary wine discounter, editor Lettie Teague dodges forklifts and shopping carts to find a bottle to brag about among the 10,000 choices.

Although I travel often and sometimes quite far, there's one wine destination I've long been ashamed to admit I've never visited. In fact, whenever I confessed its omission to a fellow oenophile, the response was usually incredulity tinged with—I'm certain—a touch of contempt. One day I decided to do something about it. So I booked a flight west and set off from New York for...Chicago. I'd be at Sam's by the end of the day.

At 33,000 square feet, Sam's Wines & Spirits (founded in the 1950s by Sam Rosen) is the largest wine shop in Chicago. And maybe even the world, although its owners seem pretty sure of Sam's global status. They've even dubbed it, with un-Midwestern immodesty, "the world's wine superstore." A claim of such proportions intrigued me (isn't every American fascinated with size?) but I was equally compelled by the stories I'd heard about Sam's wines. According to legend—or at least a few of my friends—Sam's has bottles in stock that can't be found anywhere else, at least not at Sam's prices. My friend The Collector's favorite story (one he tells often) has to do with a magnum of 1995 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Montrachet he bought at Sam's for a "very fair price." (Uncharacteristically coy about naming the figure, The Collector would only say that "Sam's sells Burgundies at the price they should be.") It was hearing this story for the fourth or fifth time that made me finally get on that plane. I was determined to find my own fabulous bottle—and tell the story of its discovery a few dozen times.

It was raining hard in Chicago the day I arrived. My hotel's concierge counseled taking the subway. Sam's, he explained, consulting his map, was only one block from the North/Clybourn stop. He handed me an umbrella and showed me the door. Unfortunately, neither his cartographic abilities nor his umbrella were particularly sound. Sam's turned out to be several blocks from the subway and across a very wide parking lot—where the wind caught my umbrella and snapped it in two.

The world's wine superstore looked uncannily like every other store on the street, of an architectural style best described as "brick fortress." In fact, so forbidding was Sam's windowless facade that I wondered if the owners were expecting an onslaught of more than just Montrachet shoppers. Inside, however, it was all bright lights and bustle—a scene straight out of Home Depot. Men and (a few) women in work aprons were climbing up and down on very tall, bright yellow ladders and driving what appeared to be forklifts across Sam's vast, high-ceilinged space. But instead of handling garden hoses, light bulbs and plumbing parts, they were moving cases of Chardonnay and bottles of Bordeaux.

The reception was pretty much like the one I get when I visit Home Depot too. That is to say, I was completely ignored. On the other hand, the blonde next to me looking for "a big, oaky Chardonnay" was immediately swept up by a smiling Sam's salesperson who handed her a bottle of what he deemed a "happening" wine. Was this yet another example of the power of being a blonde? Or had Sam's staff been trained to leave customers alone until assistance was requested? I decided to test the closest salesman at hand—and asked him for his help in locating "Sam's best Chardonnay." He gave me a look of appraisal and led me straight to the store's California section, where he selected the 2000 Pine Ridge Dijon Clones, which he pronounced "yummy."

I knew the Pine Ridge and considered it good, though at $18 a bottle, it wasn't what I would have figured was Sam's very best Chardonnay. Maybe my broken umbrella and waterlogged shoes made him think money was an issue. "How about something French?" I replied, thinking that would indicate an ability to spend more. He paused for a moment and led me to the white Burgundy section. Not, however, to the shelves of Montrachet or Corton-Charlemagne, but to Bouchard Père & Fils Pouilly-Fuissé—a decent but rather unremarkable wine—which he described as "nice and tropical." It was also $20 a bottle. I said I'd think about it. He smiled and shrugged, "I'm not a big Chardonnay fan anyway."

But you don't have to win over a salesman to get a wine recommendation at Sam's. Practically every third bottle is accompanied by descriptive tasting notes or a wine critic's rating. And while the space is truly enormous (there are said to be 500,000 bottles in the store at all times) it's easy enough to locate a particular type of wine. Sam's arranges its 10,000 different labels according to wine regions—Tuscany, Bordeaux, the Rhône Valley—all of which are marked by maps and flags hung from the ceiling. But it's California that takes up the largest amount of room; there are so many shelves of California wine it looks like Sam's has leased floor space to the state.

I started my tour at the section of fortified wine and Champagne. If Sam's claim to be the world's wine superstore was a touch pretentious, its bottle display was definitely down to earth. Mingled in amid much-lauded vintage ports like the 1945 Dow's ($754) and 30-year-old tawnies were bottles of Christian Brothers brandy and what looked like Night Train.

It was much the same story in Champagne. Although every big name was represented (Veuve Clicquot, Moët and Perrier-Jouët) in every possible variation (brut, extra dry, vintage and rosé) there were just as many wines from more obscure, high-quality producers like Bruno Paillard and Alfred Gratien. Every size was on display too, from magnums to half bottles to tiny splits, all at better prices than I'd ever seen in New York. A magnum of my favorite nonvintage rosé, Billecart-Salmon, for example, was $100 a bottle, easily $20 less than it would be in Manhattan.

I thought briefly about buying the bottle but reconsidered; after all, I'd just started my tour. Furthermore, I reasoned, the wine should probably be something a bit more esoteric. (The Collector likely had boxes and boxes of Billecart Rosé in his cellar.) So I kept going—past five enormous shelves of Zinfandel, 75 different kinds of Meursault and a veritable tower of 1999 Tignanello (a top Super-Tuscan that most stores might have a bottle or two of in stock). I moved slowly down rows of single-vineyard Barolos and Bordeaux and through the largest selection of New Zealand wines I'd ever encountered outside of Auckland. There was even a surprisingly large spirits section (where I was nearly run over by a man wheeling a cart filled to the top with Dewar's and Triple Sec). In fact, only one thing seemed to be in short supply at Sam's: old wines. Aside from a few vintage ports and some older Bordeaux, all of Sam's merchandise—just like Home Depot's—was shiny and new.

"We don't sell old wine," acknowledged Todd Hess, Sam's wine director, when we met the next day. "We believe you can only sell wine once," he said, referring to the possibility that an older bottle may have changed hands many times. "Besides," he added, "if we had '61 Latour someone would expect us to have '61 Haut-Brion."

Hess, who started at Sam's as a stock boy in 1993, has been its wine director since 1995. We were in his cramped, windowless office (what did Sam's have against windows?) where he waxed nostalgic about the days he spent out "on the floor." Yet with a staff of some 45 salespeople already there, it hardly seemed practical for him to return to those duties. Besides, Hess had to spend a considerable amount of time traveling. "To California?" I inquired, commenting on the size of that section of the store. "California is our best-selling country of origin," Hess replied. I didn't bother pointing out that California is in fact not a country but a state, since at Sam's it is twice the size of most of the nations represented. What was the store's best-selling wine? I asked. "Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay," Hess replied. "We probably sell at least 5,000 cases of it a year."

That was another thing that made Sam's singular. Although its mystique among wine collectors has to do with its hard-to-get bottles, Sam's sells hundreds of thousands of cases of Mondavi, Kendall-Jackson and Geyser Peak. In fact, these are the wines that most of Sam's customers come to buy—loading case after case into giant grocery carts. Of course, the serious collectors among Sam's customers aren't in the store at all but at home on their computers—responding to e-mails sent by Sean Hartig, the man in charge of all of Sam's allocated wines. Hartig sends out periodic e-mail bulletins to around 20,000 customers about wines that have, or will be, coming into the store, like 2000 Bordeaux futures, 1997 Brunellos and, of course, all the California cult wines. For someone who deals in such rarefied merchandise, Hartig, a jeans-wearing thirtysomething, is, like everyone at Sam's, quite down-to-earth. "My motto is 'It's just grape juice,'" he said. As part of his democratic philosophy, Hartig makes a point of putting some of his allocated gems on the shelves—at ordinary retail prices. "We don't mark up Bryant Family Cabernet any more than we do Kendall-Jackson," he said. Sometimes, however, Sam's customers interpret such largesse in unexpected ways. "I put a few bottles of 1997 Bryant Family Cabernet on the shelf once," Hartig recalled about these much-coveted $500 bottles, "and a guy called me up and said, 'There must be a wine glut. I just saw Bryant Family Cabernet on your shelf.'"

Hartig, I decided, was the right man to help me find my trophy bottle. Briefly, I described my friend The Collector, his remarkable cellar and the magnum of Montrachet he'd bought at Sam's. I wanted to buy The Collector a wine that would impress him, a bottle that he would never have had. Hartig gave me a look of appraisal similar to the once-over I got from the Chardonnay salesman. "I have the perfect wine for you," he replied and pulled open the bottom drawer of his filing cabinet. "It's the last bottle we have in the store," he said. "We're completely sold out of it." I sat forward in my chair, my mind alight with the various possibilities. A Bryant Family Cab? A 1997 Brunello?

The bottle Hartig handed me was surprisingly heavy. I looked at the label: 2000 Borsao Tres Picos. "One hundred percent Grenache," Hartig said. "It's completely delicious and one of the best deals in the store—only $9 a bottle."

Maybe it wasn't a wine that would make The Collector mad with envy or give me a story to retell for generations, but a wine that was both hard to find and delicious—not to mention reasonably priced—well, that seemed like exactly the right sort of Sam's souvenir.

Insider Tip

You can buy dinner at Sam's as well as the wine to go with it. The store has a small section of excellent breads, cheeses and prepared foods.

Published May 2003
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