Many historians argue that the history of civilization is the history of booze. With the invention of agriculture came cultivated grain and grapes. From those came wine and beer. The farmer and laboring classes drank cheap beer to drown their sorrows, while the kings and aristocrats brewed finer and finer vintages of wine to liven their day. Beer was a symbol of poverty and mortality, and wine a symbol of status and divinity.
So the stereotype goes, anyway. These days, beer brewing is a complex and subtle art, with infinite combinations of grain, malt, hops, and flavors that can satisfy the loftiest of palates. These days too, even non-aristocrats can share a good bottle of wine with their friends…or brew wine themselves, with the right resources.
The Chicago City Winery, located downtown on 1200 W. Randolph Street, is one of these resources. This large resteraunt/concert space/bar hosts a large wine making facility where wine-lovers throughout the city can craft and store their own barrels of wine. Additionally, it’s resteraunt section serves high quality Mediteranian food (meant to go with wine), and it’s concert hall hosts a regular series of events and performances (also meant to go with wine).
The interior of the Restaraunt/Winery is rather baroque in an urban fashion, a combination of a square wooden pillars, exposed girders and air conditioning ducts, and brown-red fire-bricks. The cellar and winery is a similar juxtaposition of rustic and cutting edge: classic wine barrels sit alongside massive chrome vats, as workers process grapes in an assembly line.
It’s in this space where those who sign up for yearly City Winery memberships can distill and brew their own wine. Each ‘Barrel’ membership grants those who sign up access to a certain number of wine casks at the Winery, which they can use to store the vintages they produce. The cheaper memberships provide only one barrel, while the more expensive ones provide over ten barrels; each membership provides members with the opportunity to order grapes from specific vineyards, crush and macerate them on site, ferment them for several months, and then blend and bottle them.
Even non-members, by ordering tickets from the City Winery website, can take part in it’s seasonal winemaking classes and workshops. For instance, the upcoming “Summer Series” classes, hosted by professional winemaker Robert Kowal, will teach attendees how to choose specific strains of grape and blend them together, and host lectures that discuss the nature of Old World vs. New World brewing and cultivation techniques. The general admission ticket for this event costs $140 dollars.
In general, the programs and events of the Chicago City Winery are as engaging as they are expensive. Though wine and wine-making is no longer the exclusive provenance of the ruling class, it’s still a rather expensive hobby, and very much a status symbol for those who can afford to do so.