John Galassi, a retired River Forest police officer, has been a regular at Duffy’s Tavern on Madison Street for more than 25 years. Like many of his bar mates at Duffy’s, Galassi would much prefer to hoist a thick, frosted mug of brew over a piece of delicate stemware any day.
A glance up and down the bars of Madison Street and throughout Forest Park would lead anyone to conclude that Galassi’s preference is the norm, but this may be changing. In 2006, for the first time ever in the liquor business, wine sales exceeded beer sales in the U.S., according to Jim Buckley, a manager at Famous Liquors on Madison Street. Even Galassi, a blue collar retiree, has a link to the decidedly posh world of wine. Galassi’s grandfather, a coal miner from Italy, used to make his own wine at home by the barrel.
“Wine was just a way of life in Italy,” Galassi said. “It was their main drink and everybody drank it regardless of class. Here in America we have more choices and people drink what they prefer.”
Forest Park’s long standing reputation as a city of bars and liquor stores perhaps makes for an ideal testing ground for new patterns of alcohol consumption. In 1984, Famous Liquors at 7714 W. Madison St. changed its name to Famous Liquors Wine Discount Store. The store’s wine manager, Buckley, is also the host of a call-in show at WSCR radio on Tuesday mornings, where he picks a favorite wine and describes it for listeners. According to Buckley, wine sales were increasing at a hefty rate of 10 to 12 percent a year in the 1980s and last year, wine finally outpaced beer.
Buckley speculated that wine’s growing popularity may be partly attributable to all the information coming out in recent years about the health benefits of wine. He points to his own father, who is now 82, who just started drinking wine five years ago after it was recommended by his doctor. Wine is reputed to be good for the heart and to also have a lot of antioxidants, which can slow down cancer.
In October of 2006 Forest Park’s first liquor store dedicated exclusively to wine, House Red, opened its doors.
House Red stocks more than 180 different varieties of wine, ranging in price from $10 a bottle to a couple hundred. The store specializes in small wine makers that put out fewer than 2,000 bottles a year. Co-owner Neb Mrvaljevic said their wines were produced by hand, rather than manufactured, and many of House Red’s wines are exclusives, which would be difficult to find elsewhere.
House Red, at 7403 W. Madison St., also offers classes in wine tasting. Sommelier-in-training, Isaiah Estelle, said wine tasting works best when the wine is distributed over the widest possible surface area of the tongue. He also recommended retro nasal breathing, which means to exhale through the nose, with the mouth closed, right after swallowing.
“That’s almost like a trade secret,” Estelle said. “It’s definitely the most important technique for creating an impression of a wine on your palate.”
Mrvaljevic insisted that his choice to locate in Forest Park had nothing to do with the community’s gentrification. In fact, Mrvaljevic said he goes to great lengths to make wine more accessible to those who may be intimidated.
“There’s nothing big about what we’re doing,” Mrvaljevic said. “It’s really very simple. And we’re not professional wine people here. We’re just sharing something that we love.”
On Thursday, May 24 from 6:30 to 8 p.m., House Red will host a pizza and wine evening, sharing tips on selecting the proper wines to go with a pizza.
By contrast, Duffy’s Tavern serves 25 different varieties of beer and only five wines. Bartender Oz McNamara said that his customers, particularly the younger ones, are more interested in experimenting with unusual and foreign brands of beers. But he doesn’t get very many requests for wine.
Like Mrvaljevic, McNamara said beverage choices made by the different demographics in Forest Park don’t necessarily mean there’s a clash between old Forest Park and new Forest Park. However, with its menu of 25 different beers, McNamara said Duffy’s is a blue collar bar.
“People just don’t come to bars to drink wine,” McNamara said. “They have their wine at home or with dinner at a restaurant.”