You’d expect Lush, the wine and spirits store located at 1306 S. Halsted, to look more like a South Side corner liquor store, with flashing neon lights and haphazard rows of sparkling liquor bottles, old bourbon barrels filled with random assortments of wines, and maybe a sprinkle of sawdust for good measure.
After all, Lush’s owner, Mitch Einhorn, is the man who brought Chicago “Smut and Eggs”-a weekly Saturday gathering at his West Town restaurant, Twisted Spoke, where patrons can watch hard-core porn and luxuriate over a late-night breakfast. Along with his brother Cliff, he launched a mini empire more than 12 years ago with the biker bar/sit-down restaurant. They’ve since made a career through the irreverent marketing of their businesses, including the now-extinct BBQ spot Bone Daddy, which had the catch phrase “I’ve boned me a lot of pigs,” and Pie Hole Pizza in Roscoe Village.
Einhorn’s never been afraid to go whole hog. At the Twisted Spoke, he’s always insisted on making almost everything from scratch (they have a few frozen appetizers), and he’s always looking for farm-fresh ingredients and superior purveyors.
Of his style, Einhorn said, “Everybody takes themselves so damn seriously. It’s just another meal and just another refreshing beverage, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be fun and delicious and well made.” Now he’s planning on bringing this obsession with quality and his unique marketing sensibilities to rattle the traditionally snooty confines of wine retailing.
The first time Einhorn dipped his toe in these waters by offering a wine program at the Twisted Spoke and Bone Daddy, things didn’t go so well..
“It just never really worked,” said Einhorn. “Servers didn’t understand what the hell I was trying to do. It was hard enough to get them to say to customers, ‘Well we have a red one and a white one.’ ”
Excepting maybe the Playboy mansion, the brashness of bikers, the smuttiness of porno, and the rarefied air of wine culture doesn’t mix. This time around, Einhorn realized he needed a venue that matched the message, and Lush is a cushy lair of leather-backed chairs, rich stained woods, and an ornate carved back bar. Still there’s a nod to the Einhorn decorative whimsy with a couple of wine goblet chandeliers, and the Lush store sign, with its fat flashing bulbs, is the kind of piece you’d find on top of a turn-of-the-century burlesque or vaudeville palace.
Einhorn said, “Maybe your sensibilities change as you get older, but I wanted it to feel comfortable and inviting and in context with the type of product that were selling. It has that wine cellar library sort of feel.”
For every wine geek, there’s a quintessential bottle, and for Einhorn, it was a 1998 Seymour Syrah from Alban Vineyards. Einhorn said, “Oh my god, I didn’t know wine could taste like this. There’s gotta be more. I gotta find the rest of them.”
He soon met the winemaker, John Alban, who invited him to Hospice du Rhone, the world’s largest gathering of international Rhone wine producers. There, he also met boutique winemakers like Vanessa Wong and “all manner of French dudes.” Einhorn and his wife made frequent trips to Napa Valley and the Central Coast of California, and started harboring the romantic notion of “owning a vineyard, watching the grapes ripen, and making wine.”
The reality is that winemaking was capital intensive, and so Einhorn, sensing an opportunity to bring the personal relationship back to the wine-buying equation decided to start at the retail end. In recent years, the wine retailing business has trended toward places where the inventory is stacked to the heavens in anonymous warehouses, where you pop in to buy what you already know, and there isn’t a lot of opportunity to try a new product or develop personal relationships.
“We opened Lush to develop something that was more personal and intimate, where we could share our discoveries,” Einhorn said. “Like, ‘Wow, we just found this great little winery and they make only 200 cases a year, and we only get a couple of cases.’ ”
It’s those personal discoveries that set Lush’s inventory apart. Einhorn offers about 150 wines with 24 reds and 24 whites priced at $10 and under. He focuses on procuring wine from boutique winemakers that don’t have the capacity to produce wine for the giant retailers, and as a result he gets interesting and great-tasting wines that aren’t widely available. Einhorn’s personal relationships play a large role-he once went to Brochelle Vineyards in Paso Robles, Calif., to give winemaker Brock Waterman a hand during the fall harvest.
The small scale of Lush allows Einhorn to be more nimble with his selections and the inventory isn’t limited to what’s in store. He likes to get to know his customer’s preferences-at Lush, customers can record their tasting notes and purchase history on the store’s computer systems-and will get them what they need. A customer recently came in looking for a Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon for a party. They discussed price, and then Einhorn went to work scouring Web sites and wine lists, finally locating and flying in the selection overnight.
The tasting program at Lush also sets it apart from big-box retailers. Einhorn wanted to echo the early traditions of Napa Valley where tastings were complimentary and an opportunity to demonstrate winemaking hospitality. Instead of waiting for a weekly tasting “where they charge you 40 dollars to come in and taste 20 wines” customers can try many of the Lush offerings anytime for free. Einhorn said, “It [the wine] shouldn’t be a surprise when you get home, like God I hope I like this.”
Just like with his commitment to food quality at the Twisted Spoke, Einhorn knew that Lush must provide a superior tasting experience. In order to do that, Einhorn had to buy a commercial dishwasher that cost “an extra $5,000” and a three-compartment sink to meet city guidelines. He also made a significant investment in high-quality Riedel glassware, saying “When you go to a winery, they’re not going to make you taste in little disposable plastic cups.”
Einhorn anticipates that in the spring they’ll move Lush to one of the newly rehabbed buildings across from the current store, and open up a wine garden with a French-style crepe stand, where customers can picnic and drink their wine purchases with glassware loaned from the store.
Einhorn who’s opening another branch of Lush in Roscoe Village “around Thanksgiving” chose the University Village location because “the demographics of the area were changing dramatically, and there weren’t a lot of wine purchasing options.”
When pressed for further details, Einhorn laughed and said, “I’m just pulling it out of my butt. Actually it was more like, ‘Hey there are some new houses over there. They’re kind of expensive. Someone living there can probably afford a bottle of wine.’ ”
“We’re not like Starbucks or McDonald’s with a scouting demographic and research department,” he added, noting that he focuses on areas where there is a good concentration of people, but not so dense that you can’t stop your car and get out.
Showing that he still hasn’t lost his trademark irreverence with this more serious venture, Einhorn mused, “maybe we could use satellite imagery to detect the empty wineglasses in the neighborhood.”
This article first appeared in the Chicago Journal in a slightly different form