As early as a decade ago, options to taste wine at a wine bar or wine shop in Milwaukee—a city more celebrated for its craft-beer scene than vino—were minimal. Today, however, a mix of wine bars, wine-retail boutiques and restaurants open their doors to wine geeks. Whether it’s a grand multi-course dinner paired with wines (presided over by the winemaker) or a drop-in tasting at the bar, here’s where to learn more about the difference between Chardonnay and Charbono and Merlot and Montepulciano. You might even pick up some food-pairing tips to help make your next party a crowd pleaser.
This Brady Street wine boutique hosts seminars every month. For example, “The Power Packed Wines of France” was a recent topic. Thee are also festivals throughout the year, like a Rose Festival and Champagne Bubbly Festival, where the shop is turned into a walk-around tasting, and winemaker dinners. Sign up for its newsletter, which contains details (including the wines poured) about classes and wine-tasting events. Owner Ben Christiansen got his entrée into wine while cooking at fine-dining restaurants like Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago and Dream Dance in Milwaukee, as well as managing the wine list at Milwaukee’s Café Vecchio Mondo.
With two locations—the Milwaukee Public Market in the Historic Third Ward and Oakland Avenue in downtown Shorewood—Thief Wine doubles as a place to buy wine by the bottle as well as sip wine by the glass alongside nibbles like artisanal cheese and charcuterie plates. Flights of wine are a really good way to experience different expressions of the same grape. Four drop-in-style tastings are held each month, often with a visiting winemaker, plus the annual Spring Grand Tasting, held in the Milwaukee Public Market and limited to just 125 people to ensure it isn’t too crowded. Recent themed tastings include “Masterful Malbec” and “Rosé-Palooza.” Co-owners Phil Bilodeau and Aimee Murphy lived and worked in California wine country before relocating to Milwaukee to open Thief Wine in 2008.
Located in Hartland, this wine store offers a wine club. And the best part of being in that wine club is when you drop by to pick up your bottles on Friday night from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. That’s when there’s a “pick up party,” meaning that the wines included in the assortment are uncorked and you get to sample them. What better way to know what to open first back at your house—and to pair with what meals?
Although Ray’s has been operating as a liquor store since 1961, only recently did it morph into a major destination for wine lovers. Troll the aisles and it’s easy to see that the owners and staff know their wine. The Growler Gallery & Wine Bar hosts wine tasting and events. (Tip: sign up quickly as they often sell out.) Topics addressed this spring include “Piedmont: Italy’s King of Quality,” “A Tasting Tour of Spain” and “The Return of the Patio Pounders.”
Wine Cellar of Wisconsin in Elm Grove hosts Spotlight tastings on Friday nights that introduce you to a winery’s portfolio. This spring the crop includes Wagner Family (behind California labels like Conundrum, Mer Soleil, and Caymus), Duckhorn Vineyards (Napa Valley, Calif.) and Warre (Portugal producer from Portugal). On May 21 is the “Pinot Party! Grand Wine Tasting.”
This family-owned restaurant group hosts wine dinners at a few of its eateries, including Bacchus on Milwaukee’s Lower East Side, Harbor House next to the Milwaukee Art Museum, and Lake Park Bistro on the East Side. Foodies won’t be disappointed as the courses are thoughtfully constructed, culling from seasonal, top-notch ingredients. Often, the winery’s owner or winemaker presides over the event, giving you an opportunity to ask questions and learn even more about the wines you’re sipping. This spring the wine dinners include Napa Valley’s Priest Ranch at Bacchus, an Italian Winemakers dinner at Bacchus (featuring four different wineries from Italy) and Champagne Jacquart at Lake Park Bistro. Menus are always posted online—start salivating. Former Green Bay Packers player Charles Woodson, who owns a winery in Napa (TwentyFour by Charles Woodson), is a frequent host, too.
In 2013, a Milwaukee location for this Oconomowoc-based, food-focused wine bar popped up in Walker’s Point, right on the river. While wine dinners are hosted on occasion (check its website to stay in the loop), the Street Sommelier program is just for wine geeks. The five-class series instructs on how to properly pair wine with food and includes two food courses, each paired with three wines.
There are quite a few restaurants in Milwaukee and its suburbs that host wine dinners sporadically throughout the year. They include Easy Tyger (East Side of Milwaukee), Parkside 23 (Brookfield), Artisan 179 (Pewaukee), Mason Street Grill (downtown Milwaukee), Milwaukee ChopHouse (downtown Milwaukee), The Capital Grille (downtown Milwaukee) and the Milwaukee Art Museum.