I was reading The Wine Enthusiast magazine last night to find out what I should know about varying alcoholic beverages beyond just the command "swallow" when I came across something that made me very happy - that wasn't a full glass either. It was the 2005 Wine Enthusiast Retailer of the Year. They gave it to Sam's Wine & Spirits out of Chicago - my favorite wine and liquour store since 1976 - the year I even started drinking anything at all. The store is now tens of thousands of square feet of 8600 wines (Costco has 200 plus) and countless other "harder" alcoholic beverages - ranging from specialty single malt scotches to more beers than exist on earth - so I think they have some alien brews - Marsfest or Jupiter's Ale or whatever - too. The article takes about their approach to the customer which is what Sam's calls "experiential retailing." They've got a sophisticated program for it that includes wine courses, and special dinners and tastings, an active web presence, discounts for a membership club and a host of other services provide the experience that customers have come to expect of Sam's.
But they are so much more than that. They started as a saloon - okay, the longest bar in Chicago in the 1940s and evolved through the ownership of Sam Rosen to the greatest wine, and liquor store I ever saw. I knew the old man. In their tiny maybe 2000 square foot store in 1977 or so, he would stand at the front and chat with me, a lansman (fellow Jewish fellow) about his buddy, the then Prime Minister of Israel, Menachim Begun and he would pull out this photo album of "him and Menachim" at one event or another. His wine sommelier - lead guy - was Leo Silverman whose son, Howard and I became buddies. I remember particularly that after Sam's closed for the night, Howard would tell me to hang around and we'd sit on wooden crates and open bottles of great wines and talk politics, wine and whatever for hours. He was a fantastic person who was a bit cynical about politics and doing social good but he was a good human being who helped me learn what great wines were - trockenbeerenausleses from Germany, sauternes and cabernet sauvignon from Bordeaux - especially a great 1st or 2nd growth or two and even some of the greatest dessert wines in the world that were from unknown climes - like the Tokay Essencia from Hungary. I still remember those crate conversations with a great deal of fondness. It certainly was a harbinger of what Sam's was to become and why to this day it treats its thousands of customers like they treated me when they were a lot smaller and less well known. The customer experience at Sam's is two crates - one customer at a time. Bravo, Sam's. You deserve it.