For years now, I’ve been touting the virtues of buying from small producers and local shops to support good values with our food dollars. In general, we should be more conscious of what we consume because it matters. But I had not really thought that much about wine consumption/production—that is, until I met Andrea Hillsey, one of the owners of Square Wine Company in Madison.
Andrea and her life partner, Ashley Parr, met at Purdue University. Like many of us, their undergraduate schooling and subsequent graduate studies took them hither and yond, but they eventually returned to Wisconsin to set down roots and for Andrea to open her wine shop.
It is a bit unique for a Midwestern girl to really find her groove in wine. It happened while Andrea was an undergrad. She found herself needing to fulfill some pesky credit requirements outside of her field of study. A “Wine Appreciation” class filled one requirement and ended up the class she felt she got the most out of that semester. So her graduate studies turned from physical therapy to the hospitality field. She landed at Florida International University in Miami and worked for a man named Jeffrey Wolfe in his wine shop in Coral Gables. It was under Wolfe’s tutelage that Andrea learned about what went into making great wine and how to cultivate relationships with the producers and purveyors. After finishing her graduate program, she went to work for a small vineyard in Oregon (Chehalem Vineyards) for eight weeks during their grape harvest.
Fast-forward to 2012, and her dream became reality with the opening of Square Wine Company. Her goal in opening the store was to educate people about good wine and good practices in wine production. While we were chatting, numerous shoppers came in to consult with Andrea on a wine they needed for this or that event. As I listened in, it was obvious that these shoppers knew Andrea and trusted her knowledge base of the wines in her shop. And they should; she is a certified sommelier.
“I want to sell wines that are not only good tasting wines, but also wines that we can all feel good about drinking,” Andrea explained. She went on to tell me about how many of the big wine producers were making their wines, and believe me, it was both shocking and then again not shocking at all. In short, they strip away most of the unique qualities of the wine (like naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria) and then add in things like “mega purple” and “oak powder” (Google these terms for further fascinating reading), so that a bottle of wine made in 2006 will taste the same as a bottle that was made in 2013. Which is exactly how most Americans want it. It’s pretty sad really. Why not enjoy a wine for what is was meant to taste like? Wine is not Coca Cola, after all.
This was a fascinating journey that Andrea took me on. I felt extremely lucky to have been privy to my very own private wine tasting/wine class. I learned that these small wine producers have a lot to offer. And again, by buying these wines, our money goes to support a way of life that is good for the grower, the planet, and the consumers. Luckily for our readers, Square Wine Company offers wine tastings and classes throughout the year—see their website. And don’t be afraid to visit the store and chat with Andrea if you’re in Madison. She possesses a sea of knowledge regarding wines. Also, don’t presume that this is a shop where only deep pockets need explore. Her wines range in price from $9 to over $100. I walked out with a very moderately priced wine that she recommended from Washington, and I can honestly say that it was one of the finest bottles of wine that I’ve had here in the states.
Jeanne Benink is a Madison chef and the sole owner of Simply Served Personal Chef Service. Her friends often call her the soup guru, and she truly does have passion for exploring soups and stews from all over the world. You can find her online at simplyservedpersonalchef.com