It's 10 a.m. Do you know where your sommelier is?
If she's anything like Alpana Singh, she's already cracked her first bottle—for work, of course.
This summer, Singh has been busy tasting more than 1,000 wines to narrow her selection for the 300 or so varieties she'll put on the menu at The Boarding House, a multi-level restaurant she's opening in River North at 720 N. Wells St. with her partners later this month.
"I've been doing wine tastings in the party room of my building," said Singh, 35, who lives in the Gold Coast. "I'm sharing a room with a woman who works tutoring all these children ... They'll be in the middle of a reading lesson while I'm sitting there with 30 bottles of wine and then the parents come in."
It's a workload that can be a little hard to explain, especially if it's been a red wine-heavy afternoon. Purple teeth just come with the job.
"It's terrible," Singh said. "I actually keep a jar of baking soda on my vanity to get rid of stains."
One of the youngest certified Master Sommeliers when she passed the wine expert credentialing exam in 2003, Singh has become known locally for her jobs as former wine and spirits director with Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises and current host of PBS show "Check, Please!" (Singh is also a former contributing columnist to RedEye.)
In 2011, she left LEYE to open her own restaurant—a spot she hopes will draw in both veteran wine lovers and vino virgins. But first, diners will have to get past the intimidation factor that sometimes comes with wine bars. She may have a fancy title, but Singh is anything but intimidating.
"Any notion that you 'don't know anything about wine'—stop saying that," said Singh, whose breezy personality is punctuated with big, room-stopping laughs. "Just, stop. Never say it again."
People can easily describe how they like their coffee or which flavor of milkshake they want, yet they're hesitant to tell a sommelier what they prefer to taste in their wine, afraid that their taste isn't refined enough.
"It's the industry's fault," Singh said. "But there is a generation of sommeliers out there working to take the intimidation out of it."
Singh points to New York import Jason Wagner, a sommelier working with both Nellcote and recently opened RM Champagne Salon, as part of that new generation.
"Hats off to him," Singh said. "I go in there and ... you see nightlife and stilettos and yet you see bottles of wine." It's that kind of attitude toward wine that Singh hopes she'll find at The Boarding House, especially in the first-floor lounge. The restaurant space is spread over five levels, with the lounge serving as a more laid-back, light-bites environment coutnered by the more formal dining area on the building's third floor.
"You walk in [the first floor] and it's mostly a bar—a big square bar so you can see and talk—and communal tables," Singh said.
Since she's been selecting wines at the same time that they've been tasting food from the kitchen, Singh has been able to ask chef Christian Gosselin to tweak sauces and preparations until the wines and dishes are a perfect match. With the wine program, she hopes to focus on what's hot right now in the wine industry while balancing the trends with classics. Real wine junkies will want to follow Singh—a huge Twitter and Instagram addict—at @alpanasingh for updates on by-the-glass offerings on older vintages that might not normally be accessible.
"If we do get a three-liter or magnum of something special, I'll say, 'Hey listen, I'm pouring this right now, come in and try it.' " Singh said.
With most 20somethings in Chicago living without access to a wine cellar—or the money to stash away pricier bottles—Singh hopes these by-the-glass options will give younger folks a chance to expand their drinking horizons.
Above all, she hopes that no one will walk away from The Boarding House without finding a new favorite wine—no matter the price.
"People need to stop thinking 'Wow, I can only have a good wine if I spend $130' ... That's so not true," Singh said. "Don't look at the price and think that if you're getting a $38 bottle you're missing out on an experience—no, I tried 1,000 wines. I put that bottle on there for a reason—because it's good."
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Alpana's top wine tips
Still need help hitting your wine stride? Check out more tips from Alpana for wine newbies:
1. Stop drinking warm reds. "The biggest sin against wine is a warm red wine," Singh said. At The Boarding House, reds will be served at 55 degrees. "Any red that's been sitting in my home, it's going to go into the fridge for about 15 minutes to bring it down in temperature," Singh said. So those girls dunking ice cubes in their red wine? Not so crazy after all.
2. Sauvignon blanc is like Zooey Deschanel. Singh has spent a lot of time doing wine seminars, and one tried and true way to help staff members remember different varieties is to compare them to celebrities. "If I say cabernet is like George Clooney—classic, suave—they'll get it," Singh said. Pinot noir? Think Audrey Hepburn or Kate Middleton: refined, delicate and feminine. "Someone might accuse me of dumbing it down, but did you not understand what I just said?" Singh asks. "Well, then it's incredibly smart."
3. It's OK to buy wine at 7-Eleven. If you're in a pinch at a drugstore or gas station, always go for sauvignon blanc. "It's really hard to screw it up," said Singh, who's been known to order it at a dive bar.
4. The key to preventing hangovers is hydration. Like anyone will tell you, water always helps. Singh likes to down some extra vitamin B12 after a big night out.
5. Better know a winemaker: Even if you're just having a glass, one of the best ways to get to know a wine is to hear the story behind it. "Ask about the story, the region or the winemaker ... it really adds to the experience," Singh said. "When I tell you about the human face ... the mom and dad and grandkids and family dog ... how can you not like the wine a little bit more?" Singh said.
6. Never go through immigration hungover. Singh has been known to choose her overseas airlines based on whether they have free wine service. But she'll refrain if she knows she'll be landing in the morning after a long flight. "The last thing you want to do is go through immigration hungover," Singh said. "That is the worst feeling."
7. Don't be ashamed of your Two-Buck Chuck. Singh suggests going to a restaurant or bar with a basic idea of a white or red that you've really liked in the past so the sommelier can give recommendations based on your tastes. "Go in and tell them that you drink a lot of malbec at home, even if it's something cheap from Trader Joe's," Singh said. "I'm very happy people found something they can afford to drink on a nightly basis—that means you've found something you enjoy."
8. If you're ever invited to Alpana's apartment, don't panic. "People get really nervous about bringing wine over to our house for a dinner party," Singh said. "A gift is a gift—now I just tell them to bring whiskey. They always feel relieved."