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Schlabowske's been in the business for years; for the last four or so he headed up the French wine department at Sam's and before that he was a buyer at Wine Discount Center. Owning his own store's been a longtime dream: "I've done this for 17 years and--without tooting my own horn too much--I'm pretty good at it and I wanted to have a place of my own, and make my own money. There's definitely a ceiling to what you can do in a big retail shop."
He teamed up with Steve Kopka, the owner of Lemmings, the Green Eye Lounge, and the Underbar, as well as Bar Vertigo on Western (which will reopen as the Blind Robin later this spring), and they started looking for a storefront about a year and a half ago. Liquor licensing being what it is, though, it wasn't easy at first. In their target area of Wicker Park, Bucktown, and Ukranian Village, most of the thoroughfares with the proper commercial zoning had liquor-license moratoriums in place. "I got a little discouraged," he said, until he saw the storefront at North and Wood on his way to work one day--and then "everything all worked out."
"Corporate wine still sucks" reads a motto on the Cellar Rat Web site; Schlabowske's focus is on bottles from small, family-owned producers using organic and traditional techniques. "Not only is focusing on these smaller artisanal producers good from the standpoint that the wines are more unique and more interesting," he says, "they're also better values." He cites a bottle he opened yesterday from Petite Cassagne, a French organic grower south of Nimes. A blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Carignan grapes, it's "full-bodied, earthy, dry, and spicy"--and retails for $10.99. "What you'd typically get from a big California winery at $10.99," he says, "is sort of factory-made and kind of bland." Any given day of the week, he says, there'll be bottles open for tasting, and he's planning to launch a formal Tuesday-night tasting series sometime soon.
The store had its grand opening Saturday, and while Kopka helps out with marketing and business planning, right now it's a one-man show. "I do everything," says Schlabowske. "I do the buying and the selling, and I also clean the toilet."