The Public Market in Milwaukee’s old Third Ward just may be my new favorite hangout when I return to Wisconsin to visit my dad. This is the second time I have ventured out from my little cow town into the ever-invigorating fringes of downtown. New or old, eastside or north, Milwaukee has always had a hold on me.
I attended college there not too long ago and really fell hard for its funky character. A precursor to New York City, Milwaukee, like most large cities, is a patchwork of personalities, neighborhoods and culture. Back then, I worked in a large independent bookstore (much like Denver’s Tattered Cover), took my scarf-wrapped self to several poetry discussions, threw on my chuck’s and went to the ‘edgy’ riverwest neighborhood for an underground concert, caught independent film festivals at Landmark theatres on Downer and the old Oriental on North, perused the rickety racks at some of my favorite vintage clothing shops and discovered my love for running along Lake Drive where the old mansions hug Lake Michigan. Back then, as an undergrad, I was just fine with cheap Chianti as I slurped my meatless spaghetti noodles. But had I even wanted to get geeky, that was one corner of culture Milwaukee could not boast to really have grasp on quite yet. I mean, come on, it is home to Laverne and Shirley, Schlitz, Miller…not to forget the now-so-retro, popular Pabst.
What I learned the last time I visited Milwaukee, just a couple months ago for my dad’s 70th birthday, was that along with the rest of the country, that had changed. Even bratwurst-eating, Packer fans were developing a taste for the vine. Alright, perhaps that wasn’t the target audience, but still… The cheeseheads had arrived.
Despite the several shops and bars that had tried to make it work in the past, two people from Sonoma sleuthed the country for the perfect place to percolate their dream. It didn’t take long for them to realize this place was Milwaukee. There was a need and demographic of curious palates anxious to have someone help them with their hobby. The place? Thief Wine. A wine shop and bar whose design is as clever as its name, which refers to a ‘barrel thief’–a tube used in the cellar to draw wine for sampling from a barrel.
The woman behind the counter that I spoke with during my visit was exceedingly friendly and interesting. As she dried each glass, she admitted that she was one of many who attempted a wine shop and bar of her own but struggled to keep its doors open. She discovered a great opportunity to manage the Public Market location as Thief Wine looked to expand. She was very knowledgeable and passionate–two vital ingredients to facilitate the success of any wine locale but especially so in a city where the industry is still in its infancy.
Like last time, we took advantage of their 2 oz flights–small glasses of wine tasters for the adventurous, skeptical or merely attention deficit palate. Alongside my deep fried cheese curds and turkey dumpling soup, I sampled a couple oddball whites and a sensational super-tuscan red. The first, an ‘08 Quattro Mani ‘Toh-kai’ from Slovenia boasted an array of aromas from white peach and lemon curd to bright strawberries, gardenias, honeysuckle and almond. It was a lovely sipper that couldn’t have retailed for more than $15.
The next, an equally good value, was an ‘07 Villa Matilde Falanghina from Campania. Here, the grape was Falanghina–ubiquitous for its high rating on the dork dial. A pleasant clash of earthy mushrooms and honey on the nose, it somehow seemed to pull itself together on the palate. Returning again to the rim, I discovered more hushed melodies of wet leaves, stone and briny olives. A perfect cheese plate wine, but it could stand up to several entrees that one might normally think to reserve for reds (marinara-based fare as well as mushroomy cream coddled dishes to name a couple).
I ended on a powerful note with the ‘01 Fuligni ‘S.J.’ Toscana. This blend of 80% Sangiovese and 20% Cabernet caused my jaw to drop when I learned that it retailed for a mere $20. A solid, aged Italian that demonstrated complex layers of dried sour cherries, tobacco, plums, cinnamon, clove, leather and dusty tannins is near impossible to find. Trust me, I have tried. And here it was on their ‘by the glass’ selection for $11 a glass. It was a great little find that left me more than impressed with the brains behind the bar.
Strolling through their little shop next to the bar (they are allowed to do that in Milwaukee–not Denver, sadly), I was titillated to find a fantastic, small selection of wine that had everything from unique, well-thought out $10 wines from around the world to a rather wide selection of Cheateauneuf du Pape, Cru Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne, boutique California labels, large format wine, ports, Madeiras and stickies.
Did I mention this was all within a 300 square foot space? Maybe tack on 200 more to include a full service bar. Incredible.
Not only did their first location in the Milwaukee Public Market thrive, they have now branched out to Shorewood–my old stomping ground, just a couple miles away from the University. I have yet to lay my eyes on this apparently exceptional space, complete with a wrap-around library rolling ladder in the back, wine bottle light fixtures and cork decor. Had I known just hours in advance, I would have surely fit this into the itinerary. Alas, I have a new priority on my next visit.
If you live in the Milwaukee area, don’t pass up this shop. They have a great education program ranging in price and experience. These are people who want to help you regardless of the amount you want to spend. Here, it is about sharing a passion and helping you navigate your hobby. Not many cities are blessed with such an inspiring space.
I only wish there legally could be a place like Thief Wine in Denver. But until legislation evolves, wine shops, bars and education are difficult to synergize.