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Why A Top Chicago Wine Bar Is About To Get Even Better

By John Lenart in Food on Sep 10, 2015 4:00PM


“I'll be your liquid translator, I'll be your tour guide.”

That's how Christy Fuhrman, Vera's new sommelier, explains her role.

After the departure of one of our 2014 Buzz-Worthy Somms, Patti Robison, to SPQR in San Francisco, Fuhrman is taking over the reins at what is arguably one of Chicago's best wine bars. Fuhrman comes to Vera by way of Eataly's Baffo. Prior to that she did stints at Binny's and Charlie Trotter's.

Now, when you think of a sommelier you just might imagine the old dude in the tailored suit with a tastevin—that big, silver, medallion-looking thing, hanging around his neck—looking down his nose at you disapprovingly while you make your wine selection. Well I gotta tell you, the well-tattooed, hip looking Fuhrman blows that image up and sweeps it out the door. As much as she differs in looks from sommeliers of the old days, her easy going, fun attitude about wine might differ even more.

“One of the reasons I knew Christy would be good for the job, but also for eventually taking over the vision for this list, is because of her demeanor," says Liz Mendez, Vera's owner. "Every time I've had any interaction with Christy she's been nothing but gracious and humble,”

Coming from Eataly, where she enjoyed working closely with great Italian wines, Fuhrman tells me she's happy to be working with a more global wine list again. “I missed France, I missed Spain, I missed Portugal,” she explains.

The list at Baffo excited her but “I was running a 600 bottle program. You can't know it inside and out. But with a smaller list, like Vera's, I can have a more intimate knowledge of the wine and that's great for the customer,” says Fuhrman.

While Vera is a wine bar, it's also a place that is about the food. But, unlike many restaurants, the food isn't placed in front of the wine, but rather, beside it.

“One of the things that sets Vera apart is that our chef cooks for wine. And when I found out that Christy worked for Charlie Trotter, I felt good about the fit because Charlie cooked for wine and you don't hear that much anymore,” says Mendez.

And it's that knowledge of wine and food together that Fuhrman brings to guests.

Wine can be intimidating, especially wines from faraway places like Italy and Spain. They've got hard to pronounce names and labels filled with long words and phrases like, “DenominaciĆ³n de Origen Calificada.” Combine that with picking a bottle from a list of wines you've never heard of before and it can leave you reeling. But that's where the somm comes in.

In her easy going way Fuhrman helps guests pick the perfect bottle. “For us to be able to get guests talking and be able to listen, you'd be amazed at how it can open a door for us to find something new for them to love,” says Fuhrman.

And you won't even need an encyclopedic knowledge of wine terms. “I usually start by asking, 'What do you like to drink? Do you like a little more fruit or a little more earth? Do you want something that's fuller or a little leaner?'" she explains. "And just start digging in and asking the questions and pulling out the answers that maybe they just don't know how to articulate, even though they know what they like to drink,”

After that the ball is in Fuhrman's court. “And so I take those little pieces and put them together and find something from the list that's similar to what they drink but is a little different. And that makes for an exciting conversation. And that's where I can geek out a little bit and tell them this is why it's like that, this is where it's from and they get to learn a little something too.”

Next time you find yourself looking at a list and not knowing what to do, just ask for the sommelier. It's really that easy. You won't be judged, and in fact, talking about wine is what sommeliers love to do.

“Christy and I aren't in the business of wine, we're in the business of hospitality. Because it is all about being hospitable to the guest and making the guest feel at home,” explains Mendez.

So you see, there's no need to let those big foreign words get in your way to finding a great wine that you'll love. Next time you're at Vera just ask your “liquid translator” for a little help.