When Dean Schlabowske isn’t rockin’ a honky tonk with the Waco Brothers or belting out a line from “Scrap Truck, ” a track off the new CD from his other band, Dollar Store, the guitar-playing singer-songwriter can be found at the front counter of a wine store—his wine store.
Located in a downstairs space in a little shopping strip on North Avenue in Bucktown, he opened Cellar Rat Wine Shop at the end of April. He named it after an old slang term given to a candle stand of spiraled metal that wine-cellar workers in Burgundy once used to illuminate their subterranean surroundings. (To see what a cellar rat looks like, check out Schlabowske’s latest tat—he had the candle stand indelibly inked on his left forearm a few months ago.)
Although the music did come first—he’s been playing clubs since he was 14—Schlabowske’s logged some serious time in the wine world, too, including a decade handling French imports for Sam’s Wine & Spirits. But he’s always wanted to own his own shop, and to infuse it with the same attitude that he brings to his bands. The sign in his window says it all: Corporate Wine Still Sucks.
With music, he says, “huge record labels have to sign acts they know will have max appeal—they can’t afford to be on the fringes.” Same with wine. “It’s not that wineries owned by corporations don’t make good wine—they do,” he clarifies. “But the mentality about how you make decisions changes, it’s all about matching flavor profiles and market shares as opposed to smaller producers who are making wine because they have a passionate belief that wines from this area should taste like this.”
Which is why Cellar Rat is stocked with the crème de la quaint—independent producers, small wineries, limited productions. Where it gets big is with value. Not only is there a giant table laden with selections priced at $10 and under, but Schlabowske’s expertise, which he offers to everyone who ventures in, guarantees a perfect pairing, regardless of price.
“I want to make the place feel welcoming, not snooty, like you’re browsing in a cool record store,” Schlabowske says. Next to a funky 1950s lamp, a young couple is carefully comparing two bottles. “Small,” he concludes before heading over to help them, “is beautiful.” (Jenny B. Davis)
Cellar Rat Wine Shop is located at 1811 West North, (773)489-C-RAT (2728).