Alpana Singh stands in front of her upcoming River North restaurant The… (Lenny Gilmore )
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.