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Three Chicago Sommeliers Disrupt the Wine World With Inclusivity and Heart

Slik Wines hosts a series of wine education events around Chicago

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Natural or low-intervention wines are the name of the game.
Barry Brecheisen/Eater Chicago

Slik co-founder and instructor Danielle Norris drains her small jar of Marland Wine’s 100 percent chardonnay from Fenneville, Michigan. About halfway through her Zoom course and tasting on wines from the Mitten, she replenishes it with Left Foot Charley Blaufrankisch, a peppery red wine from Traverse City, and queues up “Old Time Rock n Roll” by Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band.

“Just take that Blaufrankisch off the shelf!” she croons in time with Seger. “With this class, I wanted to do a grape that was familiar and a grape that was a bit of a stretch,” she said. “Blaufrankisch is an Austrian grape, but it does really well up there on the Old Mission Peninsula of Michigan.”

This blend of humor and digestible education is what to expect from a pay-what-you-can blind tasting or regional wine course from Slik, the wine event and education platform that aims to tear down wine education and rebuild it from the ground up. Marie Cheslik, Slik Wines’ founder and partial namesake, has seen more than enough of wine’s pretentious side.

“Inaccessibility is the problem we’ve had all along with wine,” says Cheslik, a sommelier and former wine director at Michelin-starred Elske. “I’d rather Slik be fun and approachable from the start. Wine is for everyone. There’s no need to take ourselves so seriously.”

Slik debuted in August as an education and events platform, embracing the necessary shift to safer virtual experiences amid a global pandemic. Yet the key to breaking down long-standing barriers to understanding wine remains one of the main tenets of the hospitality industry: putting people at ease. That’s why Cheslik tapped fellow sommeliers and hospitality veterans Norris, a sales representative at Cream Wines, and fellow Elske alum Kyla Peal, as co-founders — all three women bring serious wine knowledge without the pretense.

They take big sips and don’t spit them out; they use transition words like “groovy,” and poll the audience when they’re unsure of pronunciations. They post pictures of the winemakers they’re featuring and note their likeness to the singer Michael McDonald or their penchant for Smash Mouth, a band whose frontman looks a lot like food TV personality Guy Fieri. They pull up Wikipedia on their shared screens to nerd out on soil differences between northern Michigan (sandy loam) and Austria (clay). Above all, they keep the pleasure of wine drinking as the focal point by always asking: “Do you guys like this wine?”

“There are great structural things to going through a certification like the Court of Master Sommeliers, but people have a much better time if we are ourselves,” Cheslik says. “What is going to help people approach your ‘unapproachable’ topic is if you put yourselves out there to make them laugh, feel comfy — all the things hospitality is supposed to be. Sure, we’re going to talk about wine, but it’s also going to be comedy improv hour.”

Cheslik refers to the court — the world-renowned organization of wine experts whose members face a variety of disturbing allegations including a pattern of sexual harassment and abuse. With that backdrop, it makes sense to take a different approach. So far, Slik is seeing the most potential with virtual events held for investment firms and ad agencies. Companies with solid profit margins, intact budgets, and staff still working from home are still looking for ways to woo prospective clients, celebrate a positive quarter, and boost employee morale without the option of booking ritzy client dinners or convening happy hours.

Building a solid foundation in private corporate events gives Slik the latitude to host the less-lucrative public tastings and support restaurant friends whose businesses have been devastated by the pandemic and subsequent, roving dining room closures. Recent events included a virtual chianti and burgers package and pairing class at Cafe Marie-Jeanne (the now shuttered French restaurant in Humboldt Park), and a to-go farm dinner pairing at Lula Cafe (Logan Square’s go-to all-day restaurant). Later in December, Slik will pop up at Kasama in Ukrainian Village.

“This is about reaching out to our friends, like help us help you,” Cheslik says. “It’s not a huge moneymaker, but it puts us in the realm of where we want to be. We’re all friends in this industry; we wanna support each other.”

It also lays the groundwork for outsourcing classes, blind tastings and consultations to restaurant sommeliers and wine directors as Slik expands its reach. The founders can relate, being freelancers themselves; by day, Cheslik is a registered nurse, Norris is a wine distribution rep, and Peal is opening Verve Wine shop’s Chicago location.

“The goal was always to get to a point where we have too much work,” Cheslik says. “This would be a way of outsourcing the creative aspect. We’re a guild with a special skill set representing 30 percent of sales for most restaurants. That’s a skill you can outsource, too.”

Slik plans to debut a wine club in January — a venture that’s been on the founders’ minds since June. As a preemptive step, it will put together three holiday wine packages featuring bottles handpicked by each of the founders.

As a queer woman, Cheslik acknowledges the pressure of becoming a spokesperson for wine’s marginalized players: “I’m not oblivious to what we look like,” Cheslik says.

The spotlight will no doubt shine brighter as the wine industry’s upper echelons stare down a reckoning since the aforementioned New York Times report that resulted in the suspension of seven men. No matter leadership’s reaction, Cheslik says that support must start from within. On a recent Friday night, all three Slik came together on the sprawling back patio of Logan Square bottle shop/bar Easy Does It to host “Orange Wine 101” for about 20 attendees, a quarter of whom had never tried orange wine. The first pour was Enderle & Moll Pur, an elegant, cloudy low-intervention wine (also known as natural; “wine made from unadulterated fermented grape juice) from Germany; the second a brasher, Tang-hued wine called Zero Point Zero from Oregon’s Willamette Valley that tasted like oversteeped black tea.

“What do you all smell?” Norris booms from behind her mask.

“Sour honey,” replies one attendee.

“The second one smells like mac and cheese!” calls another from the back, just before an elevated Blue Line train car rumbled by overhead.

“Oh yeah, definitely parmesan or cheddar — you’re not crazy,” Cheslik replies. The observations stopped, so she went on: “You know who makes a great wine flavor wheel? WineFolly.com. Because in the moment, it can be really hard to find the words to describe what something tastes like — you know, like tropical or red fruit. But tasting wine critically is like playing an instrument. You’re not going to pick up a guitar and play a solo; you gotta learn the scales first.”

“Oh, she’s good,” Peal whispers to Norris, snapping her fingers in praise.

Kasama

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