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DJ Howard, the dynamic sommelier of City Winery Chicago. Beyond the pouring of wines, DJ is a queer 2-spirit storyteller, deeply connected to the roots of his Potawatomi heritage. His journey into the world of wines is marked by a profound curiosity for cultures and origin stories. In this article, we unravel the tale of a poet turned sommelier, delving into his unique approach to wine education and customer experiences. Join us as we explore how DJ Howard merges the art of storytelling, his love for diverse literature, and a deep passion for wine to create memorable moments at City Winery Chicago.
Hi, I’m DJ! I’m a queer, 2-spirit storyteller turned wino. At birth, my mother adopted me into the Potawatomi tribe, which gave me a deep curiosity for cultures. I am fascinated by origin stories and histories. A fascination that drove me to learn the language of wine. I also love to read. I think there’s so much to learn about the world in fiction. When I’m not reading books or drinking wine, you can find me dancing to Taylor Swift, reading astrological charts, or sitting in the front row at the theatre.
As a lifelong poet, wine to me is its own language. From harvest to glass, every bottle has its own story. It’s an honor to be able to share their secrets with my guests. I also love learning and the language of wine is constantly evolving. I guess I’m a broad-minded thinker, and studying wine has really educated me, I’ve learned geography, biology, and history, really there’s an infinite amount of knowledge about the wine and the world; I never get bored.
What do you typically drink?
What do you like to eat?
Do you have a favorite taste; bitter, sweet, acidic, umami, salty, sour?
What type of fruit do you smell?
Where are you going after this?
What’s the weather like?
The most important skill as a sommelier would definitely be having a sense of curiosity. As a sommelier, we are constantly having to ask questions. I think too there needs to be a lot of self-confidence and decisiveness. Tasting wine for me is a bit meditative, a good sommelier acts almost as a median between the wine and the client, so we need to be somewhat a poet to provide voice to the wine. What’s different about selling wine than anything else is that I feel like a good sommelier has to possess a collaborative spirit. After all wine is best tasted in a group.
I would start them off with a blind tasting. I’d teach them that identifying wine is a combination of play and sensory memory. Wine is all about indulging your senses. We’d get a good conversation going on the aromatics of wine. Primary, secondary, tertiary. Then I’d teach them about the palate, differences between tannins and acid, alcohol content, and balance. Once we got good at differentiating basic varietals, I’d want to add food into the mix so that by day seven everyone would be able to make solid pairings.
City Winery Chicago is a fully functional winery, since the majority of our wine is consumed on-site, I think we only bottle about 10%. Those bottles can age a bit longer and are branded as our reserve collection. I think there’s some allure in that rarity. It also helps to have a good graphic designer on your team. I remember before the pandemic we had a series of wines labeled after some of the neighborhoods in Chicago, with iconic images of the neighborhoods (Andersonville Chardonnay, West Loop Red, Hyde Park Pinot). They really sold! It became a kind of collector edition. In addition to winemaking, City Winery is also a concert venue. For most shows, we offer artist wine, which is our red blend & has a picture of the artist on the label. Guests can purchase them signed and fans really get a kick out of that. Aside from marketing though, I think it’s really important to know the palate of your guests and anticipate what food pairings they’d enjoy.
I learned so much from Pete’s Fresh Market. Truly the weekly trip to the grocery store is my personal field work. I smell everything. And I think, asking questions is important. I’m fortunate to work with an accomplished winemaker, who can answer anything thrown at her. In addition to that, I love to read. I read probably as much as I drink, which, is also a fun way to improve skills.
I love that City Winery is the whole package. We’re not just a restaurant, we’re a concert venue too and we showcase a wide range of talent. I love the diversity of our guests and our staff. Being part of the winemaking process is cool too. And of course, free shows!
Let’s face it, wine can be intimidating. A lot of guests who I serve are experiencing wine for the first time. It’s my goal to get them to relax. I do this by telling stories. “Ah, the Bacigalupi Pinot noir, I remember when we got the grapes in for that wine. Because, at City Winery, we all work together during crush season, to sort the grapes, pick out bad fruit and any other little critters...and that batch, we had a little tag-a-long. We found a blue-bellied lizard. It was alive! I never thought I’d be calling the herpetologist department at the Lincoln Park Zoo, but I did and we found a foster for Pinot the Lizard, and they took him on a truck back to California. So enjoy, for Pinot’s sake!”
I also think it’s important to anticipate your guest's needs. When I have a regular who orders the same thing every time, I’ll start out by having it ready for them before they arrive, then for their second round suggest something, I think they’d like but have never tried.
I’m also fortunate to work in a functional winery and concert venue. There’s always something happening. Often I’ll offer tours for guests that are celebrating, just to make the experience more memorable. I think there’s a sort of awe in being led.
Ah, there’s so many! Honestly, with the writer and actor strike happening, I’ve been delving back into old television that I missed out on as a kid. I’ve been binging The Sopranos. I love the humanness of these criminals. The writing is so literary, TV gold.
I started my wine journey, as many of us do, in college and for a long time it was free, drunk out of solo cups at art galleries and DIY events. It connected me with friends. Don’t get me wrong, the wine was bad but the memories are blessed. So even when I’m drinking high-quality wine in a fancy restaurant, I’ll always remember my raucous self young and free and 22.
A lot of my guests misconstrue sweetness and fruitiness. I think it’s a hard one for people to understand, that a fruity young wine is still considered dry. So I have to be specific, “Moscato sweet?”
Champagne and oysters all day. Okay, I’ll be more specific, a pet natural sparkling rosé and a dozen West Coast oysters. What a palate opener!
This is the hardest question of the interview. If there’s anything I love more than wine, it's books. I tend to fall in love with books that break me. I have three answers. 1) A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara 2) Another Country by James Baldwin 3) Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein. If you like knowing inconvenient truths, sobbing in public, or questioning everything — read these books!
While I don’t do the buying at City Winery, I’ve definitely met with suppliers and sales reps. It always comes back to the story for me. What they know about the little female-owned winery in California. A vineyard whose biodynamic winemaking invokes a moon magic ritual. I love overhearing these shared experiences and I think that really does drive up sales.
Wine of course can be consumed before, during, and after a meal, so a solid wine program is one that flows well with a food menu. By the glass, I think two varieties of sparkling, three whites and three reds, and a rose option is standard for the new world. (Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling) (Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon). But that’s just bare bones. So often wine programs neglect to include premium wines by the glass, and for someone who likes variety, we miss out. I’d love to see a reserve list for these wines — perhaps wines from different parts of the world an adventurous wine list...(Agiorgitiko, Nerello Mascalese, Gewurztraminer). I think an elevated by-the-glass reserve list could also make a great anchor for price points.
I actually do have a four-thing daily ritual. I make sure I read at least 25 pages a day in print. I do some chores around the house. I move, whether it’s yoga or dancing around my apartment. And I reach out to someone who is far away. I have an old-fashioned phone conversation, usually with a glass (or two) of wine. I think correspondence is a vital skill we’ve kind of forgotten.