As owner of Square Wine Company, 5 N. Pinckney St. on the Capitol Square, Andrea Hillsey shares her passion for wine with customers through regular classes and tastings, and also with every bottle sold. Hold up a label and she may give you the 30-second biography of the winemaker, a snappy treatise on how the wine was made, or one of her trademark one-liners: "That wine is for when you're wearing sweatpants and you've given up on life."
During a recent conversation with Isthmus, Hillsey was happy to wax poetic on her journey to wine geekdom, her enduring love for Burgundy, and an approach to wine sales through tastings, classes and knowledge-sharing that she calls "sneaky education."
How did you get into wine?
My trip to wine is funny and random and weird. I was recruited to play softball at Purdue, and in my last semester I had to take a physics course. I surrounded that course with all the stuff that's supposed to make you a better human: sexuality, jazz history, philosophy of religion and then wine. It came to the end of the semester and I realized that this wine class was the one for which I'd studied the hardest.
Upon graduation I followed my partner to Madison. She got a job at the university, and I was waiting tables on the west side. The idea was I was going to wait tables until I saved enough money to go to graduate school for physical therapy, and that never happened -- I became a manager and ran their bar program. I was in charge of their wine list and cocktails and stuff, and it was a very corporate setting, so I didn't have a lot of freedom to make many choices. I had a postgraduate scholarship from Purdue, and instead of using that for PT school I went to study hospitality management at Florida International in Miami.
It was like a two-and-a-half-year vacation. More importantly than getting my degree, I worked at a cool, niche-y retail store called Wolfe's. Jeffrey Wolfe is the owner and he hired me on a whim, but I ended up working for him for two and a half years learning an insane amount about wine. And that's essentially what we're reproducing here.
What made you want to open Square Wine Company in Madison?
I went out to Oregon, and Wolfe convinced the guys at Chehalem Wines in Newberg to take me on for a harvest in the fall of 2010 for about six weeks. It was so much fun. I thought it was important, though I knew I was going to be on the sales side, to go work a harvest because otherwise I felt like I was only telling 50% of the story. I knew the steps of making wine, but I'd never seen it happen. I'd never dug out a tank [fermenting wine leaves, skins and sediment at the bottom of tanks, which cellar staff must then shovel out].
It's funny when it's nature; there's no punching a clock. There was a day that we worked from eight in the morning until midnight, just because that's when stuff is coming in. It definitely gave me more of an appreciation for wine and what goes into it and the insane amount of work that it is. I don't think I've ever physically worked that hard in my life.
I came back to Madison excited to take the wine world by storm, and I couldn't find a job. I worked at the Steve's stores for about a year and a half, spending most of my time with Randy Wautlet at the Fitchburg store. I convinced my partner's dad to give me some money, and I opened this store.
When I left Miami people said I should go back to Madison and open another Wolfe's, and I thought between the Barriques and Steve's stores the market was already saturated with wine. However, I didn't realize that there was still this opportunity to do what he was doing in an educational sort of way -- I like to call it "sneaky education" -- and it made perfect sense. We sell small-producer, organic, biodynamic, sustainable, very naturally made wines, and people in Madison care so much about food that's produced that way that it was only a matter of time before people started paying attention to the wine they were drinking.
You have people who go to the farmers' market and then say, "Oh, I buy Two-Buck Chuck at Trader Joe's." There's a disconnect. Without coming out and saying "You're doing it wrong," we wanted to push people away from that because nobody knew any better. In the United States you can put over 200 [additives and ingredients] into a bottle of wine without having to put any of it on the label, and nobody knows that.
Do you have any professional wine certification?
I got my sommelier certification from the International Sommelier Guild when I got back to Madison. I was opening the store and studying for the exam at the same time, and I was freaking out.
I would go down to Chicago every Sunday, and the entire day was dedicated to wine. I have really good Chicago food and drink contacts because of it. My level-two instructor was Aaron Sherman, who runs the front of the house at Girl and the Goat, and my first level was run by Michael Muser, who just opened Grace, both in Chicago.
What was the first kind of wine you really loved?
In Miami, with anything Jeffrey Wolfe poured me, I was like a newborn baby. Every experience was something new, and I knew I was in trustworthy hands. More than anything I was in a position to taste a lot, and that's where you form your general knowledge of wine -- picking out certain notes, working backwards, asking, "Why does it taste that way?"
My biggest wine epiphany moment was with white burgundy, a Meursault from Arnaud Ente. When I taste wines like that I just shake my head. Anyone who knows me around wine has seen me have those moments. You need to have those moments. When you work in the wine industry, we taste so much wine -- and we're not looking for sympathy that we taste so much wine -- but every now and again you need something that makes you think, "Oh my god, this is why I do this."