Diana Hamman’s shop, Wine Goddess, is located in an old storefront in Evanston, Illinois. Sturdy white shelves stocked with wine, beer and spirits surround a seating area where classes and tastings are held. She carries about 400 wines from around the world with a focus on small producers, most in the $15–$25 range.
Hamann’s first exposure to wine came in Dublin, where she felt out of place as an older student at Trinity College. To occupy herself, she’d scour wine magazines, purchase a featured bottle and go home to see if she could see, smell and taste the same things the writers did.
In 1999, after graduating from Berkeley and unsuccessfully applying to graduate school to study English literature, Hamann lucked into a job with nascent e-retailer wine.com, then called Virtual Vineyards.
“They hired little ol’ me to empty the spit buckets,” she says.
It was a sweet gig. She commuted into Napa three days a week, and during the other two, “I’d sit in my jammies with a case of wine, and I’d do write-ups,” she says. “That’s where I learned that wines have a story, and people like to hear this story.”
Hamann moved to Chicago in 2001. She was wine director at high-end restaurants Le Colonial and Japonais, and taught popular tasting classes at the Chopping Block cooking school. She dubbed herself the Wine Goddess to plant her flag in a predominantly male field.
On her decision to open her own store at the end of 2012, Hamann says, “I was naive. It’s shocking how little income you make at the beginning. It was three years to the day until I was like ‘Oh, this is a good idea.’ ”
Meaghan Fitz, who has worked in the store for three years, finds Hamann’s enthusiasm and knowledge of wine addictive. “I thought I hated Riesling,” says Fitz. “I was like, ‘It’s too sweet.’ Diana said, ‘There is a whole world of Riesling. I’m going to change your outlook.’ ”
The result? “Mind blown,” says Fitz. “I didn’t know the grape could be like this. I didn’t know white wine could taste this good.”
She also appreciated how Hamann spoke to the entire room. “She reads her audience really well,” says Fitz. “She could tell that I was nerdy and getting into it, but she wouldn’t ‘Goddess-splain’ it to normal people who just want to drink.”
Customers challenge Hamann for recommendations on everything from best wine to serve their visiting mother-in-law to specific food pairings. Hamann describes her customers as adventurous. “There’s a $15 plummy, red-fruited Bobal from Valencia, Spain, that I can’t keep in stock,” she says, referring to Mustiguillo Mestizaje (El Terrerazo).
Winter-weary customers have a taste for Mediterranean reds like the Bobal and wines “from sunbaked parts of the Iberian Peninsula like Priorat and the Douro Valley.”
“One of the best compliments we receive is when customers say we’ve never steered them wrong,” says Hamann. “If we’re excited about something, they’re into it.”
She recalls one winter when she’d paid off the Christmas bills and a vendor walked in to pitch her wine.
“I put my two fingers in a cross position to ward him off and said, “Get out! I have no money!”
But the vendor convinced her to sample Herdade da Malhadinha Nova Branco. At $38, it was on the high end for the store. “I said ‘Who the hell is going to buy an expensive, obscure Portuguese white in the dead of winter?” says Hamann. “But I tasted it, and it was just killer.”
She bought a case on the spot and sold it all at a tasting that weekend. “My customers are just that cool. Even with weird, hard-to-pronounce Portuguese white varietal [wines] in January.”
Customers are loyal as well. Fitz estimates that 90 percent of the shop’s business comes from return customers. Young families frequent the store, thanks to the toy train table next to the front window.
“We gain five more customers for every one we lose because of the kids,” says Hamann. “A new mom will sit next to the train table and order a glass of wine and has this little peaceful moment.”
Hamann’s store is the “local pub” she always wanted to own, although many of her offerings began as ways to draw in customers during her early, slower months back in 2013. She offered classes, received permission from the city to serve wine by the glass and used her space for events like poetry readings, political meetings, knitting circles, yoga classes and book clubs.
“I basically said yes to everything,” she says. “Anything to put money in the register.”
The store also draws veteran Chicago musical acts for intimate concerts. Welsh rocker Jon Langford has played at the store several times.
“I usually drink whatever Diana puts in front of me, but they have some great beers and ciders as well,” says Langford.
At a recent appearance, he brought veteran producer Norbert Putnam, who once performed with Elvis Presley. “Norbert is a huge wine buff, and he was well impressed,” says Langford.
The main hitch in the Wine Goddess’s otherwise charmed life is that she’s partially deaf and partially blind. She wears two hearing aids to counteract otosclerosis, which causes a fusing of the bones in the ear.
Hamann also has pseudoxanthoma elasticum (PXE) a condition that causes retinal bleeding, scarring and eventual vision loss. To combat it, Hamann receives a cancer drug that’s injected into her eye, which leaves bruises that she describes as “gnarly.”
This past holiday season of 2017 was difficult. An employee fell ill the same week that Hamann’s left eye went mostly dark. Then, her team discovered that the chain Binny’s Beverage Depot, which has nearly 40 stores in Illinois, planned to move in a few blocks away.
“The night we found out, we were just devastated, but the next day, it was like, ‘How can we fight this?’ ” says Fitz. While she scheduled medical trips to New York City and the Mayo Clinic, Hamann, along with other independent alcohol retailers, successfully lobbied the city against granting Binny’s the same liquor license she and other small, local merchants use. Evanston’s legal council is now negotiating a different license and classification for Binny’s.
Meanwhile, Hamann’s vision problems hasn’t hurt the day-to day at the store…for the most part.
“I can no longer be trusted to take pictures of products,” she says. Apparently, the Christmas newsletter went out with some blurry photos of whiskey for sale.
“My staff are so good to me and sweet,” she says. “They’ll say, ‘Let me check that before you put that online.’ ”