For Andrea Hillsey, the wine business is as much about personal passion as the bottom line.
Hillsey’s new business, Square Wine Co., opened on the east side of the Capitol Square at the end of June.
Hillsey, 29, has left the walls bare, installed a large chalkboard and stocked wooden wine racks, case stacks and a cooler with “wines to believe in,” the store’s tagline.
“The Square is where it’s at,” she said. “It’s where people are the most willing to branch out with food and wine.”
Hillsey’s interest in wine is broad. A wine class while she was an undergraduate at Purdue University piqued her interest, leading eventually to a master’s degree in hospitality management from Florida International University in Miami.
She has worked at restaurants and wine shops, and in 2010, Hillsey went out to Chehalem Vineyards in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and spent six weeks “working crush.”
“I lived at the winery house,” she said. “I ate really well, drank really well, worked super hard. ... They make a killer chardonnay.”
Hillsey didn’t have an interest in opening a wine shop until late last fall, when she noticed the open space on the Square. “There was an opportunity and I had to take it,” she said.
Square Wine Co. doesn’t offer wine by the glass, but Hillsey pours wine tastings each Friday from 6-8 p.m. ($15, including a glass) and after the Dane County Farmers’ Market on Saturdays ($10, waived with purchase).
Hillsey chooses wines she’s excited about, from sparkling rosés to obscure Italian reds, as well as hard cider from ÆppelTreow Winery and Distillery in Burlington and some local beers.
Her prices are sometimes $1-$2 higher than at other shops, but Hillsey herself is almost always on hand to answer questions. She’s focused on “small, family growers” who make wine that is meant to pair with food.
“For me, wine and food are one,” she said. “I’m selling stuff that I believe in, that is worth the money and is true to its character. I’m looking forward to turning people on to wines.”
My wine group asked Hillsey to put together a private tasting on a recent quiet Sunday, with the only parameter being wines she was excited about.
Her lineup of nine wines — four whites, four reds and a dry French rosé — focused solidly on Europe.
There was a Sicilian blend of nero d’avola and frappato that needed time to open, a jammy pinot noir from Sonoma Coast and a 100 percent cabernet franc from Chinon that one friend compared to “a gym bag full of green peppers in a basement.”
We universally loved several of the whites, including the 2010 Benito Santos Albariño ($18.50), which was briny and not overly fruity, and the 2011 Domaine Lafage Cote Est ($12.50), an odd but enjoyable blend of grenache blanc (50 percent), chardonnay (30 percent) and marsanne (20 percent). It had an herbal smell and tasted like citrus rind.
Reviews were mixed on a 2010 Strub Riesling Spatlese ($22.50), which included notes from Terry Theise that called it “erotically viscous.” I liked its honeyed sweetness, though it could have used more acidity on the finish.
My favorite overall was the 2007 Domaine Rolet “L’Etoile” Chardonnay ($20.50). Nobody had even heard of this small appellation, which is in the east-central part of France. The wine itself was fantastic, a kind of “un-chardonnay” with flavors of apple, pear and toasted nuts.
Tastings are “an empowering experience for consumers,” Hillsey said. “I’m going to open these wines for you and you can taste them and you can figure out what you like. You can see I’m not just trying to pawn wine off on you.
“In essence, I’m trying to be the Fromagination of wine,” she added. “I want to be the person who keeps you in the loop. It’s a labor of love.”
Lindsay Christians occasionally pours wine tastings at Barriques.