Regional Dining Guide

Raise a Glass to Supporting Local Nonprofits

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Artale & Co.’s First Friday wine tastings attract an eclectic mix of wine drinkers. Check out how these events market new bottles and nonprofit causes.

Kellie Idzikowski, of Cream Wine Company, multitasks between pouring glasses.  (Sarah Soenke photo)

Kellie Idzikowski, of Cream Wine Company, multitasks between pouring glasses. (Sarah Soenke photo)

Between dark wooden shelves and crates of lustrous glass bottles, the aisles of Artale & Co., 6876 Spring Creek Road, Rockford, are bustling with people on the first Friday of every month.

Groups of happy wine drinkers mingle and gather around three black-clothed tables as they swirl, sniff and sip the event’s 32 featured wines. Some step into the back room to sample appetizers and small cups of saki. Tucked in everyone’s hand is a detailed list of the night’s offerings, along with a pamphlet on this month’s featured nonprofit.

On Feb. 5, a group from Winnebago CASA (County Court Appointed Special Advocate) stood by the front door across from Artale & Co.’s cash register, where they welcomed newcomers and accepted the $15 entrance fee. Fran Rossate, secretary for the organization, was one of two representatives passing out pamphlets on CASA, a national volunteer organization that advocates for the best interests of abused and neglected children within the court system.

“CASA does an Artale & Co. first Friday wine tasting at least once a year,” she says. “It’s just a no-brainer for us; it’s really easy money and great advertising. We’re always looking for volunteers, so this is a great in-person way to reach out.”

Artale & Co., a fine wine, craft beer and specialty spirits store, has been hosting wine tastings since it opened in 2008, says Anthony Artale, owner and wine director, but the staff quickly recognized an opportunity to make the events more meaningful.

“My dad came up with the idea to partner with local nonprofits, so they can fundraise, after he saw how charities were struggling during the recession,” says Artale.

Now, each featured nonprofit is encouraged to market the event, but otherwise only needs to send a representative or two to speak about the group and its mission. Proceeds from the evening’s sales go to the featured group, with Artale & Co. taking only enough to cover the evening’s appetizers, provided by nearby Josef Barbados Steak House & Oyster Bar, 6860 Spring Creek Road.

“Josef’s has always been really good about providing the proper food to match the wines,” Artale says. “They help us out with the cost, too, so it’s been great to partner with them.”

Artale & Co. rotates charities each month, giving priority to those who’ve participated in the past. Artale says it’s the fairest system to follow, but he admits it’s often difficult, given the flood of interested groups.

“First and foremost, I hope the nonprofits raise money,” says Artale. “Secondly, I get a lot of new faces in here, which is good for us. Plus, I live in Rockford, most of the people involved with these events live here, so why shouldn’t we give back? If you look at all the successful businesses in town, they all give back. It’s important to support the community that supports you.”

These first Friday events also present a prime opportunity for Artale & Co.’s wine importers, who rotate each month. Artale leaves it up to them to choose which wines to serve, so there’s always an exciting variety of reds, whites, blends, vintages and styles.

In February, Keith Hornick, from Southern Wine & Spirits, answered questions and detailed the origins and character of each wine while serving at the back table. His station held eight bottles, all neatly aligned on either side of the silver spit bucket used to refresh drinkers’ glasses and palettes between tastings.

That night, Hornick met one couple who said it was their first wine tasting. “I was thrown off when she pointed to the bucket and asked, ‘Can I dump my wine in here?’ I realized she didn’t mean this was their first wine tasting at Artale & Co., but their first-ever wine tasting,” says Hornick. “You get to meet a lot of people by doing these events, and you find people from all different places and experience levels.”

Hornick and the other salespeople conversed with guests throughout the night, sharing as much as they could about each wine to help drinkers find the ones they would like the most out of the night’s many options.

“It’s always a wonderful experience for me to help people learn about a new wine,” says Hornick. “You’ll find people who like a wine you think is not so great, and people hate a wine you think is really great, so it’s interesting to find out people’s different preferences. It’s a lot of fun to go through so many wines and try to find out which one is your favorite.”

The opportunity to freely explore new wines was one of the major reasons Artale started these tastings in the first place. Beyond supporting nonprofits, these events create an educational experience for wine newbies and experts alike.

“I’m happy to do these tastings because it’s a win-win situation,” says Artale. “Everyone seems to walk away feeling good. I feel it’s important for people to try new things, and without events like this, you kind of get locked into the same old go-tos. This allows you to try new wines, and maybe you’ll find something and maybe you won’t, but at least you’ll know.”

Artale & Co. is open Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m.-9 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m.-6 p.m., with wine tastings on the first Friday of every month from 5:30-8:30 p.m.

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