By ANNE SPISELMAN
Regine T. Rousseau describes her life as a struggle between doing what she wants and needing to make money.
The 45-year-old entrepreneur found a way to unite the two in 2014, when she relaunched Shall We Wine, the wine-demonstration and event-planning company she started back in 1997 as a way to teach friends about wine.
A Hyde Park resident since 2015, when she moved from Bronzeville to 50th Street and Champlain Avenue to be nearer the community that “fits her personality,” Rousseau is a writer as well as an educator and event planner.
On June 6, she’ll celebrate the publication of her poetry collection, “Searching for Cloves and Lilies,” at 57th Street Wines, 1448 E. 57th St. The book is a re-issue of her well-received 2010 volume—but with a unique twist. She pairs each of the poems about love, loss, and the people who have shaped her life with a wine and explains the reasons for the pairing.
The event, which includes a reading of four or five poems and tasting of wines to go with them, also is a first for Rousseau. Although Shall We Wine is responsible for an average of 250 business-to-business and consumer wine and spirits demonstrations a month (twice that during the holidays), she’s never had a gathering for consumers in Hyde Park before.
Born in Chicago but raised in Haiti by her grandmother and a family friend, because her father wanted her to speak French and learn about Haitian culture, Rousseau returned to the Windy City when she was 8 or 9. She attended Francis W. Parker School, then went on to Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, and graduated with a degree in theater in 1994. “I wanted to be a playwright but other people convinced me I couldn’t make a living in theater, so I went into sales at Jenny Craig, then moved up to management,” she explains. She remained with the company for a few years, including one in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where her then-husband was a graduate student.
A junior year college study abroad program in Besançon, France, sparked Rousseau’s passion for wine, and a visit to the beautiful home of a connoisseur fueled the flames. “I was supposed to be there three months but stayed a year learning all I could,” she said. “I just couldn’t leave.”
Back in Chicago and working at Bandera restaurant on Michigan Avenue, Rousseau was inspired by a wine training session conducted by Jill Rothwell (now Davis), a rep for Hogue Wine Cellars. “I went up to her at the end and said I wanted to start a business teaching people about wine,” she recalls. “She encouraged me to invite friends over to my new apartment. I rented tables and chairs because I didn’t have any furniture, and it went so well, Jill connected me to her distributor, Direct Import Wine Company (no longer in business).”
Rousseau trained in business-to-business sales (working with importers and distributors) at Direct and learned about the wines, boutique wineries, and the stories behind them. In her spare time, she shared her knowledge with friends, then began selling tickets for consumer tastings at restaurants and galleries. “It wasn’t profitable but it was fun,” she said. “I loved dispelling the elitist mystique around wine, and teaching people something that could change their lives was a real rush.”
Still, the corporate world beckoned, and recruited for pharmaceutical sales, Rousseau spent 2001 to 2009 building a career in that field, adding part ownership of a nail salon in 2006. Some time off followed, then a stint in corporate litigation consulting from 2010 to 2013, when she was laid off. “It was the best gift of my life,” she says. “I knew it was coming, so I prepared by giving up my luxury apartment in the South Loop for a small one in Bronzeville and putting a lot of thought into what to do with my severance pay and my life.”
Rousseau had been conducting some in-store demos and tastings for friends all along and said that the “light bulb went on” in her head. This was what she wanted to do rather than straight sales. She started small—with just herself—but envisioned something much bigger. So she hired 15 people to work with her, then 50, and now she said Shall We Wine has a database of almost 200 freelancers, recruited from people she has met or watched at tastings and other events.
Rousseau, who also has written wine columns for the Chicago Defender and South Suburban News, advises wine novices to taste as much as they can and find a person or publication they like to follow. “If you’re shopping, take advantage of demonstrations and attend tastings at local wine shops,” she says. “That’s the way you learn what you like.”
Besides 57th St. Wines and Kimbark Beverage Shoppe, her favorite Hyde Park haunts include A10 for its wine list, The Promontory for happy hour, Cafe 53, which she calls a hidden gem, and Bonjour Cafe Bakery, because she loves the fact that they address you in French. As for wines, she’s a huge fan of vintage Champagne, as well as wines from Piedmont, Italy, and both whites and reds from Burgundy, France.
Rousseau’s feelings come through in her poems, and she said the wine pairings help answer the number one question people ask her: “When should I have this wine?” There are poems and wines for everything from “heartbreaks to hanging out with the girls.” One she’s especially fond of is “Dot,” about patience and her emotions during a painful relationship. She matches it with Allegrini Amarone, a wine made from grapes that have to be aged 100 days. She even finds a poetic partner for the only varietal she hasn’t been able to “embrace,” linking “Corazon,” about a liar’s unraveling, to Domaine Zind-Humbrech Gewurztraminer Turckheim, a wine she said draws you in with “a seductive aroma of rose petals and spices” but finishes with “the bitterness of truth,” “a callous, unexpected sharpness of grapefruit peel.”
After planning events in several cities for “Searching for Cloves and Lilies”, Rousseau is thinking of developing the Champagne Diaries, the blog she started a few years ago, as her second book.
Regine T. Rousseau’s poetry reading and wine tasting is at 57th St Street Wines, 1448 E. 57th St., on June 6 at 6:30 p.m. The event is free.