By AARON GETTINGER
Not only did Derrick Westbrook, the sommelier and wine buyer at 57th Street Wines, 1448 E. 57th St., make Wine Enthusiast’s Top 40 Under 40 Tastemakers 2018 list, he made the cover of the magazine itself.
The optics of this happenstance — and his career — are far from lost on him.
“I’m a black guy in wine,” he said. “That’s interesting to people. That’s part of the reason I probably made the cover, right?”
Eventually, he expects it to be the norm, but he is pleased about it at the present.
“Now that the door’s cracked open from people before me, I’m just trying to push it further, and then someone comes behind me and pushes it further,” he said.
Come what may, the recognition is a high point in a career already full of wine experts.
A Nashville native and son of nonprofit professionals, Westbrook said he was not brought up in an oenophilic household. “Alcohol was a conduit to the celebratory moments in our life,” said the now Bronzeville resident, adding that his father did not understand his job until a year ago.
He attended the University of Alabama, Birmingham, where he studied in sociology and English and planned to follow in his parents’ footsteps in the nonprofit field. Graduating in the grips of the Great Recession made this difficult, however. He was working at an Italian restaurant that was rebuilding its wine list when he pulled his first cork. He fell in love with the process of tasting and and selecting balancing vintages. “The side effects weren’t that bad, either,” he added.
Keen on adventure, Westbrook decided to move to Illinois when a friend asked if he wanted to come. He moved with $200 cash and all his possessions packed into a car. His experience at the restaurant in Alabama got him a job at a tasting room in suburban Tinley Park, and he realized wine could be a career.
A job as a cellar manager and runner at Next, the ultra-high end Fulton Market restaurant, followed. He set up expert’s tastings and started making connections with distributors. In 2015, he began studying for the sommerlier’s exam, and 57th Street Wines opened the next year.
“When we talk about retail, the thing is to meet people where they are,” he said.
Rather than upselling, Westbrook interprets what customers like then sells it. “What we’ve created here is, yes, we’re going to have that style you like, but it may not be under the patina you expect,” he said. They sell a lot of wines from Croatia or the Canary Islands, one of his favorite regions, rather than an overabundance of California Chardonnays.
Westbrook said there is less “industry noise” on the South Side, less clamoring for big name wines and more openness to try something new.
“I can create here in a way that’s harder to do elsewhere, and there’s opportunity for growth, and I love that. I think I love that piece more than anything else,” he said.
He has no immediate plans to open his own place and is busy consulting on the side, presently for Bibliophile, set to open in Hyde Park in mid-September, which will feature alcohol-infused desserts.
Westbrook said that winning the Wine Enthusiast award has not really hit him yet. What makes him happiest is making those around him and his parents proud.
Through it all, Westbrook said he wants to maintain his sense of self. His mentor in the wine industry, who is also a black man, told him that observers may see him as “just black wine guy,” but that he is more than that.
Westbrook also declared another passion.
“I love wine, don’t get me wrong, but the most fun I have is coaching little league baseball,” he said, though he has no son on the team. In his first year coaching, his team won the league championship.
Westbrook said he wants people to understand that he’s not the best sommelier out there; he may not know the most producers, and he may not be the most charismatic. “But it’s the sum of my parts and the people I love and the people I work with — they’re the reason I’m being interviewed today. And I’m eternally curious, and I’ll continue to learn about wine and life in general.”
His favorite wines change depending on his mood. At press time, it was wines from Priorat, Spain, where they make mostly big, complex reds from grapes grown on the side of mountains in slate and stone.
“The only thing more beautiful than the wine is the scenery,” he said.
His other favorites come from, again the Canary Islands, “out in the middle of nowhere” off the coast of Africa.
“They don’t look like typical vineyards,” said Westbrook. “They’re bush vines planted in trenches because of the sea winds. It’s labor-intensive, you do all you can to protect these beautiful things, and you put it into a bottle and you can taste that.”