BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Using the intriguing title Mavens & Aficionados, stunning entrepreneur Margaret Unetich launched Maple & Ash’s new wine club, offering members personalized quarterly purchases and their own wine captains on call. The azure-eyed classic beauty serves as director of product development for the Gold Coast steakhouse where reservations scored are to be celebrated.
We loved visiting recently with Margaret at Eight Bar on Maple & Ash’s ground floor.
With a menu crafted by Michelin two-star chef Danny Grant and a wine program named one of America’s best by Wine Spectator, Maple & Ash’s owners, Jim Lasky and David Pisor, built this Chicago destination and are now broadening its reach with Mavens & Aficionados.
Two of the most successful fixtures on the Chicago restaurant and entertainment scene, Jim launched Gamekeepers, the first true sports bar in Chicago, and David developed the Elysian, now Waldorf, Hotel.
They hired Margaret, a former business consultant, to not only build the wine club but to bring to market Danny Grant’s food enhancers, including steak sauce and a butter with veal reduction and red wine, and pastry chef Aya Fukai’s playful desserts like gigantic macarons called dinomacs. Danny’s products are now for sale at Maple & Ash only, although Margaret is working with an online grocery retailer to feature them. Aya’s pastries are available at Plum Market and Sparrow Coffee.
Although Maple & Ash has a strong California wine focus, Mavens & Aficionados reflects a global perspective. Scott Tyree, formerly of Tru and Sepia, has become their head wine club sommelier. He has received numerous Jean Banchet awards for Best Sommelier.
Mavens & Aficionados offers frequent wine classes, tastings in their wine cellar, and other special events in addition to preferred reservations at the Gold Coast steakhouse.
We recently asked how Margaret first became interested in wines:
“I majored in French in college and took a summer job as a hiking and biking guide in France. We were lucky to dine almost every night at a Michelin restaurant, staying at lovely hotels while exploring beautiful mountains. It was a very happy time to learn about food and wines.
“I studied entrepreneurship at the Booth School of Business and centered my previous career on finding funding and legal and marketing assistance for women and minorities. My husband, Michael, is also an entrepreneur, and I have learned much by watching him work. Pairing great wine with my business background feels great.
“Michael and I try to make time for a trip to Napa for wine tastings a couple of times a year.
She explained why wine clubs work:
“There’s a celebratory feeling when you open a bottle of wine to share. People really want to understand where it is coming from and the winemakers behind it. At our restaurant we have 5000-plus bottles and 2000 labels. We really try to find our customer’s sweet spot and offer three different levels for purchase. All are high quality wines but those on the top level are truly exceptional.
“We are definitely not the first wine club, there are multiple across the country, many connected to specific wineries, but they really don’t provide the personal touch of the individual captain as we do. They often rely on just algorithms.”
Being a part of the restaurant and hospitality world delights Margaret. We asked her what traits are needed to succeed in the industry: “The most important quality is a spirit of generosity. You also must always be able to keep in the forefront what you can do to exceed the guest’s expectations.”
Generosity is a quality that Margaret exudes in all aspects of her life. She serves as a member of the Board of the Lycée Français where her three sons, ages 13, 11, and 9, and daughter, age 6, attend. The family is soon off for spring vacation in London and Paris, where the children will reunite with friends who used to study in Chicago: “Michael says that what he wants to create for our children is a lifetime of experiences, whether at home or when we travel together.”
Margaret finds time, as well, for the Woman’s Boards of Northwestern Memorial Hospital and the Alliance Française, and makes time for hands-on volunteering.
When in Chicago, Margaret and Michael enjoy entertaining at home.
“I have a large extended family and for holidays we might have 30 guests at our house. When we have couples over, I often fix beef tenderloin with Danny’s ‘beefed up butter’ on top—very delicious. I also prepare many Mediterranean dishes because of my Italian roots in Sicily and Naples.
“I ask my club wine captain to help me choose a wine that guests will enjoy and perhaps might surprise them. I always tell the wine team what my budget is and to choose six reds, four whites, and two bubbles. I have never been disappointed.”
And a conversation with the magnanimous Margaret Unetich never disappoints.