HUMBOLDT PARK — Charles Stanfield doesn’t go around calling himself a knight in public, but the Humboldt Park wine expert has a medal recognized by the French government to prove it.
Stanfield, 57, a Humboldt Park native, is a “Chevalier de l'Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne” — more commonly known as a “Knight of the Hills of Champagne.” He’s even the star of a recent short documentary about his life, “Wine for the People,” filmed in Humboldt Park by Todd Muench.
"We were the first American chapter, and I believe I was the first person of color [inducted into the order]," Stanfield said. "I want to get people to believe in themselves by broadening their taste."
Wine is a labor of love for Stanfield, a big and boisterous man who keeps a naval cutlass in an umbrella bin for formal occasions in which wine bottles are opened with sabers (known as “sabrage” in formal circles, and France).
He’s worked at nearly every major wine and liquor outlet in and around Chicago over the last 20 years, including The Chicago Company, Zimmerman’s Cut Rate Liquor Store, Crown Liquors and Sam’s Wine and Spirits.
Stanfield may have given you some tips on your weekend bottle of wine and yelled some obscene quip or joke from behind the counter of the former Evolution Wine and Spirits, 1704 N. Milwaukee Ave., where he said he was at times mistaken for a janitor.
“I’d answer their questions, and I would get a look of amazement, like, ‘how do you know that? You shouldn’t know that,’ he said. “I think people create ghettos in their minds. I get more respect in foreign countries than I do in my own.”
"Because people wouldn’t know a pinot noir from a potato," he added, from his home near the border of Humboldt Park and Wicker Park, noting a few offhand elements of wine like tannin structure, varietals and climate. "America doesn’t really have a wine culture. We have pockets of wine culture. I didn’t understand that until traveling to Europe. I saw teachers there having wine with lunch.
"Americans were whiskey drinkers and beer drunks, and wine was for the rich — that bourgeoisie thing," he continued. "My father drank RC Cola and milk — buttermilk on his wild days."
Despite his accolades, including travels to wine regions around the world and four terms as an American delegate for a South African wine organization, Stanfield has been unemployed since Evolution shut down in February due to rising rent.
It was fine at first, but Stanfield, a proud “Champagne expert and wine professional” said he wanted to get back to work with wine. He’s been filling time recovering from a surgery, studying and preparing for private wine tastings.
“I think people need to keep being a student. Being a ‘master’ is like saying you’re a master of women or ‘I’m a master of weather.’ You can’t master something like this … life is not a little series of tests,” he said. “All I need is a glass and a bottle — I want to find out for myself. I want to know more about wine, that’s my main goal.”
In the meantime, he’s also working on a book about wine. He wants to call it “Wine for the People.”
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