By Jeff Sherman Staff Writer Published Oct 07, 2008 at 11:21 AM

Thief Wine Shop and Bar, 400 N. Water St., owners Phil Bilodeau and Aimee Murphy  are nearly three months into their bustling new business inside the Milwaukee Public Market.  

The California transplants have created a great space inside the Market and are turning many locals and visitors onto their solid selection of wine.  

Inbetween pours recently, Bilodeau talked to about Thief Wine.  What did you know about Milwaukee before you moved here?

Phil Bilodeau:  Very little. We were looking around the country for a spot that would be a good fit -- underserved, but with good potential -- and Milwaukee wasn't on our radar at all until a good friend who lives here turned us on to the opportunity at the Public Market. We did some quick research online and our overriding impression was that the beer and brats stereotype was just that, a stereotype, and that the city was a hidden gem with a lot going on.

We flew out here in April and loved the energy of the Third Ward and the Milwaukee Public Market, and thought the city had a huge amount of potential. We signed the lease and bought a loft that weekend, and moved out as soon as we could after that. My dad did graduate from MSOE, though, so I do have at least a brief family connection.

OMC: How have your impressions matched reality?

PB: Pretty well, actually. There's definitely people who like their beer and brats, but there's also a large group that was hungry for a great wine shop and bar.

Milwaukee has more of a small-town feel than I expected, and I mean that in a positive way. People here are incredibly down-to-earth and friendly, and this area feels more like a neighborhood community than a big city. It's a nice mix; there's all the culture and attractions of a metropolitan area, but it's very approachable and accessible

OMC:  Starting any business is tough. How's business so far for you?

PB:  So far the response has been fantastic. People have really responded to both the wine bar and the retail selection, and we've already developed a group of regulars at each. We've been encouraged by how willing people are to trust us and try new things.

Our shop follows our passions and in addition to the classics has a lot of varietals, regions, and wineries that many people aren't familiar with but are eager to explore. Not only are they trying them once, but they're coming back after loving what we've recommended.

Our sales so far are above expectations, but at this point that's not the most important thing. We're more concerned with building long-term relationships with our customers, and we couldn't be happier in that regard.

OMC:  The space looks great. Any plans to open up the seating area to everyone? Any plans for later hours?

PB:  Thanks! We're really happy with how the design turned out -- it's distinctive, but fits well into the Public Market.

As with any business that has its own physical location, we do need to preserve that space for our customers. We welcome people to enjoy food from other market vendors here with a glass of wine, which we've had a great response to. It's very much in keeping with a European market feel, with people getting some cheese from West Allis Cheese and bread from Breadsmith, olives from Ceriello, or the daily specials from St. Paul Fish and pairing them here with wine.

Later hours are definitely in the works. As a new business, we're still rolling out new services such as wine clubs, seminars, serving our own food and a customer loyalty program, and later hours is something we're very interested in. There's been a strong customer demand, and both we and the MPM would like to make it happen. There are some logistics to sort out in terms of securing the Market for other vendors, but we're thinking it'll happen before the end of the year.

OMC:  Explain the name for those who may not know what a wine thief is.

PB:  A wine thief (also called a barrel thief) is a long tube that winemakers use to take wine out of the barrel for sampling. If you visit a winery at certain times of the year or maybe even just express a lot of interest, you might be offered a barrel sample of the latest vintage. We picked the name to reflect that insider experience and access to wines you might not normally have. The name's also short, catchy, unpretentious and fun, and hopefully memorable. Plus, the Web site was available; (that's) always a consideration these days!

OMC:  What can people expect when shopping at Wine Thief?

PB:  First and foremost, to have their expectations exceeded. We've put our hearts into this and love what we do, and I think that shows in the selection, service and atmosphere.

In the bar you can expect a frequently changing list of 30-40 wines by the glass, taste, or flight and a casual, welcoming atmosphere, while the shop has about 500 wines to choose from. In both, it's an eclectic array of distinctive artisanally produced wines from around the world, as I mentioned before, many that you won't see anywhere else. It's more work for us to find these wines and takes more effort to sell them, which is why you don't see them everywhere, but we love turning people on to new and interesting wines.

Another thing you'll get is value at all ends of the spectrum -- whether it's a $7 wine or a $70 bottle, we strive to carry wines that are worth more than what you pay for them.

In a sense, we're your filter. Every wine shop has some great wines, but one of the things we pride ourselves on is that we don't have anything that's not. If it's on our shelves or the wine list, it's because we stand behind it. We know everything we have inside and out and carry it because we think it's an exceptional wine for its type and price.

That personal attention is another part of the experience -- both Aimee and I are here all day, every day. We love talking about wine and are happy to answer any questions, make recommendations, and chat about the wine you had last night or anything else.

OMC:  What's hot in wine today?

PB:  Spain is probably my favorite country right now for producing exceptional wines at all price points. Whether it's a crisp white such as Verdejo or a fuller-bodied Albariño, an inexpensive Tempranillo or a higher-end Priorat, Spain's got it all.

Malbec is also a hot category -- it's a full-bodied red that's a little different from Cabernet Sauvignon -- and you can get a nice one for under $10 and a great one for under $20. With its popularity, you're starting to see more of a diversity of styles and flavors as well -- we just picked up a single-vineyard wine, for example, that's exceptionally floral and elegant yet still full-bodied, while others are much darker and almost as powerful as a Cabernet.

Wines that are food friendly are another big thing, and something that we're always promoting. There's been somewhat of a backlash against massive high-alcohol wines that may score well with critics but don't work with a meal, and a move toward wines that are better balanced and more subtle and nuanced. Every day we get customers who come in and tell us what they're planning for dinner and ask what wine should they get -- it's been fun steering them toward Rioja, good Beaujolais, southern Italian whites such as Fiano, Chinon, etc.

OMC:  Any current favorites?

PB:  Where do I start?!? For reds, the Mas d'en Compte '05 Priorat is a phenomenal bottle of wine -- a blend of old-vine Carignan & Grenache that's rich and powerful, yet with great balance, depth, and complexity. We love Pinot Noir as well, and the 2007 Stone Paddock from Central Otago in New Zealand, one of the most up-and-coming regions for the varietal, is a new favorite. For a more everyday bottle, the Maipe 2007 Malbec from Argentina drinks like it's way more (expensive) than its $10 price.

On the white side, Grüner Veltliner is one varietal that I wish more people knew about -- it's a great food wine and has flavors that are utterly distinctive -- pink grapefruit, white peppercorns, celery salt. The Hirsch 2006 Heiligenstein is a fantastic example. Finally, sparkling wine -- also a versatile food wine and something that shouldn't be only for special occasions. For true Champagne the Charles Lafitte Rosé is a killer value at under $40 and for an everyday sparkler we're really enjoying the Gran Sarao Cava.

OMC:  Finally, you're a wine guy .... but, what's your favorite beer?

PB:  The two definitely aren't mutually exclusive! There's a saying in the wine industry, "It takes a lot of beer to make great wine." Right now I'm really liking Ale Asylum's Ambergeddon Amber Ale. We also carry Rush River, a new brewery from River Falls, and Aimee's a big fan of their Bubblejack IPA.

Jeff Sherman Staff Writer

A life-long and passionate community leader and Milwaukeean, Jeff Sherman is a co-founder of OnMilwaukee.

He grew up in Wauwatosa and graduated from Marquette University, as a Warrior. He holds an MBA from Cardinal Stritch University, and is the founding president of Young Professionals of Milwaukee (YPM)/Fuel Milwaukee.

Early in his career, Sherman was one of youngest members of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, and currently is involved in numerous civic and community groups - including board positions at The Wisconsin Center District, Wisconsin Club and Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.  He's honored to have been named to The Business Journal's "30 under 30" and Milwaukee Magazine's "35 under 35" lists.  

He owns a condo in Downtown and lives in greater Milwaukee with his wife Stephanie, his son, Jake, and daughter Pierce. He's a political, music, sports and news junkie and thinks, for what it's worth, that all new movies should be released in theaters, on demand, online and on DVD simultaneously.

He also thinks you should read OnMilwaukee each and every day.