At times in her life, Tulah had to sip her wine from a coffee cup, in case the police came. But at home, Enoch Shully remembers his mother leaving the bottle out in the open on the kitchen table.
That’s where it was when Shully, who owns and operates the West Loop’s Bin 36, first tasted wine.
Recently, Shully recalled that one night as a boy, after his parents went to bed, he sneaked down to the kitchen for a late-night snack and saw the wine. At 7 years old, he knew it only as his mother Tulah’s drink. He drank half the bottle.
“I thought it was the most disgusting thing ever,” he said while sitting on a bar stool of Bin 36, which he has owned since 2014.
The morning after his midnight guzzle, Shully woke with diarrhea and was whisked to the emergency room in Bangui, the Central African Republic capital where they lived. Tulah thought he had food poisoning, but instead, it was the wine.
“My mom, she said to me, ‘The only way to get over this is by trying it again,’” Shully recalled.
After all, she wanted to share with him something she loved.
Tulah started with a rosé, “so bitter and earthy.” Then reds and whites — just a taste here and there at dinnertime.
Shully’s speech is sprinkled with things Tulah said to him, in casual conversations or when he arrived home past curfew: “Hold a wine bottle like you would hold a woman.” “You are made up of good.” “Words are like bullets — you can’t take them back once they’re gone.” “Once you start something, don’t stop until it’s done.”
And try, she told him, to make someone smile.
“If you look,” he said, motioning to relaxed diners lifting wine glasses near the bar, “everybody’s smiling. Somebody’s laughing.”
Shully, who moved to Cape Town to study electrical engineering, got his start in the restaurant business there, when he opened a coffee shop in college. Then, he was hired at Arnold’s restaurant as a toast-maker, solely tasked with crafting the bread that accompanied nearly every plate at the bustling breakfast restaurant.
Again, his mother’s advice echoed: “Whatever you do, clean toilets, clean the streets, whatever you do, be the best you can.”
Perfecting toast led to promotions — as server, then managing servers, then managing the restaurant. After a stint working for Red Bull, Shully returned to Cape Town to find he missed working with wine. He’d visited vineyards in Europe, watched restaurateurs interact with winemakers. Shully felt adrift, but wine interested him. “My life was a little chaotic, and I knew I had to go back to the basics of serving wine, which I loved,” Shully said.
“Wine brings peace where there’s chaos,” Tulah would say.
She itched to travel, and by trying wines, she could learn about different regions. When Shully studied in different countries, she would visit.
Apartheid didn’t end in South Africa and Cape Town until 1991, and blacks were restricted from buying wine. When Tulah would visit, she cloaked her wine in coffee cups. Men brought deliveries to the door in grease-smeared paper bags evoking fried chicken.
“There was no chicken,” Shully recalls. “It was wine.”
None of this escapes him now, in the sleek and modern restaurant he runs, where a diverse clientele drinks freely.
“There’s so many times I look around and think, ‘This would have ended in a different way for me,’” he said.
But what brought Enoch to Bin 36? While working in Cape Town, Enoch met a neighbor named Jenny, an American therapist living in the city. They married in 2010, but Jenny missed her family in the Chicago area, so in 2012, they boarded a plane to O’Hare International Airport.
Soon after arriving, he meandered around downtown. One day, he walked into Bin 36.
Former owner Dan Sachs remembers Shully’s energy and enthusiasm, despite his arriving “from a completely different cultural environment.” Shully didn’t know much about American culture — he was befuddled by seeing people drink out of four glasses at once, or “flights.” He looked to YouTube to understand how Midwesterners acted and ate.
Still, Sachs immediately recognized his passion for wine.
“Obviously, for Bin 36, that was critical,” Sachs said.
“Wine brings peace where there’s chaos,” Tulah would say.
When Sachs decided to close the longtime space in Marina City, he and Shully discussed the latter taking it over. Shully heard his mother: “When you start something, don’t stop unless it’s done.”
“I said, ‘I have unfinished business here,’” he said.
After the restaurant changed hands following the 2014 closing, Shully again encountered a learning curve. He knew nothing about tax codes, restaurant renovations, starting over. How many people should he hire for the lunch shift? How much silverware would he need? YouTube, which had provided guidance on American customs and Chicago culture, again served as a tutor.
Credit: John J. Kim
Credit: John J. Kim
Every day, before putting the key in the door, he paused.
“That fear of failing consumed me,” Shully said. “The person I’m always scared to be judged of is always my mom. Sometimes I’m standing (in the current Bin 36 location), and I’m asking, what would Tulah think about this space?”
Tulah was constantly surrounded by people, either when she was cooking for neighborhood children or sitting in the shade under a lemon tree with other women. She appreciated laughter and attending church twice a week. When Shully talks about her, he mentions that 200 people came to her funeral after she died of breast cancer 12 years ago.
“She believed in me more than anybody else.”
In rethinking what Bin 36 could be, he sought a new space, away from the Marina City confines. He wanted smaller. Better to greet customers. He eventually settled on the current location at 161 N. Jefferson St. and reopened there in 2015.
Shully hopes his customers embrace wine the way his mother did — as a familiar friend and as a springboard to learning. Regular tasting events, like a recent one focused on South Africa, offer cultural and culinary education.
This summer, the sushi restaurant Katana opened where Bin 36 had been in Marina City, in the cavernous space that served as the setting for Shully’s start in America. He attended the opening party. It felt like a full-circle moment, capping his journey with Bin 36 not only to reincarnate a longtime establishment but also to build an homage to his mother.
Recently, Shully’s 4-year-old daughter Tulah was swishing the coffee in her mother’s cup, pretending to consider wine as her father did. He thought it might be time. At brunch a few days later, he offered her a few droplets of Prosecco.
“It’s kind of not my type,” she said. Perhaps, Shully noted, she’d already inherited the family’s discerning palate. Another time, after he offered her a finger dipped in cabernet, the tiny Tulah said it tasted like strawberries.
These days, the name Tulah — for both mother and daughter — graces bottles of wine from Shully’s own line, made in Central California, expressive of tropical fruits like mango and kiwi, flavors Shully’s mother enjoyed. The wines were a labor of love, he says.
“It was much more of an emotional process, where making the wine for most people is fun. For me, it was fun, but at the same time, it was emotional — how much I wish my mom could see what I’m doing now,” he said. “I wanted a wine that would honor my mom and also my daughter.”
And he wanted to keep them affordable; his mother felt wine should be accessible to anyone. The Cuvee Tulah carrying apple and pear notes, for example, rings up at $15.55.
Inside Bin 36, the scene to many will feel familiar — young women toasting with pinot grigio, diners deciding between sauvignon blanc or syrah. But to Shully, the scene is something he simply hopes his mother can see.
“Her absence, it doesn’t mean anything to me. I always feel like she’s never left,” he said. “This is a way that I wanted to say, ‘Thank you.’”
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com