Features 17 December 2019

Portland’s wine bar renaissance

From tiny boîtes and chic restaurants to all-day cafés and well-stocked shops - the best wine bars in Portland, Oregon

Words by Hannah Wallace

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A decade ago, you could count the number of wine bars in Portland, Oregon on one hand, but over the past few years there’s been a flurry of openings, from tiny boîtes with simple fare to those that blur the line between wine bar and wine-driven restaurant. Here, a selection of our favourites.

The new wave

Arden Wine Bar

Opened in 2018 by Kelsey Glasser (who is also the sommelier), this chic Pearl District restaurant has a fabulous wine list with many rare bottles available by the glass, thanks to the Coravin. Currently available are an ’05 Rioja Gran Reserva, a 2013 Barolo, and a 2005 Alsatian Auxerrois BTG. The bottle list has strengths in France, Italy, and the Northwest, with reserve bottles comprising 30% of the list at any given time.

Executive chef Erik van Kley turns out delectable seasonal dishes such as roasted squash, frisée, smoked soy brown butter, pepitas, and matsutake and goat cheese cappelletti with caramelized onion, walnut, and black vinegar. Glasser also runs a popular wine dinner series—intimate parties with Oregon winemakers like Brian O’Donnell from Belle Pente. The 2020 lineup will be all women winemakers.

Bar Diane

Earlier this year, natural wine maven and graphic designer Sami Gaston opened her jewel-box-like wine bar on Northwest 21st. The clandestine spot (its entrance is on the side of a building, and there’s no sign designating its location) is chic and cheery with hand-painted retro wallpaper and cozy booths.

The food menu is simple but delicious—cheese plates, beet hummus, roasted delicata with yuzu, and housemade pasta. And you’ll definitely discover unique pours—among them a Ramato from Viola and Wabi-Sabi, a light blend of carignan-syrah-zin from Populis. Every bottle on the wine list is available by the glass (for 1/4 the bottle price), and every wine available by the glass is also available by the half-glass. For happy hour (from 4-6PM, Tues.-Sun.), Gaston takes $2 off glass pours.

Bar Norman

Opened by natural wine champion Dana Frank a year ago, Bar Norman is a candelit boîte with a distinctly French vibe. Lights are strung from the ceiling, second-hand tables and chairs sit snugly beside one another, and the music sets an urbane ambience. This isn’t an accidental, as Frank was inspired by some of her favorite Parisian wine bars. 

Frank, who was the sommelier at renowned Italian restaurant Ava Gene’s and then opened Portland’s first all-natural-wine restaurant, Dame, also curates a small selection of bottles from Oregon, Italy, Georgia, Slovenia, and elsewhere. (You can take one to go or enjoy it in-house for a $10 corking fee.)

Come for the “Hummus Hang”—a monthly pop-up of silky hummus, labneh, and homemade challah—and you might get to hear Frank’s husband Scott Frank (winemaker at Bow & Arrow) DJ. All wines are $12 by the glass unless otherwise noted; flights are $18ish for 3 and $24ish for 4. 

The pared-down bottle list is always changing, with a focus on “time capsules”—bottles that are at least a decade old

Les Caves 

Opened two years ago by winemakers Jeff Vejr (of Golden Cluster) and John House and Ksenija Kostic House (of Ovum), this subterranean spot seats only 18 and is seemingly always full. (A tiny alcove in the wall seats four; the rest of the seats are at the bar.)

The fare is minimal—grilled cheese, tinned seafood, local cheeses, Iberian ham—so the wines become the main attraction. There’s usually an Oregon wine being poured by the glass, but Slovenian, Georgian, Hungarian, Spanish, or Portuguese producers are just as common. We encourage people to drink globally,says Vejr. The pared-down bottle list (just 50 bottles on hand) is always changing, with a focus on “time capsules”—bottles that are at least a decade old. Check their instagram @lescavespdx for events like a Bubbles tasting with Aurélien Gerbais from Champagne Pierre Gerbais.

Casual spin-offs of Portland institutions

Canard

Next to James Beard Award–winner Gabriel Rucker’s Le Pigeon is Canard, the chef’s all-day café, where you can enjoy high-end French fare like duck rillettes and foie gras dumplings, as well as decidedly more low-brow snacks like a steam burger (an homage to the White Castle patty) and garlic fries topped with an inspired combo of chermoula and shredded gouda.

The wine list, overseen by Andrew Fortgang, is rich in French, Spanish, Italian, and Oregon bottles as well as more unusual finds—a Pet-Nat rosé from Slovenia, an old-vine Palomina from Galicia. In the evenings, the restaurant often hosts wine tastings with producers like Stéphane and Carine Sérol from Loire Valley and Matthew Rorick and Danielle Shehab from Forlorn Hope in California. Get the steam burger for just $3 at happy hour (4-5PM, 10PM-midnight) and wash it down with an aperitif ($6) or a glass of Belle Oiseau, an Alsatian-style blend from Belle Pente ($7).   

Garlic fries at Canard. Photography by David Reamer

Enoteca Nostrana 

Chef Cathy Whims’ design-focused Italian wine spot—with its quartz bar, champagne cork-inspired stools (by Italian studio Orlandini & Radice), and a bathroom sound installation by surrealist poet Ken Nordine—has one of the best wine lists in town. Wine director Austin Bridges emphasises natural winemakers from Italy, France, and Spain (with a smattering of American producers as well). The impressive two-story glass-fronted wine cellar—which you can see from the first-floor dining room—holds over 3,000 bottles; Bridges chooses 24 or so to serve by the glass and half-glass.

The food menu—unlike Nostrana next door—is limited to mostly small plates, but if you come for happy hour (4-6PM) you can get pizzas for $9 and cool small producer wines for $6 a glass. Right now Bridges is most excited about his cache of Domaine Labet Chardonnay, which won’t last long, and the new Nerello Mascalese from Eduardo Torres at Acosta in Sicily. 

OK Omens

Chef Justin Woodward, who has worked at Noma in Denmark and Mugaritz in San Sebastian, came up with a fun seasonal menu at this casual off-shoot of Castagna next door. Luckily, though, the addictive cheddar-filled beignets and buttermilk fried chicken bites are year-round, as is the Torito—a salad of romaine topped with corn nuts, cotija, and a creamy cilantro dressing.

Wine director Brent Braun keeps the wine list playful and approachable, with bottles starting at $36 and descriptors getting right to the point. (“Zero Sulfite Spanish White that Tastes Like Kaffir Lime and Tepache,” and “Chenin Blanc that Probably is Older than Your Dog.”) A big fan of Riesling, Braun has an extensive selection with choices in the aged, dry, and off-dry categories. At happy hour (5-6PM and 10PM-close) food hovers at $10 and some bottles drop to $28. 

Enoteca Nostrana. Photography by John Valls

Wine bars with elevated fare 

Oui! Wine Bar 

For a while, chef Althea Grey Potter was working under the radar in Portland’s buzzy culinary scene. But no more: she was just on the Food Network’s Chopped and Guy’s Grocery Games. Potter turns out simple seasonal dishes that complement Oui’s wine—like chicken liver mousse with cranberry-pear chutney, chives, dijon, and crostini; roasted broccoli with kohlrabi, pickled golden raisins, capers, parsley, sunflower seeds, and caesar aioli; and elk ragu with whipped goat cheese, rosemary garlic grits, fennel pollen, and vegetable giardiniera.

The wine list is mostly Northwest-focused—with bottles from the urban winemaking collective next door and “featured friends” like Hiyu and A.D. Beckham—and an ever-changing rotation of European wines. The excellent happy hour (4-6PM Mon.-Fri. and Sat.-Sun. 1-6PM) includes $6 small plates and $2 off any glass of wine.

Park Ave. Wine Bar 

This wine shop/wine bar hybrid opened in summer of 2016, but it wasn’t until owners Stacey Gibson and Neil Thompson partnered with chef Karl Holl in 2017 that the spot became a go-to destination on the Portland foodie circuit. Holl won Portland Monthly‘s Chef of the Year award in 2018 for his dynamite religiously seasonal menu, full of foraged mushrooms and tempura-battered vegetables. (Don’t miss his signature dish, the 100-layer wild mushroom lasagna, which is off the charts delicious.)

As for wine, there’s a magnificent by-the-glass list—with a mix of Oregon and European favorites—and any bottle in the store can be consumed on site for a $10 corkage fee. One thing that sets Park Ave. apart are its “legacy pours”—old or rare vintages— offered by the 2-ounce or 5-ounce pour. Recently, Gibson poured a 1999 Marcel Deiss Burlenberg Alsace Pinot Noir/ Pinot Beurot and a 2012 Bergstrom Sigrid Chardonnay. In addition to winemaker tastings Friday nights, the shop hosts Blind Tastings on Tuesdays. Identify a flight of three wines correctly, and the whole flight is $1.

Wines at Dame. Photography by Carly E. Diaz

Dame

When Dame opened in 2016, it was the first wine bar/restaurant in Portland to serve 100% natural wine. Though Dana Frank is no longer involved, founding partner Jane Smith has maintained the spirit and depth of the wine list, with by-the-glass pours of Olivier Pithon’s Cuvée Lais from the Languedoc and Jeff Vejr’s Apini, an orange wine that’s bottled under his new Vinous Obscura label.

For the past year, the kitchen has been helmed by star chef Patrick McKee, whose pop-up restaurant within Dame, Estes, is named after his mother. Expect creative comfort dishes like smoky farro salad with grilled romaine and roasted leeks and a sublime spaghetti with meatballs. Dame has an excellent bottle list as well as a small but well-edited bottle shop, too. (Corkage is $25).

The Champagne bar

Ambonnay

Portland may be a mid-size city but it has had its very own Champagne bar for eight years. There was a small panic when longtime owner David Speer decided to up and move to Hood River. But luckily, new owner Michael Knisely—a New Orleans transplant who runs a pop-up Champagne bar there—is keeping it more-or-less the same.

The slip-of-a-bar seats just 20, has an extensive list of bubbly including Vilmart & Cie Grand Cellier d’Or Brut Premier Cru 2013 and Pierre Péters Cuvée de Réserve by the glass—as well as the occasional glass of Oregon sparkling wine. “Nibbles” include truffle popcorn, cheeses, pistachios, and Mantequilla olives.

Ambonnay

Bonus pours: wine shops that double as wine bars

Division Wines 

This is the kind of well-stocked wine shop/wine bar you wish was in your neighborhood. Will and Danyelle Prouty, who drove to Portland in a 1979 Ford Disco Van, opened Division in 2011 and it’s been going strong ever since.

The food menu is humble—large cheese plates, charcuterie boards, spicy carrot hummus and the like—but the real delight here is the broad selection of wines, which span the globe but are expressive and made with thoughtful practices. Even the most knowledgeable wine person will learn something from Will as he pours Oregon pinot noirs from little-known producers like Cória Estates and Shiba Wichern, or a carbonic red from the Loire called L’Hurluberlu.

Pairings Portland

If the Star Wars Wine Experience (eight wines paired to eight characters from Star Wars: the Rise of Skywalker) is not your thing, never fear. Owner Jeffrey Weissler is trying to make wine accessible for all, but his knowledge of biodynamic and natural wine runs deep, and he has a well-edited list of some of the best examples of both in his small Northeast Portland bar. Bonus: he has frequent weekend wine tastings with some of the best up-and-coming natural winemakers in the state. He also allows guests to bring in food from the casual eateries across the street. 

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