Think back to the birth of Portland’s craft brewery bars back in the ’80s and ’90s: It was exciting. Rather than emulating the off-gassing bunker that was the old Henry Weinhard’s brewery, available to the public only for guided tours, our craft breweries became part of the community at large—places where you could hang out, enjoy yourself, and try the brewery’s freshest experiments.
In the 2010s, Portland’s urban wineries are taking this very same step, moving out of the formal tasting rooms of the valleys and into your neighborhoods. But as with all new things, no one knows what the future is supposed to look like.
Well, we think it should look a lot like Enso Urban Winery, our 2014 Bar of the Year. After just shy of three years on Southeast Stark Street, Enso has evolved into nothing less than a new model for what the wine bar can be.
This is not merely because Enso is part of that new wave of urban-winery garagistes—although, we’ll admit, we’re suckers for looking up from our cheese plate and seeing 120 pounds of grapes being crushed in the backroom, right by a piano that the winery stores for a musician friend as a favor.
And it’s not just because of the quality of their wine, although if they hung their hat on their full, fruity zinfandel or their tannic, leathery mourvèdre, we’d shamelessly drink it right out of that hat.
What Enso has created is a bar full of excellent local wine that is casual and pleasant and, most important, completely unpretentious. It’s comfortable both for the snob and the casual happy-hour drinker. You could bring a 22-year-old fashion-plate date, your stern-minded boss or your next-door neighbor, and all would find themselves served well.
The bar’s $5 Resonate reds and whites, blended anew for each batch, allow the casual weekday visitor to stop in for a few pleasant glasses—far above the quality of the usual $5 wine quaff at the neighborhood beer parlor—without recalibrating the food budget. For the experimentalist, a five-spot of tasters clocks in at an easy $10, while generous pours of more vintage wines—whether Enso’s own or those of other Portland urban wineries—might climb as high as $14 for those who want a more refined tipple.
But where Enso really shines is in the space it creates for patrons, which invites you to stay awhile and chat, rather than uncomfortably assess a vintage under the watchful eye of a sommelier. Because let’s be frank: Wine bars have not historically been that great. They’re either a fussy-minded, overformal tasting parlor, or an upper-middle-class drawing room designed to flatter the sensibilities of theater crowds out for their one bubbly night on the town. Which is to say, they’re the traditional province of connoisseurs and amateurs.
Even those wine bars in Portland who’ve dodged that Scylla and Charybdis—think fondly on the lovely Kir (RIP) and the original incarnation of Noble Rot (RIP)–are often boutiquey or cutely clubby in spirit, preciously proud of being themselves.
The difference is ease. Enso’s huge sliding garage door reveals a comfortable space that still shows the remnants of its blue-collar past, with a painted sign announcing midcentury storage rates for cars: $1.50 a week, $4 a month. Lived-in couches occupy one area, barstools another, intimate two- and four-tops another. The unassuming space remains both cozy and modern, with exposed ductwork and a massive chalkboard map on the wall showing the local vineyards where the winery buys its grapes.
Enso evolved, as many of the best places do, as an improvisation. “I’d been working at a winery down in the Willamette Valley,” says owner and winemaker Ryan Sharp, “and we were still buying fruit from other vineyards, going to Washington or Southern Oregon for fruit. I thought, ‘You know, I could do that in Southeast Portland where I live.’”
It wasn’t perfect in the first years, however. There were no savings or money to make over the space, so Enso initially felt less rough than simply barren, confusing, with aggressive lighting. The just-minted wines also hadn’t yet aged into their $9 price tags. “It was all flying blind,” Sharp says. “Half bullshit, half inspiration.”
But like the wine, the bar has aged into maturity. They added barstools here, a couch there, a cocktail there. They changed those lights. Along with a rotating pair of $5 craft beers that shy from dull IPAs or overfamiliar favorites, the shop serves a winter prosecco cocktail ($8) with spiced pear nectar and walnut bitters, creating complexity out of an often cloying drink variety. The bar serves Steve Jones cheese and Olympic Provisions salami, sure, but also a selection of savory pies.
The summer cocktail is a sangria that evolved from a mistake: an overripe batch of wine. “It was never meant to be a product,” Sharp says. “We salvaged a batch of rosé and put it on as sangria. People just loved it. They asked, ‘Are you bringing back the sangria?’” The winery now sells the sangria in stores.
A former touring musician and graphic designer, Sharp is still improvising, playing around with details. “I’ll take risks,” he says. “We made an orange wine, where you ferment the white wine on the skins. We had no idea how it was going to turn out.”It turned out beautifully.
GO: Enso Urban Winery, 1416 SE Stark St., 683-3676, ensowinery.com. 4-10 pm Monday-Friday, 2-10 pm Saturday and Sunday.