The retro-fueled revival of the martini has come and gone. Both the cosmo and the mojito have had their moments in the sun (or dark bar). And beer is as much
a constant in the Northwest as liquid sunshine.
Now we have evidence of a growing trend: the resurgence of the wine bar. In the next few weeks, three are even opening on the same street.
Why the wine bar? Why now? It may be that more people are warming up to the age-old allure of wine and all its mythic glory. Or perhaps it's just the next step in the cycle of alcohol trends. Whatever the case, now is the time to take advantage of places devoted to the wonders of wine.
You don't need to take a class to join the revolution, though a little learning goes a long way to help you better enjoy the fermented fruit juices--not to mention help you avoid sounding like the dreaded pretentious wine snob in love with the sound of his own voice. In general, wine lovers tend to be those who can appreciate a little narrative with their drink (Who made it? Was it hot that year?), but a taste for the grape is all it takes to enjoy wine's appeal.
The libation has stood the test of time, but it remains to be seen how many of the temples built in its honor will do the same. Whether you're just learning your way around chardonnay or are already versed in the merits of Meritage, somewhere in Portland there's a glass waiting for you.
For those seeking the simple pleasure of a mellow scene and some good wine, without heavy emphasis on edification, check out the Sapphire Hotel (5008 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 232-6333). Put together by Sheila Baraga, who used to own the Empire Room, the exotic vibe of Sapphire's red walls, Asian prints and vintage Americana furnishings is East-West shabby chic, perfect for feeling cool and sipping some vino. The list is very manageable, and affordable, with about 10 offerings available by the glass or bottle. It would be nice to see a few more exciting selections, but the choices are good values, and all of them can be purchased to go, nicely gift-wrapped, for a reasonable mark-up.
Inclined to more viniferous exploration? The wine list at Southpark Seafood Grill and Wine Bar (901 SW Salmon St., 326-1300) offers more than 30 selections by the glass and more than 150 bottles, but they aren't grouped by country of origin or grape variety. Instead, Dave Holstrom, a.k.a. Guy du Vin, prefers to separate the wines by flavor profiles like "Lush, Intense, Fruit Driven Reds" and "Crisp, Dry Whites." Stepping through the bar's lush curtain reveals a curving zinc bar fronting an enormous mirror and the oversize oil portraits held over from B. Moloch days. The list is rich, with little-known selections designed to expand any wine lover's palate. "These wines aren't esoteric," says Holstrom, "just less familiar." Nothing on the list is there half-heartedly. "The only wines that are on this list are wines that I love."
A few blocks from Southpark, sisters in wine and smart-aleck sass Kate and Betsy Boling's Oregon Wines on Broadway (515 SW Broadway, 228-4655) boasts 36 reds and 12 whites from the Northwest on tap. All of the wines are available by the taste or by the glass, at a sliding scale based on bottle cost. If you want to sample some of Oregon and Washington's best, this is the place to go. Open only until 8 pm, though, it's not the place to get your late-night wine fix.
If you're feeling a bit more DIY about your wine experience, visit Northwest Portland's Urban Wine Works (407 NW 16th Ave., 226-9797). Not only can you sample its house-label wines--made by various Northwest vintners especially for UWW--at a very reasonable $5 for six tastes of four varietals, but you can also take a class in wine blending. Given in UWW's oak-barrel-filled warehouse, the classes let you learn for yourself (you get your own test tube!) just how different types of wine complement each other, or not, and how to come up with the right balance of fruit, acid and tannins to make your mouth happy. You'll want to stop by here before your evening plans, since it's only open until 8:30 pm.
Maximizing its smallish space, Grolla (2930 NE Killingsworth St., 493-9521) recently reopened with a new approach. Less a wine bar, more a bistro, it now serves full dinners, instead of just wine and small plates, in a warm-toned room that evokes a combination of a pillaged church (pews for banquettes) and an old farmhouse (hurricane lamps). The new menu reads beautifully but offers a limited selection. The wine list is nicely balanced, with an emphasis on Italy, and the glass selections are tasty, though there could be a few more of them. With only four reds and three whites available, there's not much to choose from.
For downright fun while tipping a couple glasses back, it's hard to beat the offbeat Crush (1412 SE Morrison St., 235-8150). Crush caters to its many gay patrons and is out-and-out flamboyant in its approach to praising the fruits of Bacchus. With its warm and intimate space, a buzz of regulars and newcomers alike, and servers who range from scantily clad toga boys to full-on drag queens, it virtually eliminates the serious tone that often comes with any wine glass. The wine itself is still a star, though, with more than
10 high-quality glass pours and around three dozen bottle offerings. On Wednesdays you can order the "Naked Flight," a selection of four wines poured blind for your comparison by the nearly naked staff.
But wait! That buzzing you hear is coming from the neighborhood around 28th Avenue and East Burnside Street, where three new players are set to arrive in the coming weeks. Noble Rot (2724 SE Ankeny St., 233-1999), a sleek, well-lit space offering well-chosen glass pours and a wine-friendly menu of light fare, opened its doors in late April. Following in early June, Wine Down on 28th (126 NE 28th Ave., 236-7068), which will feature sidewalk seating and a baby grand piano inside, and Navarre (10 NE 28th Ave., no phone yet), sporting a large communal table and small plates of Mediterranean-inspired cuisine, will open their doors to the masses.
So what's next? Is the wine bar here to stay? Well, the odds in the new restaurant and bar game are tough--60 percent fail within the first five years. But numbers aren't everything. The love affair between Portland and the products of its neighboring wine country is only growing stronger. And with a dedicated and savvy group of newcomers committed to turning drinkers on to the joys of wine, the future offers plenty of reasons to raise a glass.