1719 NE Alberta St., 503-206-6852, lescavespdx.com.
John House and Jeff Vejr are at war with the wine establishment, and Les Caves is their bunker.
Hidden in a subterranean lair on Northeast Alberta Street, it's the kind of place where you'll hear Notorious BIG on the stereo and the word "fuck" used more times than you can count. The décor is a hodgepodge of dhurrie rugs, filament bulbs and a framed patch of moss growing next to a Pendleton blanket.
Coupled with a menu that eschews safety for obscurities like a 10-year-old dessert wine from Sauternes, a South African vermouth made with 36 herbs and a smoky 30-year-old sherry House has dubbed "the Pappy Van Winkle of sherry," the duo's attitude toward wine bars is a refreshing affront to a scene they believe has for too long been the province of pinot-sniffing elitists. Relative to the sommelier-driven wine culture that permeates Portland's fine dining scene, the two are downright punk rock in comparison. They're also quick to note they're not sommeliers.
"My experience with places run by sommeliers is that their focus is on a very narrow spectrum of wines," says Vejr, who managed the wine list at acclaimed pop-up Holdfast Dining before being poached by House last June. "Only certain varieties, producers and regions are in their tasting window. They're just checking boxes."
"A lot of those boxes are their own," says House. "If someone says they want a juicy, cinnamon-spiced red and we're not pouring that by the glass, Jeff and I will drop what we're doing and find that bottle in the back. If someone asks for Budweiser and you only have a list of sours, to me that's like a 'fuck you.' You should have something similar, at least, because Budweiser is delicious."
Rather than carry Budweiser, House stocks a handful of 750 ml bottles from buddy Alex Ganum's Upright Brewing. House and Vejr also offer wine from Ovum and Golden Cluster, their own respective wineries in the Willamette Valley, but they didn't open Les Caves to promote their personal brands. They opened it to evangelize the uninitiated and uninformed with diverse and rare wines at prices that defy convention. Considering how it's hard to find yet consistently packed night after night, and also how a 2-ounce pour of the aforementioned "Pappy of sherry" is only $12, it's safe to say everything is going according to plan.
"The biggest success is when [a devoted beer drinker] comes in here and immediately thinks they're gonna have a bad time," says Vejr. "But then you give them a blind taste of a crazy Slovenian or Georgian orange wine, and they're taken aback when they smell things that are in their palate already. It's this aha moment for them where they realize maybe wine isn't such a shitty elitist beverage after all."