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Portland’s Wine Bars Morphed Into Makeshift Bottle Shops. Will They Change Back?

The wine retail shift gave owners a way to run during the pandemic, though many are now searching for a way back to what made their wine bars special in the first place

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On September 24, 2020, the rosé-hued wine bar and restaurant Bar Diane celebrated its one-year anniversary. For half of its lifetime, however, the Northwest Portland spot has looked completely different from what owner Sami Gaston had imagined. Instead of customers sipping glasses of semillon or lambrusco inside the semi-hidden space, tucked in an alley off NW 21st, its tables are now densely packed with bottles of wine that blanket every surface in the shop. As a survival mechanism, Gaston turned Bar Diane into a bottle shop, stocking her bar with little tins of fish and jars of Jacobsen honey. At first, she thought it would be temporary. Now, it’s become the norm.

While Portland has long had a reputation for being a brewery city, its location between two stellar wine regions — the lauded and sprawling Willamette Valley and the ever-developing Columbia Valley — make it an exemplary city for wine. For many years, restaurants were the destination for wine fans, from the deep cellars of the venerable Ringside Steakhouse to Italian gem Nostrana’s collection of wines from Italy, and even Pix Patisserie with its incredible stock of sparkling wine and sherry.

As the city evolved, its wine bars grew, with places like the subterranean Les Caves; the elegant Noble Rot, with its balcony patio; and the locally focused Oregon Wines on Broadway. Urban wineries like Southeast Wine Collective, Teutonic Wines, and Viola Wine Centers allowed imbibers to chat with winemakers over glasses of their product without leaving town.

In recent years, a crop of new, diverse wine bars surfaced. The chic and minimalist Ok Omens took over Cafe Castagna, offering a menu with deep dives into rieslings, rare Californian bottles, and other specialties not always seen on Portland menus. These are often offered at absurdly bargain prices along with playful bar food like fried chicken-topped salads and savory beignets. Canard, itself an offshoot of an established fine dining restaurant, Le Pigeon, arrived with opulence and indulgence, letting diners sip vermouth and white wines at all hours, with plates of steam burgers and stacks of duck-fat pancakes. Nostrana got into the game as well, opening the glitzy Enoteca Nostrana next door with a massive wall of Italian wines, many hard to come by anywhere else in town.

Quieter, independent casual spots debuted, too — wine maven Dana Frank opened Bar Norman on SE Clinton as a place to chat with guests about natural wines over glasses of her current favorite examples. Across town at the wine-hued Bar Diane, Sami Gaston offered a similarly hospitable and educational experience, as well as craft cocktails.

For a moment, it seemed like the city’s wine scene was at a peak, even with the challenges it faced with the Trump administration’s proposed massive tariffs on wine. But that threat paled in comparison to the arrival of COVID-19. Since March 2020, Portland wine bars young and old have had to adapt to persevere during a pandemic that keeps doors closed and customers at home. Summer brought some relief, with a few spots opening with outside dining areas, but as the inevitable rain and cold approaches, things have become more dire. Now, Portland’s wine bars have dived into retail, embracing their identity as makeshift wine shops; as a result, younger Portland diners and drinkers have started to embrace bottle purchases. The question is, will that be enough to keep those wine bars alive?

Prior to March, Bar Norman’s Dana Frank could be found pouring glasses of funky and fun natural wines to guests in her SE Clinton wine bar, with its tall ceilings and white walls. But when dining rooms were ordered to shut down operations, she had to close up shop, leaving her seafoam green bar empty. A few weeks later, Frank reopened — in a way. Instead of pouring glasses of Piedmontian skin-contact wines from behind the bar, she launched a shopping service called Quarantine Quaffers, a delivery system that features a package of wines she selects each week. Most weeks, the list is centered around a theme, like West Coast wines or natural wines from Italy. Frank leaned on her skill and passion for curating selections of wine rather than overwhelming customers with a huge online market to scroll through. “From a shopping perspective, it makes it so much easier and more customer-friendly to look at six or eight wines rather than 100 or 200 wines,” she says.

This model — selling a rotating, tight collection of wines — was more approachable to people who don’t normally buy wine. For the first time in 25 years, wine consumption in the United States dropped in 2019, a dip the International Wines and Spirits Record attributed to baby boomers aging out of heavy drinking and millennials finding more interest in spirits and hard seltzers. However, by the end of the week of March 14, wine sales shot up 27 percent. Unable to visit cocktail bars, drinkers seemed to think wine was a better option — and wine bars knew to be ready when people were looking for something interesting. Some shops, instead of going for a curated list, created wine packs for those looking to stock up their pandemic cellars. Canard co-owner and wine director Andy Fortgang has been assembling packs every two weeks, usually a pack with three high-end wines from the cellar, and another pack with six or so “everyday drinking wines.” But for a restaurant like Canard that relies heavily on sales of food and cocktails in addition to wine, these curated packages are just one piece among many. “There are very few grand pivots; there are lots of little ones,” Fortgang says.

Some wine bars, however, didn’t have the history or culinary program of a place like Canard. Stem Wine Bar, an elegant and modern space on North Mississippi, opened in February, just five weeks before the mandated shutdown. While the bar briefly played with the idea of delivering food, that was quickly put aside in favor of selling wine packs — usually about four bottles — with pickup and same-day delivery. These packs are designed around the flights that Stem has offered since its opening. “I decided to put everything on the online store, and give delivery services, and I kept expanding it,” says owner Wei-En Tan. “I had nothing else to do. I was just sitting inside my empty bar trying to pay rent.”

Wine delivery became extremely popular with both wine shop owners, who wanted to get bottles out to customers, and wine drinkers, who didn’t want to leave their homes during the pandemic. Wine bars and restaurants like Les Caves and Dame have started offering in-house wine delivery; for Jeffrey Weissler, of Pairings Shop and Bar, it’s been a lifesaver. The eccentric wine bar — known for its flights based on TV shows, musicians, book characters, and the like — launched a delivery system with a small group of employees, which has consistently seen high sales. “We decided two months after starting delivery that we would never go back from doing delivery,” he says. He’s even quietly changed the name of his establishment to Pairings Portland Wine Shop and Delivery. “It’s safe, it’s convenient, it’s curated ... it’s kind of awesome.”

Still, businesses have had to make difficult decisions to adapt. When Bar Diane owner Sami Gaston originally had to close her bar in March, she started selling off some of the cellar to friends and family to help pay rent. Then, when it was clear that reopening would not happen anytime soon, Gaston furloughed her workers and transitioned the business into a full online market and wine shop, along with some baked goods and other snacks. The restaurant’s original chef, Malcolm Smitley, moved up to help run the wine shop; the kitchen has become a two-person operation.

Some wine bars — especially those known for their restaurants — have had to put their dining service on the backburner, turning their wine bars into bottle shops out of sheer necessity. While this keeps business going, the pattern suggests that Portland’s nouveau bistros could be in danger. It also foreshadows a grim future for Portland’s standing wine bars, which are an integral part of Portland’s culture not just for the wine, but for the experience. The urban winery group Southeast Wine Collective has closed its dining program as the adjacent Oui Wine Bar, and converted to an online market with shipping and local pickup available. While wine sales are steady enough, for them it’s the continued pivots and stress that wears them down, from getting a website up to offering service to closing that and focusing again on other programs. “They’re absolutely draining on the whole team,” says Southeast Wine Collective co-owner Kate Norris. “You make every single change you need to adapt, but it’s one of the most draining things I’ve ever gone through, and that we’ve gone through as a team.” Her co-owner Thomas Monroe says they’re designing a T-shirt that says “Fuck Pivots.”

Other bars have since added retail, like Frank’s Bar Norman, or continued to offer retail, like Pairings. Beyond the frustrations with continual pivots, though, there’s a financial downside: Retail wine sales have considerably lower profit margins than glass pours. For instance, a bottle that sells for $25 from the bar might be $10 a glass — with around six pours available per bottle, it’s a massive difference in price.

But for Portland wine bar owners, it’s about much more than just the margins — no one opens a wine bar to get rich. For them, it’s about interacting with customers at the bar, telling them about the wine they’re drinking, what’s exciting about it, who makes it. For instance, Frank, who opened Bar Norman specifically as a place to chat one-on-one with guests about her favorite wines, wonders if she wants to continue to keep her space if it’s just operating as a store. “Being a standalone retail shop isn’t my long-term plan,” she says. “It’s great for now, but it’s a Band-Aid.”

A bottle shop, of course, isn’t a wine bar. It doesn’t have the buzz of customers, the conversations between servers and drinkers, the energy of a crowded space of passionate — perhaps even nerdy — Portlanders, drinking a portrait of a time and place through grapes and yeast.

Now, past the six-month mark since the pandemic started in Oregon, many wine bar owners are trying to figure out how to bring back that identity — and in-person customers. Some bars, like OK Omens, have started serving customers on outdoor patios, preparing them for winter. Others, like Southeast Wine Collective and Stem, are offering private tastings, which they see as a safe way to bring customers back indoors. Southeast Wine Collective is setting up a new program where groups as small as two and as large as 10 can come in for a variety of hosted wine flights. Similarly, Stem Wine Bar offers private tastings, with Tan saying it’s generally couples who attend the sessions, which range from about an hour and a half to over two hours.

Amid the movement to online markets and home delivery, however, one thing has become clear: In order for wine bars to survive this and eventually return with a semblance of normality, they need some sort of support from the government. “Whatever money our government has to spend to keep the hospitality alive is far less than the total economic impact if we all go bankrupt,” says Monroe. “Potentially up to a trillion dollars [stimulus] in the hospitality industry versus potential trillions lost overall.”

For spots like Bar Diane and Pairings, it’s more about additional exposure and more shoppers — Bar Diane is at a distinct disadvantage given its tucked-away nature off of NW 21st Avenue. “Things that are an advantage for intimate dining situations are a disadvantage for retail,” says Gaston. “People just wander down and don’t even know what we are.”

There have been potential signs of support, though it’s unclear if and when those would come. “Both individually and largely, something like the RESTAURANTS Act … would create actual, fundamental financial support for restaurants to sludge through this,” says Fortgang of the piece of legislation, helmed by Multnomah County’s representative Earl Blumenauer. But even with that, he’s not wholly optimistic. “Ultimately, it’s not about just helping us out — if you have a favorite thing, buy it, or you’ll never be able to. If doing it for them doesn’t cut it, do it for yourself. You don’t plant a garden because you love getting dirt under your fingernails, you do it because you want to eat the tomatoes later.”