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The Wine Shop Around the Corner
[from NW Palate, January/February 2002; updated June 2007]

Sometimes the best filter between you and the “great wine ocean,” as wine writer Matt Giraud so aptly puts it, is a knowledgeable wine merchant. Giraud offers this annotated list of his favorite wine shops in Portland, Oregon.

If there's a perfect wine shop out there, chances are it's in Portland. Sure, a few other cities might boast centuries of wine tradition or consumption by the super tanker, but how many offer so many passionate and idiosyncratic purveyors to guide you?

After all, being inundated with wine choices is not necessarily a good thing. You can't sample everything, so you need the help of someone who has. This town's best shops display a human touch that reflects the taste, character, and even worldview of their proprietors. Once you get a feel for the choosers' personalities--for why they stock the wines they do--you're more likely to take home wines you'll enjoy.

(In alphabetical order:)

E&R Wine Shop
6141 SW Macadam Avenue, 503-246-6101
10am-6:30pm Tuesday-Friday, 9:30am-6pm Saturday

In just a few years, E&R has rocketed to the top ranks of Portland wine shops. Bookish Ed Paladino and bearish Richard Elden pack a one-two punch as the shop's owners, and their passion for the business is everywhere, from their well-chosen and surprisingly deep choices from around the world--especially Italy--to their idiosyncratic opinion- and info-packed newsletter and a host of other innovative marketing ideas. E&R is Portland's place to beat.

Best gimmick: The Critical List, a selection of wines you may return for a credit of half the retail cost if you don't care for them, for whatever reason, no questions asked.

Great Wine Buys
1515 NE Broadway, 503-287-2897
10:30am-7pm Monday-Saturday, noon-5pm Sunday

Around 2000, John Kennedy and Dawn Bolgioni took over this Northeast Portland stalwart. At the time, perhaps the youngest wine shop owners in Portland, they're attracting a more youthful clientele in addition to neighborhood regulars. The front of the shop is stocked with a broad array of West Coast wines, but intrepid shoppers will venture back to where Kennedy's real passion lies, in the smaller Southern France, Spain, and Italy sections.

Parlez-vous du vin? Kennedy abandoned a quest for a French literature Ph.D to take over Great Wine Buys, and many of his witty wine notes--the best-written in the city--show it.

Liner & Elsen
2222 NW Quimby St., 503-243-6706 or 800-903-WINE
10am-6pm Monday-Saturday

No one envied Bob Scherb the challenge of filling the shoes of wine retail pioneers Bob Liner and Matt Elsen (who now comprise Galaxy Wine wholesale distributors) but he's made the shop his own. After a much-needed move to a larger space on NW Quimby, the shop is newly focused and amazingly deep. From great buys under $10 to stratospheric premier cru Burgundies, the shop has well-chosen candidates in every category, and it's an especially great resource for Alsatian and German/Austrian whites.

Top of the line: In the Portland market, Liner & Elsen's assortment of top-flight, first-growth Bordeaux is unrivaled.

Mt. Tabor Fine Wines
4316 SE Hawthorne Boulevard, 503-235-4444
10am-6:30pm Tuesday-Thursday, 10am-7:30pm Friday, 11am-6pm Saturday

The small shop stuffed with wines carefully chosen by a single, idiosyncratic owner is both a romantic ideal and a rarity in this high-stakes business, but that's what you'll find here. Self-avowed control freak Sandy Thompson offers focused choices from around the globe. A gregarious man, Thompson speaks his mind passionately about the wines he stocks--and those he doesn't. "No dog bottles," he says, and he's usually right.

Sing for your sipper: Thompson cast aside a 25-year recording industry career to start his shop, which may explain one section of value wines that you can have . . . for a song.

Oregon Wines on Broadway
515 SW Broadway, 503-228-4655
Noon-8pm Tuesday-Saturday

Oregon Wines on Broadway is almost exactly as advertised: a great inventory of Oregon wines-- with a judicious number of Washington reds thrown in under the radar. With high ceilings and lots of glass fronting onto tiny Morgan's Alley, the atmosphere is both elegant and informal, catering to tourists, business people, and a coterie of regulars.

Try before you buy: The shop's remarkable cruvinet offers 30 Oregon Pinot Noirs and six "full-bodied reds" by taste or glass.

3735 SE Hawthorne Boulevard, 503-232-1010
9:30am-7pm daily

Pastaworks at City Market
735 NW 21st Avenue, 503-221-3002
9:30am-7:30pm Monday-Friday, 9:30am-7pm Saturday, 10am-7pm Sunday

Once the place to buy Italian wine, Pastaworks now shares the stage with other retailers, but its offerings are still impressive, deep, and in many cases unduplicated. Especially strong in Piedmont and Tuscany, both shops feature wines from all over Italy, with choice selections from Oregon and other regions.

Slow and steady: Pastaworks owner Peter de Garmo founded the Portland chapter of Slow Food, the international movement dedicated to preserving local and artisan foods.

Portland Wine Merchants
1430 SE 35th Avenue, 503-234-4399 or 888-520-VINO
10:30am-6pm Tuesday-Saturday, 10:30am-7:30pm Friday

This comfortable shop just off Hawthorne is like the Island of the Lost Toys of Wine. Besides a fine selection of wines from around the world, PWM specializes in odd, unusual, or forgotten bottlings at amazing price points. It makes the shop a great place to be adventurous: they won't all be Châteaux Margaux, but even if you've never heard of them, the pricing makes it easy to experiment and put wine on your table every day.

Trade secret: Some shops buy special barrels direct from producers and pass some of the savings to consumers, but PWM has raised this practice to an art form, bottling some fine producers under its own label at reasonable prices.

750ml [editor's note: now closed, unfortunately]
232 NW 12th Avenue, 503-224-1432
Noon-8pm Monday-Saturday

It's easily the toniest wine shop in the city, but 750ml isn't just beautiful, darling, it's also smart. Though she's devoted surprisingly little floor space to wine (the rest is trendy furniture and art, as one would expect from a Pearl District address), owner Rena Vatch is Portland's only retailer to shelve her limited stock by flavor ("luscious") or effect ("bodacious") instead of varietal and region. It's a great way to nudge customers out of their Chardonnay or Merlot ruts.

Sip and be seen: The shop is open during the First Thursday gallery openings, making it a great place to try a glass of wine and watch the artists--or would-be artists--strut their stuff.

Woodstock Wine & Deli
4030 SE Woodstock Boulevard, 503-777-2208
10am-7pm Monday-Saturday, 10am-10pm Friday

This Eastmoreland-area deli and wine shop has built a devoted following, most notably among Oregon winemakers--the store's wine steward says 60% of his extensive Oregon inventory comes direct from the wineries themselves. The shop boasts a fine international assortment, too. Ask about cellared wines: after 16 years in business, they've accumulated quite a collection.

Fee free: You can buy a bottle of wine without paying a corkage fee and enjoy it with deli fare in the spacious seating area.

Also worth considering:

Most consumers buy their wine in grocery stores, so it's no surprise that several venues are catering to more sophisticated palates. Cheshire Cat at Irvington Market (1409 NE Weidler Street) crams a broad, savvy array of wines into a minuscule area, with a particular passion for European values . . . [ed: since closed]

Portland-area Zupan's stores, especially Belmont Dairy (3301 SE Belmont Street), devote significant floor space to wine. Stewards are usually nearby and always helpful . . .

Many wine stewards in the Fred Meyer chain have the latitude to build their sections as their taste carries them, so at the Coliseum, Hollywood, Raleigh Hills, Tigard, and Walker Road Freddies in particular, the choices range from jug wines to single-vineyard Oregon Pinot Noir, often at unbeatable prices . . .

And, in the "none-of-the-above" category, Urban Wine Works (407 NW 16th Avenue), the tasting room for Bishop Creek winery, also offers a limited selection from small Oregon producers and elsewhere. While you're there, try your hand at the winemaker's art and experiment with blending three wines. If you like what you produce, the shop will duplicate your blend in a bottle you can take home.


©2002 Matt Giraud. This story originally appeared in the January/February 2002 issue of Northwest Palate Magazine. Contact and other small details have been updated by Matt Giraud.

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