Word of Mouth

'Wine Dive Bar' Sardine Head Is Changing the Way Portland Drinks

With natural wine, tinned fish, and zero pretension, there's no place quite like this.

By Karen Brooks August 14, 2018 Published in the September 2018 issue of Portland Monthly

Image: Karen Brooks

Johnny Thunders rains down raunchy riffs on a candlelit room in North Portland. But the insistent throb of house speakers is drowned out by a crazy new language babbled by wine drinkers all around you. It’s the sound of grape believers speaking in tongues: “Gimme a glass of the matzo meal, walnuts, thyme, and umami.” “I want the raw pizza dough, bitter almonds, and peach fuzz.” “Hey, everyone, let’s try this red—cured meat, pepper, and rose petals.” 

With this, centuries of wine punctilio are gone in a sip ... or a gulp, if you please. Welcome to Sardine Head, a “natural wine dive bar” that commandeers indie breakfast café Sweedeedee three nights a week.

Your Virgil on this spiritual journey is 29-year-old Paris native Simon Lowry. He’s the charmer with a nose ring and a cap proclaiming “This Planet is Doomed.” Partner Liz White, 27, rules the kitchen, often sprinting out to hand you the house score: tinned fish, stacked bread, serious butter, and pickled splendor lovingly landscaped on an old silver tray. A Texas-size longhorn cow skull tattoo roams across her décolletage.

Without investors, polish, or pedigree, on savings from restaurant industry paychecks, these two friends have cracked the code that bedevils the smartest sommeliers of our day: how to make wine appeal to a generation chugging cocktails and craft brews. Even as Portland’s wine bar scene booms behind major talent—from Gabriel Rucker’s Canard to Cathy Whims’s Enoteca Nostrana—there’s no place quite like Sardine Head.

Each week, the pair curates a list of small vintners from the “natural” world, whom Lowry calls “punk rock farmers” reviving old varietals and producing wines with little manipulation. There’s also a theme of the moment, recently wines from the remote Jura region of eastern France. “Jura = Crack,” exclaims the menu. “The grape varietals and winemaking are weird, resulting in funky-fresh and hella savory wines unlike anything else!” Really, what else do we need to know?

Image: Karen Brooks

Themed wines weave among roughly 50 bottles and 10 glass pours, most priced $10 or less. Information is bare bones: the winery, the year, the place. No grape types, no vineyard plots, no Night of Terror moments trying to pronounce Monastero Suore Coenobium Ruscum in front of a first date. Instead, Sardine Head levels the playing field with a few “tasting notes” for each option. (And note: they’re weirdly on point.) Just say: “I’ll have the violettes, iron, and aspirin,” and you’re good. Most important, Lowry has a very good palate, and a nose for interesting whites. This is drinking for discovery, but also for lip-smacking pleasure.

The food is humble and thoughtful, inspired by coastal Brittany (home to Lowry’s grandparents), seasonal produce, and White’s fishmonger days. I’m a sucker for their tinned fish collection ($8–20), with options rarely seen on local shelves. Among the finds are delicately heady boquerones from a picture-postcard French village. Turbocharged Sicilian anchovies arrive, spicy oil and all, in their tiny jar. Swooped with bread, they taste, miraculously, like an ‘80s-era pepperoni pie from Pizza Hut. “Breton High Tea” ($22) is also adorable and meant for sharing: well-chosen farmhouse cheeses, oozing honeycomb, a vibrant cucumber salad, baguette (sadly low on taste, from Grand Central Bakery), and beurre de baratte, the cult French butter. The “tea” is actually Normandy pommeau, a sensual, apple liqueur served in an old silver teapot. 

Sardine Head feels fresh and new but also like Old Portland: created by enthusiastic people figuring things out on the fly, on a bootstrapping budget. That is reason enough to raise a glass and toast.

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