Are Wine Bars the New Dive Bars?
A minimally set stage always creates a sense of import; think of James Taylor or Emmylou Harris building a world with an acoustic guitar and nothing else. A business tastefully putting together the bare minimum has a similarly spellbinding effect. Picture the art gallery-like Cloudforest chocolate shop, or Courier Coffee’s decidedly unfussy storefront. For a growing set of Portland wine bars, cutting through the noise is about placing all attentions on natural wine—sort of.
Take Nil, the year-old “natural wine drinking space” on SE Belmont. The sliver of a bar sits behind Ardor, a bottle shop by the same owners. It’s white-walled and cement-floored. The ceiling is dotted by hanging pendant lights with enamel shades: yellow, magenta, orange, blue. Eight or so stools line a cobalt blue bar top, and unfinished shelves hold wine bottles with prices scribbled directly on the glass. Some have condensed notes like “cold climate cab.”
A TV on a rolling stand that looks borrowed from an elementary school circa 2000 plays VHS movies on mute—Terminator II on loop, on a recent visit. A turntable sits at the end of the bar, helmed most nights by a local DJ.
Two mirrors flank the bottles behind the bar: one lists the daily-changing glass pours scribbled in marker; the other reads “Dig through the fridge / share a bottle, make a friend.”
“The bubbles are fun—there’s some residual sugar, but still lots of acid,” says the bartender, when asked what he’s excited about from the five or so glass pours on offer. “We also just got our allocation of Guillaume,” he adds, referencing the young winemaker from Ardéche in France’s Rhône Valley.
Open bottles are floating on a layer of ice in a Lucite box behind the bar. Droning shoegaze is playing. Someone calls and the bartender answers the phone, accidentally broadcasting the call over the speakers—they want to know if they closed out their tab last night.
Company, the anonymously named wine bar a few blocks west of Nil, is similarly sparse, though the energy of the two spaces is quite different. Nil is cool; Company is warm. They both operate like a party, but Nil is a warehouse party, whereas Company is a house party. (In fact, Nil has thrown two recent literal warehouse parties at other locations: the first was to celebrate its one-year anniversary, the other for New Year’s.)
Company calls itself a “wine garage,” and it literally is. Its façade is an inconspicuous garage door behind a chain link fence in a parking lot near the bustling section of Belmont that boasts Stumptown, H Mart, Los Puñales, and the Sweet Hereafter. Escaping a dark and rainy night through Company’s hidden door feels like stumbling onto something clandestine.
“We thought we could just have this sort of party bar: cheap wines, cheap beer ... Modelo, you know?” says Jesse Morrow, one of the partners behind Company.
Morrow and partner Elliott Snyder own the local branding agency Old Friend. The two are also literal old friends with Randy Spencer, the third partner in Company, who runs the service aspects of the bar. Spencer has worked in Portland’s beverage industry for years, most recently at the N Mississippi cocktail bar Interurban and the wine-focused modernist restaurant OK Omens on SE Hawthorne.
During the pandemic, the three roommates scouted potential locations to open “some kind of a bar.” They were flexible, ready to adapt to any space the real estate agent they were in talks with could find. One day the phone rang: the agent had a garage in mind.
Wine made the most sense for the space, as it wouldn’t require the licensing involved in serving hard liquor, or for them to serve food. Spencer’s interest in natural wine was the perfect fit, and it became the throughline of business: a different kind of party bar.
“This is the simplest expression of a bar you could ever have,” says Spencer. It really is no frills. The garage is made over, to an extent. There aren’t tennis balls hanging from the ceiling, but there are concrete walls and cinder block furniture. A few rugs cover some of the cement floor, and some dried plants dangle from the rafters. A drafting light table serves as the bar, which is really just a walk-up counter. And the day’s menu is shone with light from below.
The name functions two ways. “It’d be weird to have a fancy name for a place like this,” says Morrow. “You could go to a place called Company and be OK with it being in a garage, you know?” The other angle is the bordering-on-saccharine sentiment that “it’s all about the company.”
In practice, it’s not so gushy. People do seem to know each other here. And the makeshift living room feel of the space does present a bit like a dinner party at your boho riche friend’s house.
Both Company and Nil have the goods. They can be a destination for rare bottles with names you can’t pronounce. But if your vocabulary is more, uh, color-based, there’s room for you, too.
These bars can really be what you make them: you can nerd out on tasting one of just six bottles from a certain French wine maker that made it to Oregon, or you can show up in leather pants for the DJ set and order a glass of “white.”
Minimalist décor echoes the minimally invasive natural wine making process, sure. And lots of love and care is put into curating tasteful if not esoteric wine lists—a term that really sounds too formal for these outfits. You can nerd out on wine, but that hyperfocus is only there for those who want it.
At Company, for instance, wines are served in squat Spanish bodega glasses called “chatos,” which are usually reserved for casual, everyday wines. “The little stubby boys,” Spencer calls them.
He says they prevent drinkers from ruminating too much about the wine: you can’t really swirl the wine as you would with regular stemware to build up a “nose.” Basically, don’t fret over the wine so much. They spend a lot of time and energy figuring out what wines they want to serve, but—or maybe so that—you don’t have to.
A simple explanation for the stripped-back wine bar trend is that the minimalist sensibility makes opening a business affordable. “The DIY aesthetic and unconventional spaces let people who would’ve likely otherwise been priced out try their hand before maybe going big,” says Tyler Magyar, who owns the natural winery Monument. “They have that scrappy, permanent pop-up feel—in a good way.”
A byproduct of saving on prime real estate, extensive staffing, and sumptuous furniture is that a different set of people feel comfortable bellying up to the bar. The term “wine dive” comes to mind. Places like Nil offer a spot to hang out with friends “that’s not at your local dive bar,” says Lisa Nguyen, a local wine distributor who helped open Nil and still covers the occasional shift behind the bar.
“The minimalism behind [Nil] was kind of forced upon us. But at the same time, even if we had all the money in the world and all the space in the world, I don’t know if we would have known what to do with it,” says Nguyen.
Nil takes inspiration in part from “whatever the version of a dive bar is in Paris … these tiny little natural wine bars that have DJs playing,” says Nguyen. “You can bring whoever you want, you can dress however you want ... you don’t have to talk about the alcohol you’re drinking. You just drink it.”
It is, however, easy to get the intimidating impression you might find at a record store or niche coffee shop. There’s the chance that even these places intended to be stripped-back and unpretentious might feel cold to some. “I totally have heard people say like, ‘It feels exclusive,’” says Nguyen. “Which is unfortunate, because it’s not our intention.” She says customers should treat it like any other bar (“You don’t even have to talk about wine”). Many people don’t—they watch Terminator II instead.
Magyar says that when you “become the place void of snobbery, in response to wine enthusiasts … eventually the accessible space ends up gatekeeping somehow.” But the pursuit of an alternative wine-drinking atmosphere feels earnest.
“Company has a very of the moment feel without being too cool,” says Magyar. Spencer says the only rule is “no babies.”
“Everything is up to, like, cool-hip-wine-kid level,” says Spencer. “But my favorite sale isn’t like, ‘Well, this grape is raised in this soil. And this is why it tastes like this.’ It’s like, ‘Dude, this is good. Try it out.’ That’s a little bit more my speed.”
A recent afternoon before Company opened for service, Morrow said to Spencer: “Oh you got some big ol’ bottles!”
“Yep, magnums,” said Spencer.
“What’s in ’em?”