Foodie Underground: Urban Wine at Enso Winery in Portland, Oregon

ColumnForget countryside wine tours, the latest in vino is what’s being made right down the block.

Living in Portland, Oregon, local food is a must and not necessarily because it’s greener or healthier, but simply because being smack dab in the middle of the Willamette Valley, not eating local is practically a sin. And even though I spend a significant amount of time perusing artisan goat cheeses at farmers market – pretentious foodie level totally acknowledged – I had no idea that what I was missing in my foodie repertoire was an urban winery.

In fact, to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t even aware that urban wineries existed. Foodie fail. Fortunately I have friends that, when it comes to wine, are much more well versed than I, so when I got invited to Enso Urban Winery for the first time, I quickly accepted.

If you can fall in love with a warehouse space turned into neighborhood bar this was love at first sight. Maybe it’s just because I’m a sucker for any place that invites taco trikes (yeah, trikes, not trucks) to serve food to the clientele on Friday afternoons, but anyplace that’s making and bottling wine in their back room gets five stars in my book.

And that’s exactly what Enso is: a chill urban space that’s less about pretentious wine sales and more about being a gathering spot for the neighborhood. The mood is low key and yet the wine is exceptional, making you immediately want to take a few bottles home simply so you can open one up the next time your friends are over and say, “you know, this was made down the street.”

I could also be a sucker for anything that’s produced locally, but after a glass of the Resonate Red #2 – Enso wines are seasonal, so don’t expect to be able to get the same one if you visit – I was walking home with two bottles wrapped in brown paper bags.

A collaboration between Ryan Sharp and Chris Wishart, who originally met when they were working at Arcane Cellars, Enso began in Wishart’s garage, but as of earlier this spring, they’ve been operating both the winery and tasting lounge out of a larger space in Southeast Portland. On the same block as local favorite Meat Cheese Bread, you can pair your glass of urban wine with a sandwich stacked tall with local ingredients and made on housemade bread. A locavore’s dream.

Beyond being a comfortable space that draws a diverse neighborly crowd, Enso embodies the spirit of local, artisan goods. I caught up with Sharp to learn more about the winery, the ethos behind it and what it means for craft wines on a larger scale.

What inspired the launch of Enso?

Chris and I had been working at a winery in the Valley and decided it was time to cut the commute and try a different approach to winemaking. I had seen some smaller wineries on a trip through the Loire Valley and remembered them being sort of “village-supported.” Thought we would give that a go here in Portland. We made our first vintage in his bonded garage and then moved to our current location on Stark.

When most of us think of a winery, we think of expansive vineyards and sipping wine in a large garden. The words “urban winery” conjure up different images. What are the similarities between you and a regular winery? What are the differences?

You’re right. Most folks put vineyards and wineries together in their mind. And we love walking the vines and seeing the seasons change in the vineyard. But you can’t really grow grapes commercially in Portland and that’s where we want to be: In Town. It’s actually not terribly unusual to produce wines from grapes grown elsewhere. Lots of wineries do it, even ones with vineyards of their own.

Anyway, other than not growing our own grapes and being out in the country, we’re just a winery, same as anywhere. But our major difference is probably our Tasting Lounge. Instead of an awkward tasting room, we opted for something cozy and informal. More like a casual wine bar where you can meet friends and have a glass or three. Some folks come in and never even realize that we make our wine on-site, simply taking us for another bar.

Who is buying urban wine?

We’ve been truly amazed by how much the Buckman neighborhood has supported us. More than half our wine club members are from the surrounding 10 blocks! All ages, but generally the 25- to 40-something crowd. Still, people come from all around town and the surrounding area. And we get lots of out-of-state visitors, too.

Where do you get your grapes from? Is buying local important for you?

But of course. We get most of grapes from two vineyards within three hours of here: One in Horse Heaven Hills, where we get our big red grapes, and one in the Willamette Valley, where we get our white grapes.

Do you think there is a general movement that puts a value on smaller operations like yours? Why or why not?

I’d like to think that’s true. A good many of us are cynical about larger operations, I guess you could assume. But that doesn’t mean that we can make crap wine and get away with it by throwing “small-lot” or “boutique” on the label. We have to prove that we can make even higher-quality wines and help folks understand why Two Buck Chuck isn’t really wine.

What’s your favorite thing about making wine?

I love the whole process of watching it come to life, especially the first month or so where we get the grapes and begin to ferment them. We’re just about to start that for 2011. So excited! But truly, I love holding the finished bottle in my hand and pouring it for people. That’s where it all really connects.

Editor’s note: This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’s weekly column at EcoSalon, Foodie Underground, discovering what’s new and different in the underground food movement, from supper clubs to mini markets to the culinary avant garde.

Images: Anna Brones

Anna Brones

Anna Brones is a food + travel writer with a love for coffee and bikes. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Catch her weekly column, Foodie Underground.