I haven’t been sleeping well at night recently. It’s probably the wine. It could be the coffee, too – damn you, Speckled Ax and Tandem – which is why I’m off alcohol and caffeine for a while. I’m writing on Day 5, you’ll read this on Day 10. Unfortunately, sleep has been smooth the past few nights. I’ll re-introduce one of the drugs in a few days, then take it back out and try the other, and see which is responsible. After that, I may blow my brains out. This is what’s known as “the scientific method.”

What’s a wine column without a wine drinker? It’s an opportunity for me to write profiles of Portland-area wine retailers. We’ve got quite a few and they vary tremendously in terms of emphasis, style, atmosphere and selection. As with wines themselves, anyone who sticks with just one is unfairly limiting himself. The world’s too varied: shop in several stores.

(I sell wine in a shop, and I do intend to write about it soon. Critically.)

There’s only one wine retailer to kick it off, and that’s Old Port Wine Merchants. Owner Jacques de Villier loves wine and cigars but his true passion is people, and that’s what makes him the shopkeeper’s shopkeeper. He’s old school. Plenty of people open stores because they love their product or want money, but neither the product nor the cash is the heart and soul of it. Anyone who doesn’t like de Villier is a wretched misanthrope who needs serious professional help.

“This store is more about my ego than about selling wine,” he told me. But he doesn’t mean ego. He means the give and take, the chats with customers, the stories and the light that goes on when you turn someone on to a new, weird wine that expands their world.

Larger-than-life though he is, de Villier has somehow assembled a great and complementary supporting crew in Erin, Lori and Jack, who have their own rosters of customers who seek out their personal advice. That’s the mark of a great store: a particular unified spirit, put into play by real human beings with their own subjectivities.

Here’s the unified spirit of Old Port Wine: “It’s just grape juice.” That’s what de Villier told me guides his store’s take on wine, and allows him and his staff to have as much fun as they do. They know tons but “this is not where you come to pay reverence, genuflect and kiss the ring.”

The shop’s selection is as gregarious, informed, congenial and accessibly organized as the staff. You won’t find a tremendous selection of super-geeky stuff, though you’ll find some. Amidst the mouthwatering prestigious labels is Rutherford’s Orin Swift, Mosel’s J.J. Prum, a splendid selection of Priorats, and Tuscany’s Bolgheri and a Ricardo Santos Semillon ($17, Davine) from Mendoza, Argentina (a “big, rich, incredible wine I can’t sell” in de Villier’s words).

But nor will you find a stinker, or crappy industrial product, anywhere. (The only major shortcoming I found is a too-narrow selection of rose [neither-red-nor-white] wine.) Customers are told they can return any wine they don’t like for a full refund, which is what all retailers who stand by their recommendations should do.

Old Port emphasizes easy sleepers like the Cantele Primitivo ($10, Pine State), Pazo de Galegos Albarino ($11, National), Left Coast “Orchards” Pinot Gris ($15, Wicked), Montinore Estate Pinot Noir ($17, Nappi), Chateau de Jurque Jurancons ($19 for the sec and $23 for the tendresse, National), the Triade white blend from Campania ($14, Mariner), and the Abbazia di Novacella Kerner ($20, Pine State) that de Villier has heroically championed for years. These are interesting but approachable wines that take you on trips to place and soul.

And these are wines for the table. “Wine is salt and pepper,” de Villier said. “It belongs on the table, with food, with life.” The gang at Old Port is about life. They say they give out more local restaurant recommendations than they do wine recommendations. They chat with customers for 30 minutes and a bottle of wine gets sold. They have more wine in their basement than they do on the shelves. The relationships come first, then the wine gets poured. That’s a retailer.

 

Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. His blog, soulofwine.com, continues the conversation, and he can be reached at: [email protected]