Mark Ohlson’s expressive face reveals exactly what he’s thinking. And when he’s thinking — and talking — about wine, he’s clearly very, very happy.
In late July, Ohlson opened MJ’s Wine Bar on the ground floor of One City Center in the heart of Portland. After years of working in bars and restaurants, most recently Little Tap House in the West End, Ohlson is enthusiastic about having his own place.
His exuberant personality goes far in making MJ’s a place you want to visit and linger for a while. In an attractive but what could be otherwise bland, boxy space, Ohlson’s presence makes the wine bar — named for his mother, Mary Jane — feel intimate and personal.
“I have this love for Portland, and I’m very happy to be downtown,” he said. “The bottom of Free Street has this great little community … this location is exactly what I wanted.”
It’s a generous room with an industrial-ish cement floor and distinct seating areas: Cushy leather sofas bordering an Oriental rug; a rustic wood, high-top table with five seats on each side; a horseshoe-shaped bar.
An old upright piano beckons those whose musical gifts might be shared after a glass or two of wine. On one large wall, an artist is in the process of painting a mural of the world’s wine-producing regions. Ohlson says he has plans to further cozy things up, including panels to help muffle sound. The addition of heaters will make the patio comfortable as the weather cools.
My companion and I settled in at the bar and ordered two glasses of wine, which were generously poured: l’Enclos rose, a blend from Gascony, France, and Thresher sauvignon blanc from Chile (both $8). Ohlson sat nearby, poring over a wine catalog; he said he was in the process of revising his list for the fall.
All wine bars offer wines by the glass, but MJ’s takes the tasting concept a step further, making the majority of its wines available by the half glass as well. The list of 30 includes six sparkling wines, 12 whites and 12 reds. Prices range from $6 to $14 per glass, with most $7 to $8. Half glasses are priced from $3 to $7. There are also seven ports and dessert wines (by the glass or bottle only), and a limited number of reserve bottles.
The atmosphere is clearly designed for wine fans, but beer drinkers are not ignored. Two taps each feature brews from a single Maine brewery; the selection changes monthly. You won’t find Budweiser or Blue Moon, but a bottle list of more esoteric choices should keep beer geeks who accompany their wine-drinking friends content.
There is intentionally no kitchen. To pair with drinks, MJ’s has a small list of nibbles — nuts, olives and cheeses. We sampled three: Local York Hill Farm chevre, Rougette triple cream from Bavaria, and Spanish manchego, all purchased from K. Horton Specialty Foods in the Portland Public Market.
They were nicely presented on a stainless steel tray with two kinds of mustard, a little pool of honey, a sliced baguette and a small dish of delicious homemade pickles, but given the small portions, the $19 price tag seemed a bit steep.
Having studied his favorite subject extensively, Ohlson is keenly interested in wine education. Every Thursday post-happy hour (4 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday), he offers an informal “class” at the high-top tasting table. For $15 to $20, participants get four half-glasses of wine of a certain varietal or from a certain region.
As a group starts to gather, Ohlson begins to talk.
“People in the beginning are only half into the education piece,” he said. “But as the wines they’re tasting start to echo what I’m saying, they start to really pay attention.”
Sundays at MJ’s are “Funday,” with $3 make-your-own waffles on a waffle iron Ohlson borrows from neighboring Wannawaf and discounted glasses of bubbly from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. — another example of Ohlson’s mission to put his own stamp on the wine bar concept and draw people in.
It certainly seems to be working.
“This was an abandoned pizza place,” he said. “And now it’s a center for connection, education and beverage.”
Susan S. Axelrod may be contacted at: