With the first-ever Portland Wine Week coming up this summer in June, I had the opportunity to sit down with three local industry professionals to chat about the wine scene in Portland and what excites them here and beyond. I joined Piccolo’s Kelly Nelson, Erica Archer of Wine Wise Events, and Stella Hernandez for tapas and wine at Stella’s restaurant on Munjoy Hill, Lolita, for a relaxed Q&A organized by Dawn Hagin of Rare Bird Strategic.
I loved hearing these three ladies speak about their background and their shared love for Portland’s ever-evolving food & wine scene. Keep scrolling to read through their different perspectives and a few highlights from this summer’s Portland Wine Week.
How has the wine scene in Portland changed since you first began working in the industry here?
Erica: I think the evolution of the wine list in Portland is, in part, because of consumer demand, but also distributors. We have way more access now. We have the larger distributors who have been here for a long time and will carry the classics, which we love. Then we have the smaller distributors who are a little more adventurous.
Stella: I think consumers are also more educated now, too. There’s a lot more everyday information about wine. Also, I think ‘less formal’ wine environments are more appreciated now. There’s a place for more formal wine dinners, of course, but I think people want to be able to go to a restaurant and talk about wine and learn something about wine. They want it as part of their dining experience.
Kelly: There’s more education now than there ever has been before. For me, I attribute a lot of the education coming from Pine State – they made a big difference in my life. They were my first experience in people investing in the people who work for the restaurant industry. As a distributor, they want the servers to sell a better quality of wine, so they had the idea to introduce us to these incredible people they’re bringing in and it worked – I was hooked!
Working at Piccolo is unique for me because I can really connect with people on an intimate level, compared to a larger restaurant where you really don’t even have the time. I can ask them what they normally like to drink and then dive into, ‘well, if you enjoy Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon, maybe this Puglian wine will be really interesting to your palate and it wouldn’t necessarily be something you’d pick on your own.’ Instead of forcing them into a situation, I become this guide for them, which means they might taste three different types of wine that they might not have ever chosen for themselves. To me, that’s the triumph. The people asking for the Pinot Grigio or the Chardonnay and they end up drinking the Calabrian wine. You can progress people’s palates without forcing the them.
Erica: We also have more people now and more people from away. We have more people coming in here and are open to trying different food. Those people are also open to trying different wines. Having Portland Wine Week this year is the right time for it. I don’t know if it would have been as successful a couple of years ago.
What wines are you excited to see on lists around town? What still needs to improve?
Kelly: I’ve gotten excited more and more about the accessibility of vintage wine, especially here in Maine, because we’ve always had a hard time getting it here. Being able to buy someone’s estate and their beautiful wine cellar is still out of our hands, and what distributor is going to carry a thirty-three year-old wine because half of that could potentially be damaged? So, it’s a treat. One that we have a little access to in Maine now through certain distributors like Easterly is Chateau Musar. I’m not quite sure of the distributor or importer Michael (at Scales) works with, but he’s getting these incredible vintage Portuguese wines that are not $150-250, they’re $76. It’s something that an everyday person can experience that might not necessarily be on everyone’s list, but they’re being exposed to something really special.
Stella: I will say that’s really limited though. Because we can’t buy at auctions, and we can only buy through the distributors, we have to compete with other markets. You can’t do verticals on your menu (here). I don’t mean that as a debbie downer, but it’s a distinguishing factor in our particular market. We even went to the legislature, along with several others, to speak in support of restaurants being allowed to buy at auction. That’s the one thing I would still like to see.
That said, there’s a lot of great wine in Maine and people are advocating for wines to come in, and I think that in the 15 years that I’ve been selling wine in Maine, there’s more here now, for sure. And there are even things that have been here all along that I’ve never known about.
Erica: A lot of what I’m excited about is the small lot production. That’s the stuff we really get excited about. The number one selling wines in the world aren’t the ones we want to drink. We want the boutique wines. When I go into a restaurant, I don’t want to look at the wine list. I want someone to bring me something they’re inspired by. I’m not so focused on who made it. I want to try the thing I haven’t had before.
Kelly: It is a treat to be able to expose someone to something they’re not going to find at Hannaford or Whole Foods.
Stella: A corollary to that though, yesterday Eric Asimov had an article in the Times about the importance of ‘everyday wines,’ especially when you work in wine. He said that the wines that are most influential are the wines that we drink everyday. They’re like the art in our homes versus the art in museums. I think that for us (at Lolita) a big part of tapas night and a big part of our list is that this great wine is here, it’s accessible, and it’s delicious. It will change the way you think about wine, but you don’t have to worry about your next mortgage payment because of it.
What trends in the general wine world are you seeing that you’re excited about?
Erica: I’m super excited about the open-mindedness of trying new things through all channels – from the distributor to the consumer. I think my business thrives on it. People are getting out of their comfort zone. They’re walking around to different restaurants. They’re open to trying new things. Trying new things, new restaurants, new bites of food. It’s human nature to like what you know, but the trend I see if people’s open-mindedness.
Stella: I think the other thing that we talked about earlier is access to smaller production wines. The price for the quality is going up, so you can get better less expensive wines.
How did Portland Wine Week come together?
Erica: We all taste together. We get together and blind taste on the first Monday of every month. Portland is known for our restaurants, our sea, our beer, but there hasn’t been any focus on wine yet. So, one night after one of the tastings I said, “guess what we’re doing? We’re putting on Portland Wine Week!” It’s how it came together so quickly, it’s how we got so many incredible restaurants to sign on. We’re all friends.
What are some of the Portland Wine Week events you’re most looking forward to?
Erica: I’m excited about the diversity. I want everyone to feel like there is something for them. I really want the locals to feel that way more than anything. Maybe for them, it’s pick two things – supporting someone you really like and then trying something that’s completely out of their repertoire.
Stella: And the price points are really diverse. It might just be that people stop somewhere for a glass of wine they’re featuring. I think that goes a long way toward making it accessible to everyone.
Kelly: At Piccolo, we’re having a full circle kind of pairing and special treats you can add on to your experience for dinner. A lot of the wine we’re bringing in, we’re also bringing in the olive oil that they make on the winery. So, you can have a dish that correlates with the wine that has the olive oil – it becomes a full circle experience.
Erica: I’m super excited about an event at Lolita. They’re featuring a marquee champagne menu and you can get it if you want. Come to brunch, by the way, have a glass of champagne or two. You’d normally have to spend a lot of money to get this champagne by the bottle, whereas here, you can come taste a different style by the glass.
To view the current list of Portland Wine Week events – including wine dinners, wine walks & sails, tastings, and more – click here. Check back often, as more events are being added as they are announced. A few we have our eyes on are the Burgundy Wine Dinner at Lolita, the Emerging Wines Sunset Sail aboard the Frances, Burger Night at Drifter’s Wife, and the Mountain-Grown Italian Wine Dinner at Piccolo.