There’s a door open at the back of Shop Boswell, the stylish clothing and accessory shop owned by milliner Brookes Boswell.
To access the door in question requires a detour around Boswell’s shag rug-like dog, Bao, and entering it takes you to the home of Ardor Natural Wines, a square room the size of a generous walk-in closet. The room is lined floor to ceiling with sleek, wooden shelves crowded with over 300 bottles of wine, each one marked with a chalk pen price, and for a select few, a round, blue sticker to denote that it is also available chilled.
Victor Martinez looks up from his post at the geometric, wooden bar, his smile bright beneath his curly, grey mohawk. He’s opening boxes of wine, stacking bottles on the bar, marking them with their price, and sliding them into their shelf spots with purpose and care.
He pours us each a glass of Joan Franquet’s Extinció, an amber-hued wine made from the rare Sumoll Blanc grape. I ask where the wine is made and Martinez scurries from behind the bar to haul out the tome that is “Wine Grapes” by Dr. José Vouillamoz, Jancis Robinson, and Julia Harding. He plops it on the bar with a thud, and I sip from my glass as he rushes through its pages. The wine gives off notes of orange and nectarine, and I recall the first time I tasted a skin contact wine under Martinez’s guidance in 2016. This was in Ardor’s first home, a pop-up style, natural wine bar that took shape after hours in North Portland’s Red E Cafe. The heavy presence of “Wine Grapes” was there too, tucked beside the cafe’s built-in chess boards. Martinez and business partner Ryan Jones launched the pop-up in early 2016 with the simple goal of exposing more people to the world of natural wine.
“That’s why we started it as a pop-up, glass pour type of place,” shares Martinez, “because we were like, ‘we just need to have a list with a bunch of stuff for people to try, and it needs to be rotating frequently.’ That’s the only way we’re going to get people excited and wanting to try. Just exposing them and talking to them about natural wine.”
Martinez himself became interested in wine while working at a wine shop in his home state of California. He recalls peppering visiting winemakers with an endless stream of questions on their craft. Eventually, one winemaker urged him to take the leap into harvesting and working with winemakers himself. Which in turn led Martinez back to school, to study winemaking at UC Davis alongside classmates including Meredith Bell, the co-owner and operator at Statera Cellars, and California winemaker Martha Stoumen, where together they developed a taste and love for wine produced in as natural a way as possible.
“If you think about wine as food and not as something distinct, then natural wine kind of makes sense. In the same way that people think about food now is quite different than what they used to do, during say, our parents’ generation. People are very concerned about, not just the food that goes into their body, but what goes into the making of the food,” says Martinez.
“There’s been a rediscovery, and I feel like the one aspect of that that has lagged behind is wine. I think it really is just a natural extension of all those things.”
Following his graduation, Martinez’s passion led him to Oregon, where he worked in vineyards on and off from 2012 to 2015. Each time he landed back in Portland he wished for natural wine bars and bottle shops like those he was used to frequenting in the Bay Area. Spots like Ordinaire, The Punchdown, and Ruby Wine. He shared his wishes with Bell, who connected him with Jones, and the pair began balancing their full-time jobs with time behind the bar. There they served a lengthy list of diverse natural wines to anyone who happened to seek out or wander into Red E after hours.
After two years popping up in the coffee-centric space, the pair felt the pull to open a spot that was more their own.
“It was more like, people coming in and being like ‘this is great, you should open up your own place, I want more ways to drink these wines, or I want access, I want to buy them,’” says Martinez. “And that was kind of one of those things where we saw that people had interest and we were like ‘this actually might be a thing.’”
The inspiration for Ardor’s current space struck when Martinez and Jones were attending the Raw Wine fair in New York in 2016. As the story goes, Jones wanted a cup of coffee, and Martinez accompanied him into the first shop they could find. As he waited for Jones to work his way through the line, Martinez’s eyes wandered to the back of the shop. There, through a slightly ajar door, he spotted a barber shop.
“Totally separate people in the same space,” Martinez emphasizes. “And I was like ‘that’s really fucking cool.’”
On top of this serendipitous discovery, the creation and feel of Ardor is influenced by the tiny, hole in the wall wine shops Martinez saw when traveling in France and London. The smaller space creates a certain coziness and also a forced interaction. There’s no room to wander and hide, and there are no shelf tags. You have to share why you’ve come, what you want, or if you have no idea what you’ve stumbled upon, let Martinez and Jones guide you on your journey.
“The reason I like that is because I want to have a sense of who you are and what you want. If you don’t give a shit and you want to get in and out easy, I can help you with that,” says Martinez. “But if you want to talk about it and figure it out, it makes it easier for me to help you find something you like. And I want everyone to come out of here with something they really like or are excited about.”
This commitment to customers, and desire to expose others to a new world of wine, helps dictate the bottles that are featured on Ardor’s shelves. They hail from California and Oregon domestically, then run the gamut through Europe. France, Spain, Italy, Croatia, Slovenia, Greece, Bosnia, and the Republic of Georgia, plus New Zealand and Australia, and Mexican wines from Bichi when they become available. The bottles are a rainbow of blood red, pale and deep oranges, mauve, and blush pink. Some are interesting and shocking to the palate, while others are delicate and light. Most are made from native and indigenous grape varieties, many rare and rediscovered. Others are unexpected homages to classic grapes like Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay. What they all have in common is that they are wines made from grapes and as little else as possible. They are not tinkered and toyed with in ways that divorce them from the land and environment they come from. That said, Martinez emphasizes to me with sternness: “Natural wine does not make itself.” Instead, it requires a dedicated winemaker who makes decisions that respect and celebrate the raw grape ingredients they have harvested or purchased that given year.
“It doesn’t have to be weird, or esoteric, or funky to be good, you can have natural classic stuff too. And I want to have it all. I want to have the diversity,” says Martinez with palpable enthusiasm. “I think people should drink like that. I don’t think natural wine should be never drinking the stuff your parents drunk, by region. You don’t have to drink the really industrial stuff they had, but that doesn’t mean that because your mom liked drinking Cab every night with dinner, that you’d never drink a Cabernet. That makes me sad. You should drink Cab too in addition to everything else. I want the whole wide world opened to all the grapes. Those grapes became famous for a reason. They are really good.”
Martinez is sure to reveal all the facets of natural wine through the bottles he chooses for Ardor’s 30-person wine club. Every month he selects four different bottles to share with the members, who choose from three different membership options. On the last Friday of the month they crowd Ardor’s small space to pick up their bottles and taste all four selections. Non-members can also come to the monthly tasting, and may have the chance to purchase one or more of the wine club bottles, depending on the availability of the often meager allocations.
The club, and regular tasting events organized around regions and producers, have helped create the community and discussion around natural wine that Martinez and Jones dreamed of when they first opened Ardor. It’s through these discussions that the pair gets to tear down the walls of pretense that often exist around wine, and instead focus on the nuanced, often risky, art form of producing wine that is an expression of its natural environment.
“The people that come through the shop range from people who know nothing about natural wine, who are like, ‘I heard about it from a friend, or I saw Action Bronson on the internet and he said he loves natural wine,’” says Martinez with a smile. “So those guys and then people who are super deep into natural wine who have been in it for a long time and want to find really cool bottles, or want to find something that’s really interesting that is worthwhile. I want it to be a place that accommodates both of those people equally well.”
Ariela Rose is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Oregon. This is Ariela Rose's first feature for Sprudge Wine.
Photos courtesy of Ryan Jones