A snapshot of “The Book of Tea,” Ornette Coleman's The Original Quartet & Primetime, “A constellation of rare, beguiling Spanish Wines.” If you want to get a taste for what E&R Wine Shop is all about, just take a scroll through their Instagram feed. It’s nostalgic, entertaining, emotional, and comforting in a way that’s difficult to pinpoint. If you want more, go to the shop, but under no circumstances should you visit their website. It’s launching soon; it's been launching soon for the last several years. As owner Ed Paladino likes to say, “We're closer than we've ever been.”
E&R is located just off Macadam Avenue, in a nondescript strip mall in Southwest Portland, sandwiched between neighbors like NW Growlers and New Taste of India. Herein lies some 1,800 bottles of wine, curated by Paladino and his colleague Laura Bartram. The shop opened in May 1999 as a collaboration between Paladino and Richard Elden (“E&R”), leaving careers with Barnes & Noble and Burlingame Grocery, respectively (Burlingame is now the Oregon grocery chain Market of Choice). With Barnes & Noble, Paladino would travel 45 weeks a year, stashing frequent flier miles away for travel to Italy and France to taste and experience wine. “At one point I decided that I’d had enough, and wanted to start my own wine store,” Paladino tells me. “I said ‘hey, Richard, what do you think?’ And so we started in this space. The walls are still in the same place.”
These walls are lined floor to ceiling, not just with wine, but also with souvenirs from Paladino and Elden’s travels and images of Bob Dylan or Patti Smith. (As of fall 2019, Elden has departed the shop for Boise, where his wife works as an executive with the Albertson's grocery chain.) The musicians life-size photographs also grace the backroom wall of the shop, residing over the space like religious relics. On tables scattered about the shop are a similar mishmash of wine, art, and music, including the store’s “rock collection,” an archeological presentation of the different soil types found in the wine regions the E&R team has visited. All this stuff—not to mention E&R's world-beating selection of a hundred or more Champagne on offer—makes you want to linger, learn, and discover what’s hidden in every nook and cranny of the shop. It also serves as a signifier that for Paladino, Bartram, and the departed Elden, E&R is a wine store unchained from conventions.
“When we opened the store, one of the things we said was, first of all, we are going to be closed Sunday and Monday because we want to have a life,” emphasizes Paladino. “And we're going to do things the way that we like, not because we're stubborn, but because we want to enjoy what we're doing.”
In 1999 the wine landscape in Portland was drastically different from the booming mix of bars, shops, and restaurants you'll find today, more than a few of which claim to specialize in “natural” wine. In this way you can call E&R early adopters. Back in the late 90s, “Natural wine was not something that people spoke about at all,” says Paladino. This has dramatically changed, but E&R has not. As wine drinking and wine buying has become increasingly digitized, E&R remains a remarkably personal and intimate place to buy and learn about wine, and in turn, the store serves its customers through curation, an open and generous tasting policy, and regular events featuring winemakers from near and far. It's analog wine shopping for a digital world, and remarkably refreshing.
This desire to connect more was born from two particular concerns that had been weighing on Paladino’s mind in the first years of opening the shop. The first, that there was a lot of wine from Italy and France that was not making its way to Oregon, and second, that the three-tier system—importing, distributing, and retailing—was driving up the cost of wine.
“Those two things kind of bugged me,” says Paladino. “And since I had done a lot of traveling before, I thought I might be able to do something about this. And of course, in our state, we can’t import and retail. We can only have one license or another. So the importers and distributors fall under one umbrella, and restaurants and shops fall under the other. You can not combine them. But what we started to do, probably 13 years ago now, was visit producers in both of those countries whose wines were not here, and when we found things that we liked and were excited about, we formed partnerships with importers here in Oregon.”
This “almost direct importing” has led E&R, and the five local importers they work with, to bring in almost 100 different producers whose wines may have never made it to Oregon otherwise. To choose these producers, Paladino and Bartram first start with a big list of wines they have interest in, then narrow down based on where they are traveling, how much time they have, and who they’re most excited about. After that, they’ll make contact, plan a visit, walk the vineyards, explore the cellars, and of course, taste the wine. In some cases, the wine won’t be what the team had hoped, and at least that year, will not be brought in. In every case though, a relationship will be formed. So much so that, as Paladino flips through the store’s scrapbook filled with pages of poems and prose by visiting winemakers, he says things like, “Luigi Maffini, if you ever go to Campania you need to meet this guy,” and “this is a winemaker in Italy who is a huge fan of Bob Dylan.”
These relationships go beyond business transactions and allow the E&R team to meet customers where they are at. They can discuss the amphora aging process and Biodynamic agriculture of I Cacciagalli if someone comes in asking for “natural”. Or they can help the customer who has known Elden since his Burlingame Market days locate their go-to California Cabernet. And if you've ever been curious about grower Champagne, and want to start learning at a reasonable price point, you would be hard-pressed to find a better venue in the country from which to explore (this work is the legacy of another departed colleague, Stephanie Sprinkle, now of Red Hen Collective). E&R can do all of this curating, guiding and recommending, offering shoppers something new, visit after visit.
“That’s the fun of it,” says Paladino, as though it were the easiest thing in the world, but few things are fun after twenty long years, and this is no trivial matter. That said, running your own wine shop on your own terms, sourcing cool shit you like and turning on your customers—now generations of customers—to just how special wine can be, all to a soundtrack of Patti Smith and R.E.M.? That sounds pretty fun to me.
Ariela Rose is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Oregon. Read more Ariela Rose for Sprudge Wine.