Tradition is something Portland winemaker Ryan Sharp enjoys bucking most of the time, but he’s also willing to embrace history in avant-garde ways at ENSO Urban Winery.
Last year, Sharp attracted our attention by earning a gold medal in Wine Press Northwest’s Riesling competition for his 2011 Wheatland Vineyard Riesling ($20) from the Willamette Valley. He also stands out by embracing the ZORK closure for all his wines.
“It’s less of an issue than you’d think when someone sees me unZORK a bottle,” he said. “I like it because it allows a little more oxygen exchange than screwcap, and it avoids the cork problems. I hate foil, and it gives a space-agey, Zennish kind of look. I think it goes with the brand and finishes the bottle.”
There’s more to Sharp than a delicious Riesling inside the nonconformist package he sells in his southeast Portland neighborhood, which is why Wine Press Northwest named ENSO its 2013 Oregon Winery to Watch.
“I love Pinot Noir, and it’s almost a requirement to work with it in the Oregon wine industry,” Sharp said. “It’s the Holy Cow, and people don’t like to have it messed with. I understand that because it’s what puts Oregon on the wine map and gives us international recognition. I sort of left the fundamental religious world a decade ago, and while I don’t think I have made any enemies, I wanted to work with other varieties than Pinot Noir.”
And yet, he is working with Pinot Noir, only in a way so historic that modern-day traditionalists overlook it. Starting in 2011, he collaborated with an Eola Hills grower for a rare field blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
“I call it the Prince. I can’t call it Pinot Noir in Oregon because it’s only 75 percent Pinot Noir,” Sharp said. “Both grapes are taken from the same vineyard on the same day and co-fermented, which I learned is something they used to do with red Burgundies in the 1600s. You don’t want to be screwing around with Pinot Noir when it’s $4,000 a ton, but (the grower) gave me a chance to risk it. We’ll see what the Pinot-philes think.”
He works with small lots — no more than four barrels — with a goal of producing food-friendly wines with neutral oak and bright acid.
“I wouldn’t describe my style as Californian or Washington by any means, but more of a slight Northwest variation on French winemaking,” he said. “My wines are not ridiculously esoteric.”
Instead, he’s chosen to follow some of his favorite winemakers to their vineyards of choice. He found a source for old-vine Mourvèdre via a Tweet from Randall Grahm. Thanks to Andrew Rich, he made in-roads to Alder Ridge Vineyard in Washington’s Horse Heaven Hills for Counoise, Malbec, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel. His time working at Arcane Cellars in Salem gained him access to Wheatland Vineyard whites, and he’s friends with winemaker Patrick Taylor at Cana’s Feast in Carlton.
“I left Texas, and I ain’t going back,” Sharp said. “Before I came to Oregon, I lived in California for 10 years, where I learned that you don’t have to be part of an old Italian family that’s made wine for more than 150 years in order to make a living doing this.”
Sharp, 36, does business for more than himself at his ivy-covered operation ENSO Urban Winery & Tasting Lounge. In the first half of 2013, he scheduled First Friday pourings for other Portland wineries such as Behemoth, Hip Chicks Do Wine, Jan- Marc, Love & Squalor and Seven Bridges. Similar events last year at his freshly expanded facility helped stretch out his initial production of 600 cases from the 2011 vintage, which he sold through — all from his Buckman neighborhood tasting room.
“I want to provide a bigger experience and promote the PDX association,” Sharp said. “It also allows people in the neighborhood to see other wines.”
Portland-produced beer, bread, charcuterie, cheese, chocolate and even pie are served seven days a week until 10 p.m. at his lounge, helping him to create a remarkable vibe in his adopted community where he and his wife are raising their two children.
“I live a mile away, so I’m biking or walking, but as soon as harvest hits, I’m driving back and forth,” said Sharp, who’ll produce 1,500 cases this year and plans for 2,500 cases from the 2013 harvest. “Six months out of the year, this is a walking neighborhood, and that’s what I wanted. I didn’t want to be an industrial area. The front end of the winery has become a local watering hole. My feet are firmly planted in this neighborhood. It’s not that I don’t want to grow my business and get bigger, but I’ll always be here for this neighborhood and the city.”
ENSO Urban Winery & Tasting Lounge
1416 SE Stark St,
Portland, OR 97214,