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Virtual wine tastings: 3 Portland area shops say it's keeping business alive during the pandemic

Portland Bottle Shop in Sellwood, for one, has adapted its mega-popular Friday tastings into a fun, online community.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Businesses deserve some serious recognition for the way many of them have pivoted to stay afloat during the pandemic shutdown. 

In Portland, there's been a trend of wine shops taking their weekly tastings virtual, and providing contactless wine delivery ahead of time.

"I've been working in wine for almost 25 years now," said Travis Motter, who was a sommelier at former Portland restaurant Simpatica, and helped launch Laurelhurst Market with his wine knowledge. 

Portland Bottle Shop

"My wife and I were on our honeymoon in Spain when we decided to take a chance and just open it." He's talking about Portland Bottle Shop on Southeast 13th Avenue in Sellwood. This coming June will be its 10th year in business and Motter hopes to get there.

Credit: Portland Bottle Shop
Travis Motter outside Portland Bottle Shop on S.E. 13th in Portland's Sellwood neighborhood.

Before COVID hit, Fridays were shop tastings. 

"Oh man, it was loud music, people everywhere, standing room only," Motter said. "Kids would be outside drawing chalk on the sidewalk and people eating and drinking."

COVID-19 has forced a business pivot from that format, in almost all ways. First, his big menu of charcuterie and cheese plates were not really going to work well in a to-go fashion. So he changed things up to a more hearty fare of soups, burger, cheesesteaks and sandwiches. It's been popular.

Credit: Portland Bottle Shop
The new food offerings at Portland Bottle Shop

Then he took tastings virtual. Every week he picks three wines that fit a theme, posts a picture online of the bundle, that runs between $40-$60, so customers can order it ahead of time. If you live within 5 miles of the shop, it's free delivery. Everywhere else, you can have those three bottles delivered via DoorDash. 

Then on Friday at 5 p.m., hop on the Facebook page and sip along with Motter, whose motto is, "It's just wine, you don't need to be snooty about it." 

He'll talk about the winemaker, the region, tasting notes, and funny and interesting stories about how he came across it.

Credit: Nina Mehlhaf
An example of a 3-pack for the virtual wine tastings at Portland Bottle Shop

"We try to keep it really down to earth, having fun with it, that's what it's about," Motter said. "I'll give you the knowledge of what's out there. We try different things to get people excited about it. Ask my wife, it's not really my thing to get in front of people like this, but you gotta do what you gotta do."

Blackbird Wine Shop

Others have come to the same realization. 

Blackbird Wine Shop on Northeast Fremont Street in the Beaumont neighborhood has been doing a similar thing, called the Blackbird Wine Brigade, but it's on Zoom every Thursday at 5 p.m. It's been free delivery to Northeast addresses; $10 if you're out of the area. 

They post the 3- or 4-pack on their Instagram and Facebook pages.

Credit: Google
Blackbird Wine Shop on N.E. Fremont in Portland.

Pairing Portland

Another option, at Northeat 24th Avenue and Glisan Street, is Pairings Portland.

Their tastings include five wines, but you buy them in 2- or 4-ounce taster sizes that you pick up at the shop before Facebook and Instagram live tastings on Thursdays at 6. 

The bundle runs between $20 and $35. 

They pick fun themes as well. For example, this week's livestream was five wines paired to the astrological sign Sagittarius. On Dec. 17 there will be a "Christmas Movie 6-Pack" with wines paired to six holiday classics. 

You can order tasters here, but you can also call to order for pickup. Pairings also offers online events including classes, custom events, wine tasting parties. 

The versatility has allowed these shops to reach new customers and try new flavors. And it's allowed neighbors to check in and support small businesses.

"We have regulars every Friday get on, we have groups in the summertime at their condos sitting outside and all taste along and put me on a big screen TV which doesn't make me nervous at all," Motter laughed. "They're still having a sense of community."

The Portland Bottle Shop is doing a fun giveaway this month: If you buy this week's or next week's three-pack of wines, you'll be entered into a raffle for a gift card and swag from the shop. You get two entries if you buy both weeks.