When you want something done right, do it yourself. Courtney Taylor-Taylor, frontman for Oregon-based rock band The Dandy Warhols, has embraced that idiom. Unbeknownst to most Portlanders, he quietly debuted a wine shop and bar, The Old Portland, inside the Odditorium—a clubhouse and music studio owned by the band—in the Slabtown neighborhood.
Taylor-Taylor wanted a casual spot that suited his tastes: aged Bordeaux and punk bars. Within the new base for the band’s operations, he crafted his vision of a saloon stained with “a rock vibe that you couldn’t get out with bleach.”
A dozen seats, a few by-the-glass selections and the ability to enjoy a bottle casually have turned the space into a hangout more than a shop. Affordable snacks, because musicians are “experts at maximizing value on a menu,” makes The Old Portland the “most amazing cheap-date experience,” Taylor-Taylor says. The music leans midcentury, as do the prices.
“These ’90s wines are $12 by the glass,” he says. “Just like back in Old Portland.”
Taylor-Taylor spoke to Wine Enthusiast about his first taste of Bordeaux, his predilection for aged wines and his delight in hosting over-the-top wine dinners.
Why did you decide to open a wine bar, especially in your studio?
I needed a place to go. That’s the long and short of it. I don’t love beer, and I can’t handle hard booze. Bars don’t sell 20-year-old French wine by the glass, so what am I supposed to do? See if my rocker friends want to meet me at some slick and douchey wine bar for a $30 glass of Napa Cab after their shift bussing tables at the coffee shop? Fortunately, I’m not famous enough to excite any hubbub, so I get to do whatever I want. I can get pretty tossed in there and people seem to be O.K. with it. Occasionally, some Dandy fans introduce themselves, but since we’ve always been a band for smart kids, they’re pretty cool people.
How did you settle on an aesthetic for the bar, and how does the décor fit your personality?
Everything in the place, like myself, is a relic from Old Portland. Me and the boys salvaged from legendary Portland hangs: the Lotus Cardroom, Satyricon, the old Hilton wine bar, Wildwood and more. Half the walls are covered with rock posters from the ’80s and ’90s: Fugazi at the Pine Street Theatre, Ginsberg at Cinema 21, Nirvana opening for Sonic Youth, Elliott Smith, Metallica, you name it. We collected a lot of ’em, and until now, they were basically hoarder junk.
Outside of your fans, how do other Old Portland customers find out about the bar?
Portland’s local weekly, Willamette Week, has single-handedly made this joint possible. I don’t advertise, and I don’t really go out anywhere else, so when we show up in their magazine, that’s pretty much it. I like the “secret spot” vibe, and I don’t manicure the front so that it looks scary from the outside. I always liked those authentic, less contrived places in the world, so as things get gentrified, I appreciate this more and more.
What criteria do you use when selecting wines by the glass?
Well, things were going swimmingly for the first six months when all of a sudden it was [90 degrees outside]. SURPRISE! Nobody gives a rat’s ass about 1998 Haut-Médoc today. Or tomorrow. Or the day after. Not only that, but we can no longer get shipments from out of state specialty distributors, because the trucks get up around 110 degrees in back, and that’ll kill any wine that isn’t fortified.
So, I started developing relationships with local distributors and began tasting gallons of rosé immediately, bubbles and not. Dave Rounds from The Wine Trust saved our butts when he walked in and said, “Here, try this, but don’t look at the label.” It was a classic Tavel-style rosé [but from Provence]…Travis wraps a cloth napkin around it before he pours. But still, it’s probably the best I’ve ever tasted. Score. Between that and Codorniu’s pink Cava, we slayed it all summer long.
When did you first develop an affinity for wine?
About 20 years ago on tour, I walked into a bar and asked for a glass of wine. I’d tried many expensive bottles whilst at record label dinners, but hadn’t really had that classic literary wine experience. They were always recent vintages of New World juice, so it was heartbreaking to think I wasn’t a wine drinker.
Anyhoo, at a random bar in France, an old dude set a small water glass in front of me and filled it halfway from a half-empty [wine] bottle. It was room temp and velvety with a slight peppery burn and as I drank it, I became more engulfed in this simple experience, thinking, ”How the [hell] can this bit of liquid be doing so much to my world?” [I said,] “Hey, what the hell is this?” Dude turns slowly and looks at me like I am the dumbest person. “Bordeaux.” Doh. That’s right, we were playing in Bordeaux.
You aren’t too fond of New World wines. Why?
Aggressive acid, booze, and fruit generally get in the way of my trip. That “well-aged” thing really connects with me, and that does include classic Napa Cabs from the ’80s and ’90s. At the shop, we sell whatever tickles my fancy, which includes Walla Walla and Heitz Cellar or Erath from bygone decades when I find them.
Does wine remind you of music in any way? What about art or literature?
Yep. All of the above. On a technical level, I want a wine to have a balance of high end, midrange and bottom end. For example, fruit, alcohol, tannins, acid and terroir all need to be balanced in such a way that the “story” is evident. I think that’s true for all three of those mediums.
All artists are trying to do the same thing: create the greatest expression they can, given their skills and the whims of the world they are privy to. It’s like a magic trick when it works, a full-on, “How did you do that?” experience.
Do you spend much time thinking about how wine and food relate to each other? Or ever host wine dinners—or dinners with loads of wine?
Wine dinners are one of the greatest joys of my life. The Dandys host a wine-pairing dinner and performance before Christmas every year, and I’m in charge of the pairings. Usually six courses, at least. I host a lot of smaller ones as well.
France is the beginning and basis for wine food, as far as I can tell. You can only get more interesting from there. But don’t stray too far, or you might end up thinking, “This dish makes this wine taste like vinegar or formaldehyde” or something. We were just in French Polynesia, and they’ve got an amazing twist on French cuisine. They definitely push the limits of how much tropical fruit can be in a creamy-salty dish before even white Bourgogne can’t handle it. Sure was fun, though.