Not too long ago, Brent Braun was drinking Two-Buck Chuck in his adopted home of Santa Cruz, California. In those days, he says, “It was just as normal to bring a few bottles of Charles Shaw to a party as it was a case of beer.” But like a pop song after too much radio time, the cheap wines began to bore. Out with the fuzzy nights sipping Trader Joe’s White Zinfandel to the tune of Nickelback. In with the bracing acidity of J.B. Becker aged Rieslings and Leonard Cohen.
In just a few short years, at the age of 25, Braun would become certified by the Court of Master Sommeliers. In March 2017, the 31-year-old wine director of Castagna, the lauded headquarters for modernist cuisine in Portland, Oregon, made Food & Wine’s annual shortlist of sommeliers of the year.
Braun, who used to play synthesizers for Portland dance-pop outfit Vanimal, relishes the company of a good playlist, whether he’s surrounded by a fortress of empty wine boxes during his day-to-day back-of-house routine or performing somm service in the front-of-house fishbowl.
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“If I’m receiving orders and stocking wine, then [I listen to] something more mechanical or more groove based,” he says, citing English post-punk powerhouse Gang of Four and German electro-masters Kraftwerk. “It gets you in a good rhythm of moving, lifting, breaking down boxes—just physical work.”
The white tablecloths of the restaurant’s dining room beg for a different kind of sound. “It’s always a tough balance between music that’s fun and playful but still not too distracting,” he says. “Right now, it’s summertime, so [we’re playing] a lot of Kurt Vile, Cass McCombs, Mac DeMarco—that kind of world.”
When making wine selections to complement chef Justin Woodward’s clean and focused dishes, Braun prefers those that are equally laserlike in precision. “I’m looking for balance,” he says, explaining that his wine list is not all tried-and-true classics. “But it’s also not a list solely comprising small natural winemakers. I want a streak of classicism running through it as well.”
With so much good wine in Portland’s backyard, it’s not surprising that a number of local producers feature prominently on Braun’s list. At the moment, he’s enjoying the area’s 2011 Pinot Noirs, like those from Vincent’s Armstrong Vineyard in the Ribbon Ridge AVA, and Colene Clemens’s Adriane from the Chehalem Mountains. It was a tricky, wet growing season with an extremely late harvest. “It’s a great [vintage], a cooler year,” he says. “And it’s drinking perfectly right now.”
He’s also taking pleasure in the new wave of wines coming from the northwest of Spain—in particular, Laura Lorenzo’s wines from Ribeira Sacra and Akilia wines from Bierzo. “They’re basically unknown to customers,” he says, “so almost every time we sell a bottle it’s a first-time introduction.”
Braun’s inventory consists of some 2,000 bottles, with rarely more than a half-case of any given wine. The restaurant’s relatively small size calls for weekly orders and a certain degree of discipline. Castagna’s list, until Braun decided to pull a bunch of ready-to-drink wines in 2016, offered only four to eight cellar wines. “It’s still a big, slow-growing process,” he says, “because nearly none of the wines I’ve purchased are ready for the list.”
A roughly 36-square-foot room stores about 1,300 wines that Braun wants to keep on hand at the restaurant. These include bottles like Rene Rostaing’s 2005 Côte Rôtie and I Clivi’s 2001 Brazan Friulano Collio. The rest of the inventory—a mix of German Riesling, red Burgundy, Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and a slew of older Piedmont wines purchased when the restaurant opened 17 years ago—is cellared offsite.
“Google spreadsheets are the trick to everything,” Braun says. “You can access them from your phone, from anywhere, so you always know what’s going on.” He also cites an innate ability with numbers and daily sales checks at the restaurant as aids in polishing his mental tally.
To create a dynamic and lasting wine program, Braun believes that you must constantly be looking ahead—beyond the now wines. For Castagna, that means looking to Oregonian and German wines in particular, two regions Braun believes will always complement Woodward’s food.
Braun has designed Castagna’s wine list to triumph, like any great band en route to long-term success, over the temptation of a one-hit wonder and to evolve gracefully over time instead of burning out.
Listen to Brent Braun’s playlist here.
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Mark Stock is a writer from Portland, Oregon, who is now based there. He spent a decade making, selling, and cleaning up wine in the Willamette Valley in between penning stories for a host of regional and national outlets. He adores Iceland, brown trout, aquavit, and grunge rock.