Amid a rush of chef-driven wine bars opening in Portland, Oregon, one wine producer is catching the attention of enophiles in the City of Roses. The producer Domaine Serene, based in Dundee Hills, about 30 miles outside Portland, debuted its Domaine Serene Wine Lounge at Sentinel, inside the historic Sentinel Hotel, in April. Though Domaine Serene compares the lounge to European models, it aligns much more closely with American lounges such as The JCB by Jean-Charles Boisset Tasting Lounge in the Ritz-Carlton San Francisco, and the boutique producer Cerulean Winery’s tasting lounge in a Pearl District art gallery, also in Portland.
This opening is decidedly high profile, as Domaine Serene, an award-winning producer of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, has been making bold moves in recent years. Founded in 1989 by Grace and Ken Evenstad, Minnesota transplants with a love of Burgundy and a vision for planting in the just-logged hills of Dundee, Oregon, the winery makes over 25,000 cases per year from six individual vineyard estates. The couple acquired Château de la Crée in Burgundy, France, in 2015; opened a splashy clubhouse at the winery in 2017; and announced a new sparkling wine program from a dedicated 8,000-square-foot Chardonnay and Pinot Noir sparkling wine facility—the first of its kind in Oregon. The first bottles are scheduled for release this summer.
A Branded Wine Bar and Shop
Domaine Serene’s Wine Lounge incorporates a private event space, a tasting room with a food menu, a retail store, and a hospitality and pickup spot for club members who don’t want to drive out to wine country themselves. According to Ryan Harris, the president of Domaine Serene, the idea of opening a tasting room in town was initially floated by Domaine Serene’s wine club members. It was then tested as a pop-up. “That’s when a lot of our members saw the added value of a location in Portland,” says Matthew Thompson, Domaine Serene’s director of marketing. “Though it’s great coming out to the Hills to the winery, we thought it would be good to have some of the best wines we make in Portland—the wines that are usually only available at the winery and to wine club members. It’s hard to find some of these wines in restaurants, so it’s a good way to expose people to some of our very best wines directly.”
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Katherine Cole, a Portland-based writer and contributing editor to SevenFifty Daily, calls the opening “geographically smart” and says the lounge hits the right notes in terms of a casual yet elegant vibe. “Portlanders like to be both casual and formal at the same time, and I think it does capture that,” she says. For a brand whose consumers “identify as rather staid and skewing older,” Cole sees the opening as an opportunity for the winery to expand that audience.
Examining the Business Model
Domaine Serene leases the lounge space from the Sentinel but fully manages it themselves. During the week, the space is used for private events, whether by the brand’s private wine club or corporate members, or as a venue for hotel events, such as weddings. On Thursday through Sunday, it functions as a wine bar open to the general public. The retail side sells Domaine Serene wines and accessories, such as high-end decanters and Champagne sabers.
But although an on-premises partnership with the hotel, and the opportunity for retail sales and public exposure, seem like a win-win, the venture is not without risk and significant expense.
“It certainly is a costly endeavor and something that a small winery would never be able to do,” says Brent Braun, the wine director at the restaurant Castagna in Portland. “It’s like opening a restaurant. But it’s perfect for Domaine Serene. They have the resources. It is a luxury brand, and opening in an upscale downtown hotel is coherent with their business model.”
Despite the hotel partnership, the project was funded solely by Domaine Serene. Harris would not cite specific figures but notes that the main cost involved making improvements in the space—remodeling and adding a small kitchen and storage area. Then there are lease payments to the Sentinel and the costs of staffing, food, licensing, and plateware and glassware. Other considerations include hospitality training, says Harris, which is crucial to get right in the city. “That is one of the limitations a lot of wineries have,” he says. “They are focused on producing wines, and their distribution model is that they sell out to distributors. We have to make sure that there is no disconnect in the brand from the winery to the lounge. Professional hospitality can be a challenge for any winery in Oregon right now.”
While selling directly to the consumer and thus alienating distributors is a risk, Harris says, “our distribution partner is very excited about the brand exposure that this venture brings to the Portland market.”
Exposure to the sommelier set is another major benefit. “That definitely gives them an advantage in that realm,” Braun says. “They can put on industry events to taste through new releases and library wines, and because it is downtown, they will get good attendance. It’s a lot harder to get people who live in the city to get out to the winery.”
Neighboring wineries in Washington State will certainly be watching this model closely, as they have successfully lobbied the legislature to loosen laws to allow for more off-property tasting rooms. Harris feels those eyes on Domaine Serene—but also on Oregon wines. “We’re seeing Oregon Pinot Noir and Chardonnay expand on the global stage,” he says. “It feels good for us to help build the brand of Oregon wine in general.”
Kathleen Squires is a James Beard Award–nominated and IACP Award–winning food and travel writer and cookbook author. Based in New York City, she is also the coproducer of the film James Beard: America’s First Foodie.