Ten or so years ago, as I was beginning my career as a wine buyer for the store where I worked, I visited the offices of a Maine beverage distributor for a professional tasting. It was the first time I’d headed to the conference room of a supplier, rather than just tasting a few wines from a bag slung over the shoulder of a sales rep who’d walked in to the shop. I felt sort of big-time. To get to the conference room, we were walking through the warehouse, and as we turned a corner I fell silent, for in front of me, stacked 40 or so feet high near a loading dock awaiting delivery trucks, were pallet upon pallet of cases of a single brand of beer.

“Wow,” I said to my host. “What’s the big celebration?” He eyed me askance and said, “The big celebration is that it’s Thursday and the weekend’s coming.”

Fancy, important, big-time me, on his way to taste wine and make tremendously consequential decisions about whether to order three cases of one Bourgogne Blanc or another, had just received a clear, humbling message: Beer runs this whole thing, beer pays for a lot of this thing, and beer is what most people want to drink. Go off and play your fun wine games, kiddo, so that we can get back to our real numbers.

Craft beers hardly need to beg “pick me” in Maine. Everybody already seems to be doing so. What’s a poor wine bottle to do? Photo by Carla Jean Lauter

That was largely before the latest wave of the “craft beer revolution” that has reconfigured the industry and broadened the spectrum of how and by whom beer can be made, what it can taste like, what it can cost, and for how many hours a new release will tempt people to wait in a line.

How much does craft beer matter? According to the Maine Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations, Maine-brewed beer (most of which would be characterized as “craft”) sold in Maine has nearly doubled, by volume, since 2012 — while overall beer sales in the state have remained steady. And in 2012 Mainers drank around twice as much wine as Maine-brewed beer; by 2017 the latter had pulled almost to neck-and-neck.

Interestingly, during that same period, wine consumption in Maine has increased by roughly 25 percent while overall dollars spent have barely increased at all. Absent other hypotheses, I’ll call that the Trader Joe’s effect (wider availability of dramatically cheaper wines). Meanwhile, the growing number of national accolades for Portland restaurants do mention a maturing wine industry, and look at the resounding success of the annual Portland Wine Week organized by Wine Wise Events founder Erica Archer.

But even if the numbers tell a mixed story, the feelings tell a straight one: There’s cultural excitement around beer in southern Maine that wine doesn’t currently match. Surely in the near future nothing will matter but marijuana (stack those pallets high next Thursday, Riverside Industrial Parkway!), but for now Portland feels like a beer town, and a fancy-beer town at that.

I will state my bias clearly: I love, love, love good wine, and have spent enough time with it that I have knowledge; I like good beer well enough, but know relatively little about it. Wine is endlessly suggestive to me, while even a great beer kind of says its piece and then it ends. This is not accurate or defensible; it’s just where I’m coming from.

The loneliest guys (and gals) in town?

Is it tough being a sommelier in a state that’s besotted with beer? Per Bengtsson/Shutterstock.com

As a wine lover with a job that has allowed me to focus solely on wine, I’ve been able to just do my thing while right over there the beer town does its. But the excitement around beer has got me reflecting on what it’s like to be a wine lover who can’t quite remain in such blissful ignorance. Every day, beverage directors, bar managers and somms (are those different positions at this point?) encounter restaurant guests who may be wine nerds but also beer nerds, or they love beer and it’s gotten them wondering about wine, or they’re sober-curious, or mead experts, or it’s not dinner without a Bud Lite or it’s some polymorphous millennial thing I don’t even understand.

What’s it like, I’m wondering, to love and sell wine in a beer town? Does the growing geek-ification of beer change which wines get put on lists, which sorts of pairings guests appreciate, what conversations between servers and clientele sound like, the demographics of who comes in to dine? Is there crossover between different camps? (Are there camps?)

I asked several Portland restaurant people with high enthusiasm for and knowledge of wine to help answer these questions. And then I spoke with one of Portland’s great beer ambassadors, to keep me honest. It was my great satisfaction to find that the distinctions that underlie my prejudices actually seem to hold less and less weight.

Coco O’Neill, Director of Operations and Wine Buyer for Central Provisions and Tipo Restaurants, said wine “was and is my first love,” but added that her experience working at the brewer and distiller Liquid Riot (when it was InFiniti) brought her a deeper appreciation for the subtleties of brewing as well as for beer as a “social tool…enjoyed best with friends when time is not important and enriching your day is all that matters.”

Even I, as a biased proselytizer for the profundity of wine in its highest expressions, could not possibly improve on O’Neill’s concise summary of that sacred situation, and beer’s ideal suitability for it. But I asked, “When a guest asks about beer, is there a little part of you that is disappointed? Do you ever try to sway a customer to wine even when they ask for something else?” (I’m such a jerk!) O’Neill responded, “I often ask for some context first, then I try and pair something that is just outside their ‘normal.’ If a wine drinker wants a pairing and a sour beer would slay it, then I go in that direction because I think it creates a memorable experience when things are surprising.”

This is that high point in the life of a drinks professional that has little to do with whether the liquid in the glass was initially brewed from a grain or fermented from a fruit, or whether it was fermented at all, and has all to do with empathy. You try to sense where the client really is, what they want and what experience they’re bringing, and then you honor that by simultaneously meeting the need and pointing gently beyond that person’s norm in order to enrich the conversation.

It’s an attitude that seems to lead the city’s best pros, even if the vast amount of information inherent to each category tends to produce experts in one or the other field. Tessa Boepple, a server and bartender at Solo Italiano, told me, “I’m sure there are some foods that pair better with beer than wine, but I don’t know what.”

Kelly Nelson, General Manager and Wine Director of Evo Kitchen & Bar, said, “I enjoy discussing all types of beverages with our guests, and from mocktail to cocktail, from beer to wine, everything is the right choice.” But if a guest asks you to make a pairing suggestion, do you ever suggest a beer or cider or mead? “To be honest, no,” because “I pride myself in my wine-pairing abilities.”

Parallel Golden Age

I wonder, too, about words. In wine world, we talk about acidity, body, mouthfeel, tannin and maybe flavor notes; in beer, I hear mention of alcohol by volume and international bitterness units, maltiness, hoppiness and the like. Is there ever overlap? Nelson tries to avoid the flavor-notes pretension of stuffy wine talk, choosing instead to focus on character: “I ask, is it demure, racy, soft, or vibrant? Does it have a colorful backstory? How does it make me feel? What does it remind me of? Amari, cider and beer are no exception.”

On the wine-y side of “beer town,” Tim Adams sees a rapprochement between supposedly separate categories. Adams is founder of Oxbow, a Maine “farmhouse brewery” with a brewery in Newcastle, a beer garden and restaurant in Oxford, and a blending/bottling facility with bar in Portland. Adams loves wine, and he and his team explore and produce beers that communicate with wine. Indeed, modeled on the traditions of Belgian lambics (spontaneously fermented beers that age on fruit), some of Oxbow’s most compelling brews incorporate fruits — sometimes apricots or cherries, sometimes wine grapes — into the brewing process itself.

“We think about wine every day,” Adams told me. “We take time to taste wine together. And I have a huge love for skin-contact wine, and the possibilities offered by ‘natural’ wines. When we talk as a team, and in our customer-facing language, we talk about structure, about tannin. We’ve learned that from wine. You go to Belgium and talk to those lambic brewers – they all love wine.”

Adams also rued the false distinctions imposed by bureaucratic rulemaking: “A winemaker puts one piece of barley in their wine and it’s not a wine anymore. A brewer can put all sorts of fruit in their beer and it’s fine — and it’s still just a beer.”

Yes, and can I just mention a personal annoyance that I’ll blame on bureaucracy or politicians or kombucha or whatever’s closest? Whether it’s Oxford Luppolo, Miller High Life, Allagash White, Moxie or Austin Street Patina, everyone in Maine loves a refreshingly snappy effervescent beverage. Then why, dear lord, don’t these same people ever choose refreshingly snappy effervescent wine? All my interlocutors agree that sparkling wine “is the harder sell, despite the fact that it pairs with more things,” in Solo Italiano server/bartender Tessa Boepple’s words. O’Neill is even more despondent: “Sparkling wine is impossible to sell in Portland. I didn’t believe it when people told me that years ago, but it holds true.”

Jesse Bania, General Manager and Wine Director at Solo Italiano, came to my rescue, at least emotionally, by mentioning efforts toward a “crossover point” between “wild-fermented, acidic beer and frizzante (lightly sparkling) or pet-nat wines.” For a while, he held weekly “Spumante and Meatballs” sessions at Solo, and after that worked hard to offer Franciacorta (Italy’s answer to Champagne, with high-quality grapes undergoing secondary fermentation in bottle with long aging on the lees), by the glass at Solo Italiano. Onward, soldiers.

Do Mainers think wine is snobby? Does that hurt its appeal here? Gabe Souza/staff photographer

Does wine’s reputation as a fusty class demarcator — or beer’s reputation for casual, populist refreshment — hold as much weight as it has in the past? Adams thinks not, and brews for complexity and ageability. O’Neill said that “most of the beer geeks I know want totally funky, natty wines.” (‘Natty’ denotes not just minimalist winemaking but also specific, unconventional flavor and texture profiles.) Bania sees “younger people…more inclined to seek out unique experiences” regardless of the beverage. (Though Boepple did add that the “younger generation is difficult to pin down as some individuals are self-proclaimed experts about very specific things. That thing could be local hops, sulfites, or specific wine regions. It’s hard to tell if they actually have a deep understanding of said thing or [are] just quoting something they read on Facebook.”)

Here’s what we can agree on: We are amidst concurrent golden ages right now. In wine, there’s wider availability of more varied wines, an increasing number of which are produced with terroir expression and climate sustainability foremost in makers’ minds. And a new generation of wine professionals has the passion and skills to present these to an ever-better-informed public. In beer, there’s a tremendous spirit of cross-fertilization and experimentation, and a new generation of brewers with impressively open tastes. There is also greater historically informed respect for how wine was made pre-industrially, and for the traditions that have produced the world’s great beers.

What’s most exciting is how all these people are talking to each other, through words and pictures (conversations, collaborations, the internet) as well as through the liquids themselves. The brightest future I can see is one where fermented beverages continue to be acknowledged as a driver and sustainer of lasting human culture, in a way that returns to a past approach where the categorical lines were not so distinct.

Joe Appel wrote a weekly wine column for the Press Herald for five years. Until recently he was wine director at Rosemont Markets, but now, against most intelligent advice, plans to start making sparkling wine from fruit grown in Maine.

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