COVER STORY: Urban Arrangement
Story by Peter Szymczak
According to Ryan Lee Sharp, winemaker at ENSO Winery, making wine is a process similar to making music — and he’s familiar with both.
“This is craft-making: You conceptualize what you’re going to do, find the raw products and put them together,” he says. “But that’s not the end product, because now you have to tell people about it, to get them on board to share your story. It’s performance and creation, and then performance around that creation.”
At ENSO, on Stark Street in inner Southeast Portland, Sharp has created a venue blending winemaking facility, wine bar and event space.
“Music is like wine, it depends on what you’re in the mood for,” he says, citing musical references ranging from Tom Waits to Taylor Swift, Counting Crows to Sigur Rós, Sufjan Stevens to Björk.
As the frontman for his own band, The Cobalt Season, Sharp wrote and recorded four albums of soul-searching songs and performed them at shows across the country. He was joined by his wife, Holly Sharp, who is a graphic artist as well as musician.
“When we were playing music full time, we went all over,” he recalls. “When my son, Paxton, was one year old, Holly and I loaded him and our instruments into our little Prius and drove 12,000 miles across the U.S.”
Describing his music, he says, “It’s all about being in this in-between space of not knowing where exactly I’m at — pontificating on life’s big and small questions, being a father, marriage ... It’s my way of processing.”
Nowadays he processes winegrapes — Zinfandel, Counoise, Mourvèdre, Petite Sirah, Grenache, Malbec, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Muller-Thurgau — instead of lyrics, but he finds parallels between the two creative pursuits.
“When I conceived the idea — not that it’s some crazy, wild idea — but I couldn’t find anyone else who had done it the way I wanted to do it. Most wineries are still operating on this very traditional model, with a tasting room and people buy a bottle when they leave, or, there are wine bars. I wanted to put the two together, like a brewpub or a coffee shop that’s also a roastery,” he says.
Sharp likes the idea of merging craft and performance. “You’re partaking of this product that you’re watching being made right there. It’s similar to seeing live music and then taking a CD home to listen to.”
Sharp opened ENSO to the public about two years ago. On any given night, there may be people congregating to attend a literary reading in the back, some just dropping by to grab a bottle of wine to go, while others lounge in the front bar area leisurely sipping a glass or two.
“Part of what my thing is, is creating spaces for people to gather around,” he says.
Sharp honed his skills of playing to an intimate audience during years of performing music. The last year or two of playing music full time, they mainly played house shows.
“One of the great things about doing a house show is you get to really feel the audience,” Sharp says. There’s never more than about 50 people there. You usually have a few fans, but lots of people who are being exposed to the music for the first time. I could tailor my sets, vamp on the feeling in the crowd.”
Playing off the crowd is not unlike pouring wine, as Sharp has discovered.
“Originally we poured wines into regular wine glasses, but now we offer flights that are self-guided with tasting notes,” he says.
“I realized most people do tastings in pairs, and most people like a little distance to be able to taste and form their own ideas — not in front of the person pouring the wine. So, if you want to sit at the bar and talk, that’s great. If you want to take a seat away from the bar and taste on your own, that’s great, too.”
Sharp stopped touring five years ago, when he and his young family relocated to Portland from their previous home base in San Francisco.
“When we were playing music, we traveled the I-5 corridor a whole lot — up to Seattle and Victoria, the Olympic Peninsula. We would pass through Portland on our way here or there.”
Every once in a while, the Sharps would stop and stay for a few days in Portland to check it out.
“We really fell in love with it here,” he says.
“When we lived in San Francisco, one of our favorite pastimes was wine tasting. We’d go to Napa and Sonoma, North Coast, Sierra Foothills, Monterey, and tried a bunch of smaller regions.”
Sharp realized in talking with winemakers that, for many, this was their second, third, or even fourth career. Like Sharp, who is a native Texan, “They weren’t born on a vineyard. It made that idea for my future a possibility.”
Making the transition from guitar to grapes, Sharp took classes at UC Davis; then completed his winemaking education at Chemeketa Community College in Salem. He worked for Arcane Cellars, a small, family-run winery in the Eola-Amity Hills, and still buys fruit from them for making his own wine at ENSO.
“It’s really art, just different media. You still approach the world the same way, whether you’re making music or whatever,” he says. “You still carry the essential you. It’s still your voice.”
Describing his style of winemaking, he says, “I’m anti the dogma of natural winemaking. Just like music, I prefer the side of more soulful, less technically accurate; however, there is a point where you’re just crying in front of people. It might be soulful, but it’s not appropriate.”
It’s the artist’s dilemma, Sharp says: “Being true to yourself and finding something that does you well in the long run; something where you can connect with people, yet you don’t have to force it.”
It’s been about six years since he released his last record, but he says he is slowly working on a new one. “We’ll see how it goes, but right now I’m not playing live. Not until there’s a new record anyway.”
Sharp doesn’t fret not performing music.
“I perform here,” he says. “I perform when I go out and sell my wines to wine stewards.”
It appears music and wine are not so different after all.
For more information about Sharp’s music, visit his music website at www.thecobaltseason.com.
Peter Szymczak reports on food, drink and travel experiences around the Pacific Northwest and beyond. He’s the regional editor for Sip Northwest Magazine and a contributor to The Oregonian.
Address: 1416 S.E. Stark St., Portland
Hours: Mon.–Fri., 4 to 10 p.m.; Sat.–Sun., 2 to 10 p.m.
Happy Hour: Mon.–Fri., 4 to 6 p.m.
Phone: 503-683-ENSO (3676)