By John Oberst-Cairns
It’s hard to believe that Crush Wine Bar & Tasting Room is in Monmouth. Those who remember this town as the last dry one in Oregon may think they took a wrong turn off Hwy 99W and wound up in Dundee. This elegant cross between a classy bistro and a charmingly historic Old West brick building is both comfortable and fancy, and judging by the constant crowds – popular.
After more than 100 years, Monmouth voters decided to end their dedication to dryness in 2002. Grocery stores, and a couple of bars now carry beer and wine in Monmouth.
Crush joins dozens of wine bars and retail outlets bringing activity back to Oregon’s small, historic downtowns. Inside Crush, locals sidle up to a long bar made of finished pine. They gather at tables and eat small plates of cheeses and olives under local art, or sip Oregon wines on comfortable couches around the fireplace. At Crush, wine bottles are displayed like a collection of treasured trophies in your father’s den.
Chris Miller, part-owner of Namaste Vineyards and bartender at Crush, said it is plain to see what kind of business this is. “A very inviting one,” said Miller.
JoAnna Brandt opened Crush earlier this year with her son Josh, a recent grad of Concordia Business school. JoAnna worked for a short time at Left Coast Cellars, but has a long history in retail, including 15 years as a beauty salon owner. She is the ultimate self-starter.
Crush joins the ranks of successful wine bars that focus on Oregon, including a few that feature Polk County wineries. All wines Brandt serves are made in Oregon. Featured Polk County wineries include Airlie, Mystic, Left Coast Cellars and Cherry Hill. Small plates on the menu include items from Extreme Chocolates in Salem, Willamette Valley Cheese Company in West Salem, and The Bread Board of Falls City. When the farmers markets open again in Monmouth and Independence, Crush will feature fresh local foods -- as fresh as it comes.
Surprising to JoAnna Brandt was the eagerness to participate by music students from Western Oregon University. On any given evening, guests at Crush might be treated to an impromptu musical performance by any one or several of music students.
Crush leaves nothing to chance, however. Their Thursday night from 6 to 8 p.m. often includes talented local bands that pack the small house. On those nights, JoAnna suggests, visitors should come early. No reservations are taken.
JoAnna Brandt, calling Crush “an equal opportunity purveyor,” also serves beer.
It may not be long before Crush is also serving martinis and other beverages not now allowed in the town where alcohol was once outlawed. Monmouth’s founders, conservative Christians who abhorred alcohol, passed the law that stayed in effect until locals voted it down in favor of beer and wine. This May, a new measure comes before Monmouth voters to allow the sale of distilled spirits. Crush has become the unofficial headquarters of “Martinis for Monmouth,” the group that is campaigning in favor of the measure, mostly because Crush is where its organizers hang out.
Whether the measure passes or not, Brandt said she welcomes all tasters, upscale or down.
“If the wine is 50 bucks or $2.99 it doesn't matter. What matters is if you like the bottle of wine. That's the wine for you.”
The Crush Wine Bar & Tasting Room
105 E. Main St., Monmouth
Hours: 3 to 11 p.m. every day