Peter, Orenda & Luca Hale at Maine & Loire
When Peter and Orenda Hale of Maine & Loire decided to move to Portland, Maine, neither one of them had been to the city. But then again, they also met while working at Reynard and “married on a whim in the downtown Brooklyn courthouse, on the coldest day in January last year,” said Orenda, after dating for just seven months. And though they intended to wait to start a business until their son Luca was born, the universe had other plans. “We hadn’t yet figured out the pieces to the puzzle [here] to look at real estate,” said Orenda, “but, we met up with the landlord and luckily he wanted a wine store in this community complex that he’s building here, and he was really instrumental in helping us get into the space and getting it started.”
“We worked really hard to get it all dialed in,” said Peter, “and then we were like, where’s all the wine?” he added and laughed. “This whole time was [about] meeting people like Ned [Swain of Devenish Wines], and figuring out who has what and then realizing that no body had this, or that…”
“From a selfish standpoint,” said Orenda, “we wanted to drink these things, and we couldn’t currently. Now we’re living here in Maine, so we were like, we have to get these things here!”
Entering the industry from two different perspectives, Orenda from Cornell University for Restaurant Management, and Peter as a bartender in a band, they both ended up at Reynard, where they worked with Lee Campbell. Cutting his teeth on ‘natural wines’ while working with Byron Bates of Goatboy Selections at his East Village Restaurant, Starfoods in 2001, Peter said, “Through Byron, I met a bunch of really great people in wine. He had a really great wine program, ahead of its time, cutting edge. The kind of people who would come in to that place and drink wine, people like Jorge Riera, and the guys who ended up being the Ten Bells guys. They’d come in and order wine after wine and drink it and make you drink it. It was this progressive but wonderful sort of rock and roll drinking wine as loudly as possible. And that made it way better than whatever I’d thought of wine before then,” he added and laughed. “What Byron has done with Goatboy makes total sense. It’s cutting edge in so many ways.”
Later working at Mas Farmhouse, where there was “a decidedly classic nice restaurant wine list,” Peter said, “it was small enough that it was one of those lists where no one was self-identified as a natural winemaker, but all of the wines were clean and pure.” He then worked at Diner and Marlow & Sons for years, where he was influenced by buyers like Andrew Tarlow and then Lee Campbell.
Ned Swain delivers!
Orenda, on the other hand, managed restaurants in Brooklyn and Manhattan for ten years, including Reynard where she first encountered the wines she came to love. “That was my first exposure to natural wines, with Lee, and that was awesome because she makes wine approachable,” said Orenda. “I think before that, I was always more focused on service when I was managing. There was always a somm or wine director who was more the authority on wine. But at Reynard, the managers very much have to be everything. Lee was the first person that I’d worked with that had the knowledge and the base about wine that made it approachable for management and for staff in a way that didn’t seem daunting.”
“Lee has a really good bedside manner with tables,” said Peter, “and that’s a part of service. And that’s what we want to do here. I think about Lee and people like her who spoke to people in a way this it really is them ultimately making the decision. She never condescends. At the end of the day, you avail yourself to them [the customers] figuring it out for themselves.”
Without sales reps pounding the pavement on a daily basis, Peter and Orenda have also had to figure it out for themselves when it comes to stocking the shelves. “When we first started,” said Orenda, “we didn’t really have the opportunity to be as picky about what was on the shelves, because it was sort of figuring out the parameters, finding out what was available in Maine. There was much less than what’s available on our shelves now.” However, in working with Ned of Devenish Wines, who distributes T. Edward, Dressner and Zev Rovine, along with Selection Massale, they were able to access wines that suit their palate and aesthetic. And while they’re not as dogmatic as some of their New York peers, Peter said, “There’s enough wine that’s grown without chemicals, and hand-harvested, and fermented with its own yeast and not chaptalized or acidulated. The sulfite thing, that’s for someone else to figure out. Definitely, the stuff in here tends to skew, like most great wines, it skews toward the low end, because it’s like addressing direct issues at direct times and not as a default sterilization method. People ask, why biodynamic, why organic, why low intervention?” he continued. “It is because usually, in our experience, stuff tastes more interesting and usually better if it has a better panorama, if the spectrum is longer in either direction. But it’s also that the kind of people who grow grapes in a certain way, the choices they make, to add or not to add; to take away or not to take away, that speak to a mindfulness or a direct willfulness and to how much or how little you want to be involved.”
And though they’ve adjusted to life in retail, Orenda said, “we miss a little bit of the sexiness, the vibe and the community that congregates around a cool restaurant, and that made us miss Brooklyn a little bit. We have to bring it here.”
“People need a playground to fool around with wine and it needs to be social,” added Peter. And so their next step is to bring a wine bar to Portland. “We want to open up the market a little more so the allocations come through. Better allocations. Definitely there’re some spots that we’re missing here. There’re areas of aesthetic and geography and indigenousness from elsewhere that we haven’t represented yet. And at the other end of the spectrum, everything sits in the same price range, so getting more affordable stuff that’s really well done, and then getting some crazy bangers, we’re working on that.”
“If we need to sell a wine so we can drink it, then we’ll do that,” said Orenda, “and hopefully other people will start to drink it too. Now, I have to figure out how to turn this into a wine bar.”