By Nina Silberstein
Vino Veritas started off as a collaboration between friends and co-workers. Original owners Sami Khawaja and Dana and Steve Cofer had a knack for finding up-and-coming wine regions, as well as great value in “everyday sippers.”
Surprisingly, none of the owners had any formal experience in the wine industry, just a simple passion and love for the beverage.
Dana Cofer in particular, wanted to make a career change and follow her dream of opening a wine bar, so she started looking for locations. A spot opened down the street from her house in front of Academy Theater in the heart of the Montavilla neighborhood.
Sensing there was a need for a wine-centric business in an area that was already filled with breweries, beer bars and restaurants, the trio opened Vino Veritas at 7835 SE Stark St. in late April 2017. Their vision was to bring the community together through a glass of wine.
Vino Veritas, by the way, comes from the old Latin phrase: In Vino Veritas, which means, “in wine there is truth.”
In January of this year, Sami purchased the wine bar from the other partners. Originally from Jordan, he has lived in Portland most of his life. He has a PhD in economics and has started several businesses in the green (renewable) energy sector.
Sommeliers Trevor Gorham and Manuel Merdele were hired for their experience and knowledge in the industry and have grown into larger operational positions.
Gorham is originally from the San Francisco Bay area, where he studied hospitality and tourism. He started his career as a wine buyer for a well-known Spanish wine and food retailer.
In 2016, he moved to the Willamette Valley to work at Van Duzer Vineyards. Shortly thereafter, he finished his sommelier certification with the Court of Master Sommeliers while working with Vino Veritas.
“The number one priority is to provide our customers with a positive experience that extends our love for wine to them,” Gorham explains. “We want to create a relaxed and comfortable environment for the community to hang out and learn about wine.”
Merdele grew up in Northern Italy and went to college to become a sommelier. He worked at several highly respected restaurants in France and Germany and in 2016, he moved to Portland and continued his enthusiasm for Italian and French wines.
Another member of the team, Miguel Marquez, came on board as a certified sommelier, bringing even more diversity to the team by sharing his interest and knowledge of saké and Mexican wine. Marquez grew up in the restaurant industry and went to college in Mexico City for restaurant management.
As of press time, Vino Veritas was in the process of launching a new food menu. Some exciting offerings include Cajun shrimp toast (an open-face panini with Cajun shrimp salad) and mushroom arancini with romesco (breaded, fried mushroom and cheese puffs accompanied by a fresh red bell pepper sauce).
Two of the most popular menu items include a mushroom tartine (open-face panini with sautéed mushrooms, arugula and chèvre from Portland Creamery) and a grinder (grilled panini with salami, Black Forest ham, Manchego cheese and stone ground mustard).
In addition to wine flights, they offer vino by the glass – from sparkling, rosé and red, to white and fortified. There’s draft beer on the menu as well as non-alcoholic beverages such as sparkling water and hot tea.
Each week Vino Veritas introduces a new case special in collaboration with other businesses to support each other during these difficult times.
“We recently teamed up with Flying Fish Company with a food and wine pairing that is delivered to your doorstep,” Gorham explains. Discount and custom cases are also offered. “You tell us what you like, how much you want to spend and we pick accordingly.”
Their website has been evolving over the last couple of months and an online shop has been launched, allowing folks to customize their own cases, order some of their favorite wines safely from home and have them delivered with a quick turnaround.
“We are very excited to have launched our online shop and have plans to expand the selection in the near future,” Gorham added.
Before COVID-19 dramatically affected the restaurant and bar industry, Vino Veritas offered a wine club to help budding connoisseurs discover new wines. Every month they picked three wines (often with a theme) that showcased a particular region, style or grape varietal.
During the pickup weekend, they offered two free flights for each member where they could taste them all and pick their two favorite bottles.
“We wanted to allow the option for our members to pick their favorites, simply because there are a lot of different palates and preferences out there. We really wanted to focus on new and exciting wines that most people were unfamiliar with,” Gorham said.
Vino Veritas previously offered live music three nights a week. Every Sunday their house jazz band played, a trio of young and very talented individuals. Many of the players still in high school, with plans to further their career in highly regarded music colleges.
Tuesdays were a day for soloists. A number of them music teachers from Montavilla Guitar Studio, across the street from the wine bar. Fridays were for the more popular and accomplished musicians such as Pete Krebs, Steve Kerin and Dave Fleschner.
Their wine education program has also been affected. “Wine education is very important to us. We regularly offered classes that focused on a wide variety of topics, from the basics of sherry to the history of Tuscany,” Gorham says.
Blind tasting classes were held every week and took an elementary approach to learning how to guess the grape, region and vintage.
“We strongly encouraged beginners to take a dive into the wine scene and we strove to make it as comfortable an accessible as possible,” he noted.
One of the most exciting events they hosted in the past is the Urban Winemaker Festival, a great opportunity for customers to meet the hardworking individuals who are behind the new generation of winemakers.
“Many make a very limited production of wine, but with a very unique and creative approach,” says Gorham. “We frequently hosted winemakers in our bar, but the festival was one of the few times where we could get 7-10 producers in our shop to show off their wines.”
They plan to resume all the social activities once the county gives them the green light. Certain things will be phased in sooner than others, depending on the restrictions.
“We are doing virtual tastings every other week via Facebook and Instagram,” Gorham says. “We hope to start teaching classes in the near future via AirBnB Experience and are waiting for the final approval.”
As of Friday, June 19 they reopened with hours 4-9:30 pm daily. Returning customers will notice aesthetic changes to the interior, besides just the tables being spaced six feet apart.
Prior to COVID-19, the shop worked with one of their regular customers to redesign and renovate the wine bar. Designer Stacie Love helped them with purchasing new and more comfortable chairs and tables and rearranged the layout for better flow and stage visibility for their music.
Gorham says the new design is more consistent with the Pacific Northwest vibe: lots of rustic metals, dark wood and faded leather. A new garage door and windows are in the works and should be finished by early August.
“From the other business owners to the families who live around the corner, we could not have asked for anything more,” he said.
“COVID-19 has brought difficult times to many, but continuing to see other business owners and our regular customers showing support for us and others made us truly believe in the need for community.”
7835 SE Stark St.
Photo by Vino Veritas