By Nancy Zimmermann Chung
One of the most recent additions to North Williams Avenue, WineUp on Williams opened this fall in Eliot’s historic Rinehart Building. Recently, I stopped by to take advantage of the bar’s “Tightwad Tuesday” deals and to chat with co-owner Wayne Oppenheimer.
The Rinehart Building has been vacant for more than a decade, but this year its new owner, Timothy Brown, completed a total renovation of the space. The rehabilitated structure sports restored brick, replica storefronts and cornices, two built-out ground floor tenant spaces, and five re-created apartment units.
WineUp feels pleasantly familiar the moment you walk into inside, and has already begun to establish itself as a favorite neighborhood eatery and hangout. Wine bottles, guarded by a suit of armor, line the brick walls of the entryway, which quickly gives way to the bar and restaurant area. The place is already starting to hum when I arrive around six, with a group of patrons providing voluble commentary on the Portland Trailblazers game. Although I’ve never met him before, it’s easy to spot Wayne: the tall guy in the middle of the room sporting purple hair and a proprietary air.
Wayne guides me downstairs, away from the increasing hubbub, and immediately launches into an enthusiastic overview of his newest venture. He describes WineUp’s unique business model as “vertically integrated.” They have wine tours, a wine shop, a wine bar, a wine club, and even a show on the internet (WineUpTV). He explains that WineUp has distinguished itself from other wine tour companies because tourists are able to ship their wine purchases home through the retail shop, obviating the need to spend precious vacation hours searching for appropriate packaging and delivery options. This capability, along with excellent TripAdvisor reviews, has earned WineUp a strong reputation amongst local hotels.
WineUp has also been offering Groupons and daily specials to entice potential wine-lovers in to sample vintages from around the world. The current membership deal (for $100, you get access to the cellar and one glass of house wine every day that the bar is open) has helped swell the ranks of Wayne’s “Cellar Dwellers” club to about 150.
The freshly remodeled cellar, currently reserved for wine club meetings and special parties, has a den-like atmosphere, furnished with a billiard table, wooden beams wrapped in string lights, and a charmingly eclectic collection of Craigslist finds. Wayne pulls his “Wizard of Wine” staff out of the corner for me to admire, and explains that he is converting the five-foot tall wooden replica of Seattle’s Space Needle into a cue rack. The pièce de résistance stands at the head of the tasting table: Wayne’s “throne,” a massive and ornately carved mahogany palace chair that looks like it was lifted from a medieval castle.
Wayne considers himself a caretaker of the space, just one in a line of occupants stretching back to 1910, when the building was first completed. The Rinehart Building has been home to many local businesses over the past century: a candy manufacturer, a brewery, a grocer, a meat market, and, most famously, the Cleo Lillian Social Club, which Wayne describes as an African American speakeasy, one of only two bars in Portland to possess a gambling license. An integral part of the neighborhood’s social life from the 1950s through the 1980s, the Club was a crucible for charitable causes and community activism. In its heyday, it played host to cultural icons Miles Davis, B.B. King, and George Foreman.
Passionate about cultivating a sense of the structure’s cultural significance, Wayne has set about tapping into the neighborhood’s memory of the building. After moving in, he put out word on the street that he wanted to find out about the building’s past. It wasn’t long before he received a visit from Robert and Xavier Browning, brothers who took over management of the Cleo Lillian Social Club from their father Louis in 1975.
While walking through the space with Xavier and Robert, Wayne learned that somewhere in the building’s basement is one of Portland’s famous “Shanghai tunnels,” a network of subterranean passages connecting basements to each other and to the city’s shipyards. Although there is no record of any such tunnel to the Rinehart Building, Wayne has high hopes for rediscovering it behind one of the basement’s bricked-off walls or stairways. He also plans to collect and display framed photographs depicting scenes from the Rinehart’s rich history.
By the time Wayne and I head back up to the bar, there’s not an empty seat in the house – pretty good for a Tuesday night. Fortunately, my parents (visiting from New York) have staked out one of the tables, and we stay to enjoy a Panini and a sampler of five wines, each of which as very tasty, particularly considering that all sell for $14 or less. I feel like WineUp is already well on its way to becoming a fixture in Eliot.