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by Suzi Steffen
When the wine store at Midtown left, a gaping hole stood next to Midtown Coffee. Now it’s filled with Wine House, the new venture from Jon Cunningham and Brie Malarkey, and the culture of wine tasting is back.
|Jon Cunningham of Wine House. By Trask Bedortha|
Cunningham, who previously ran a wine franchise in south Eugene with Malarkey (his wife), says that the location makes Midtown Marketplace perfect for the new store. “The neighborhood was dying for this, for wine to come back here,” he says. “It’s someplace you can walk to and get a nice glass of wine.”
You can also get a fairly fantastic deal on a flight of wine — tastes of wines for $5. That list changes up each week, and it’s all part of Cunningham’s goal of bringing the culture of each wine area to his venture.
“I love food, culture and travel,” he says. “I’ve travelled a lot, and I first noticed the food in an area, and then I got into wines.” Part of what he’d like to do with Wine House is to bring people intimidated by winespeak into the fold, partly by grouping the store’s wines under immense signs that proclaim the wine’s provenance.
Beside each bottle of wine, which Cunningham and Malarkey taste-test before adding to their list, is a label with descriptions of the flavors. The wine racks, open and clean, help keep the small space looking neat and accessible. “You’ll always get greeted really friendly here,” he says. “You don’t know what you’re buying unless you get good customer service,” and that’s what Cunningham says he offers. Even though it’s not really a wine bar (there are two seats at the small bar), he says that people like to sit there and talk with him or with the store’s one employee. They serve small plates of mostly salty, savory food on a menu that he says will soon rotate.
“I want to expose people to wine in a non-intimidating fashion,” Cunningham says, which is one reason Wine House offers a wine club. “Tour the World of Wine,” the club brochure announces. Each month, wine club members get together for a tasting free to them ($15 for nonclub members) that highlights the wine and food of particular regions, from Piedmont to Napa Valley. As is normal for wine clubs, members also get discounts on bottle purchases, and anyone can get a discount on cases.
Like a frequent flyer card, the wine club membership also accumulates points. After club members spend $200, they get a $10 in-store rebate, and of course they have access to members-only specials. But customers don’t have to pay the $34.99 a month for the wine club in order to gain the benefits of Cunningham’s knowledge, not to mention his recent and more distant travel experience.
He and Malarkey spent a couple of weeks in Italy last year, which he calls “the experience of a lifetime” as they visited wineries and stayed on small farms, watching and learning about the culture of the area. With Spanish wines “up and coming,” he’d like to go to Spain next and learn more about the various wines arriving in the U.S. from the Iberian peninsula.
The couple owns a couple of acres and recently started selling eggs from their chickens at Wine House as well, but that’s not the oddest thing shoppers will find. Instead, it’s the new craze: ChocoWine, a Netherlands export that mixes dark chocolate and red wine. “Don’t keep that in your refrigerator if you have kids,” Cunningham says. “It tastes a lot like chocolate milk, but it’s 14 percent alcohol.”
He’s hoping that a new restaurant will soon open in the space where Bel Ami used to stand. For one thing, customers would be able to get more than small plates while patronizing the wine store. Wine House would “drive more traffic to a restaurant,” he says. The shop rents its space from building owner Roscoe Devine.
Cunningham welcomes those who know a lot about wine along with the newbies. “I learn more than anything from my customers,” he says. “I welcome challenges. I’m no sommelier, and I don’t want to be. I enjoy wine, and I enjoy talking about it, and I enjoy wine culture.”
The Wine House in Midtown Marketplace is at 1591 Willamette St., online at midtownwinehouse.com and at 541-344-WINE (9463). Its hours are 9 am-7 pm M-Sat with extra hours, usually until 9 pm, on Fridays. Each Friday, a different Oregon winery is featured from 5-7 pm, and live music plays from 6 pm to close.The shop is closed on Sundays.