With Brexit, the British have made their stand against free immigration. Soon enough work will begin on Trump’s wall. Is it time we Mainers made a stand against unwelcome migration as well? It does no good to pretend that we don’t have a problem. These quickly accumulating castoffs from Brooklyn threaten to fundamentally change our culture. And since people from Brooklyn don’t care about anything they can’t put in their mouths, it is our culinary culture that is most vulnerable to their influence.
Take the new wine bar Drifter’s Wife, which is run by a tight crew of four recent arrivals from Brooklyn. They are unashamed – telling Bon Appetit that they like Portland because “everyone is doing something cool and artistic, which reminds us of when we were in Williamsburg – except people here are way more relaxed.” Should we be flattered? Or do they mean we lack ambition in our cool art? In fact we didn’t re-lax. We started lax and would like to stay that way. We weren’t doing cool things, we were doing dull Maine things. And now these Brooklyn people are stressing us out – driving up both rents and levels of self-conscious performativity.
Drifters Wife, and its in-house wine shop Maine and Loire, are here to stress us out about wine – for our own good, supposedly. Both sell only wine that is “natural” – meaning organic, hand-picked, and fermented without any additional yeasts that might influence the wine’s development. And here is where we Mainers reveal our provincialism. The proprietors told this paper that they opened the shop because they found Portland “totally lacking” in acceptable wine. They told Sweet magazine that Mainers were “unexposed” and “blind” to the appeals of “esoteric” bottles.
So one should enter Drifter’s Wife anticipating didacticism. But it’s not bad if you get the fun professor. Any group of hip-Brooklynites features one sweetheart, and Drifters Wife has put theirs upfront waiting tables. She suppresses institutional disdain for Mainers and gently guides you through your meal – an oenophilic Anne Sullivan for us Helen Kellers.
So go ahead into the light. It’s a cute little place, modestly stylish in décor. “Natural” wines are often unpredictable and odd, because they lack the added yeast that other producers use to create consistency. So its nice to have a curated selection at the bar. They did seem interesting. A sparkling “col fondo” from Italy had a cloudy look and dry-crisp taste, citrusy with some elderflower. A French gamay was both light and very tart. A very affordable French blend (“Nemausa”) was sort of fantastic – smooth with leather and plum.
The food is prepared deftly behind the bar with little more than a hot plate. It’s a bit precious, but quite good and not expensive. Chewy slices of beef heart let your palate linger on the sweetness of the accompanying beets and the bitter spices of chermoula. Mustard greens advertised as spicy were actually quite mellow under a nutty cheddar. A marinade mellowed the funky-oily flavor of bluefish a bit, creating an elevated version of a summer tuna salad. A very simple chicken dish paired tender meat with kale cooked to taste and look just like collards.
Overall, we can return the sentiment, if not exactly as a compliment: Drifter’s Wife reminds you of Williamsburg. But we liked it anyway. In my experience it is the shop in back where the lessons are most heavy handed. These natural wines are meant to be undisciplined, individual, distinctive. It does their spirit no justice to insist that we must be trained to appreciate only them, or suffer in ignorance. Perhaps they are the right wines for our neoliberal era, where under-disciplined children – encouraged to be distinctive and true to themselves – grow up to be sad and desperate conformists. I guess a conformist must be desperate indeed to leave Brooklyn for an unsophisticated backwoods like Maine. But they keep coming.
The Drifter’s Wife | 63 Washington Ave., Portland | 207.805.1336 | Wednesday-Sunday, 4:00pm-11:00pm | Plates $11-$17 (wine $7-$12 a glass)