By Maddie MacGregor
Behind every small business lies a story. Whether it’s a passion for writing that leads one to a career as editor of a community magazine or a fashionista who starts her own boutique, thousands risk it all to follow their dreams. And following her dream is exactly what led Michelle Smith-Harper back to Historic Brownsville and the story behind Harpers Wine House.
From the moment you pull alongside 320 North Main Street, you realize this is a unique spot. The bistro is tucked neatly away into the side of the C.J. Howe Building, a historic structure dating back to 1905. The crimson and grey bricks glow in the soft sunshine, and a carpet of fall leaves adorn the tree-lined sidewalk, leading the way to Harpers’ front door.
Open for a little over seven months, Harpers is already booming. “It actually feels like it’s been years,” says Smith-Harper. “Working 12 to 14 hour days, I can’t believe it’s been such a short time—but it was years in the planning.”
Smith-Harper reveals what pushed her to travel back in time to her hometown. “I grew up here,” explains Smith-Harper. “My parents were real estate and insurance agents. This town is my childhood. And I love the people—they are so loyal and will do anything for you.”
When Smith-Harper moved away from Brownsville, she met someone that would influence her decision to open up the wine house—her husband-to-be. The couple loved good wine, good food, and good music. They played music together, went wine tasting, and became wine “collectors,” dreaming of opening up a business where Smith-Harper could also showcase her talent for farm-to-food cooking. But the dream was stalled when Smith-Harpers’ husband passed away before they could bring their plans to fruition.
Despite her devastating loss, Smith-Harper was comforted by thoughts of honoring her late husband through pursuing their dream on her own. While living in Albany, she and her mother began to look for a location downtown. But finding an intimate space that was small enough to run by herself was more difficult than she thought. As fortune would have it, Smith-Harper saw an advertisement for 320 North Main Street in Brownsville. She couldn’t believe it—she had come full circle—to the very same address that her parents had operated their old business in so many years ago.
“And that’s when I knew it was right,” Smith-Harper says.
A progression of plates
When Harpers first opened its doors to the public, Smith-Harper’s intent had been to focus on wine tasting and limit food items to “small plate” accompaniments. And yet, as many business owners discover, plans sometimes take their own turn, and Harpers was no different.
“I really thought it was going to be a very limited menu—like cheeses and maybe a few gourmet ‘bites’ to accompany wine, yet the word spread, and the place was crammed full of people wanting dinner. So I worked to fill the demand,” Smith-Harper says.
Smith-Harper uses locally sourced ingredients to create her fresh salad dressings, tapenade, salsa, chowders, and other daily offerings. Wild mushrooms, organic beef, vegetables, fruits, and garden goodies all play into her sense of leaving nothing to waste. She is a determined gleaner who challenges herself to use nothing pre-packaged in her kitchen. Her specialties include stuffed gorgonzola, hand-rolled pastas, baked polenta with mushroom sauce, homemade flatbread, and variety of tarts—and special dietary needs, including gluten-free, are accommodated.
The wine selections are geared to be reasonably priced, and reflect mostly Pacific Northwest varietals. Smith-Harper notes that California’s Napa and Sonoma regions are also represented, as they were favorite venues of she and her husband.
“I try to keep everything very affordable,” says Smith-Harper. “Pours are mostly under $10, although you can buy an entire bottle if you like.”
The tasting sessions usually consist of three reds and three white varietals, and are entirely free.
“And, you don’t have to stay silent if you really don’t like a sample,” Smith-Harper adds. “It’s not going to hurt my feelings! There’s absolutely no pressure to buy anything. I just want this to be place that you can come, sit down, be with other adults, chill to the music and relax. It’s more of an experience than a bar—there’s no party crowds, no clocks, and no time-frame.”
For the wine lovers, Harpers is the perfect place to discover what Wine Enthusiast Magazine has crowned the 2016 “Number 1 Wine Region of the Year.” Brownsville is part of the Willamette Valley’s crown jewel, and Harpers Wine Bar is a gateway to sampling some of the region’s best.
What to know if you go
Harpers Wine House (no apostrophe please!) is located in Historic Brownsville, Oregon, at 320 North Main Street. The bistro is open for tastings and dinners, Tuesdays through Thursdays, from 1:00 p.m. until 7:00 p.m. On Fridays and Saturdays, Harpers is open from 1:00 p.m. until 8:00 p.m. Adults over 21 only. Special reservations may be made by telephoning 541-466-3005. While the bistro has no website yet, Smith-Harper does maintain a Facebook page where special events and menu items are posted at https://www.facebook.com/chelleHWH/?fref=ts