Good Taste: interview with Jessie Manning from Street Disco

Photo: Gilbert Terrazas.

Good Taste is an interview series with West Coast creatives in all industries.

One of the things the heavy pandemic years stole from me was a sense of discovery. I moved to Portland in January 2020 feeling like I had all the time in the world to get to know my new home, and then we all know what happened. Fast forward to early 2023, I finally got to experience the multi-faceted exploratory joy I had been missing so much thanks to a series of perfect evenings at Street Disco.

I first became aware of the restaurant when I saw Gilbert Terrazas’s gorgeous photos of the SE Portland restaurant on Instagram (we had just worked on a photoshoot for my day job and I was an immediate fan of his work). My partner and I headed over one Monday in the early evening for Street Disco’s $2 oyster special and were immediately charmed by the warm, cool, unpretentious space. We had oysters, various radishes with roquefort butter, and incredible fresh bread. I was hooked.

The second time we went, sitting in the same bar stools, I quickly started chatting with their Wine Director Jessie Manning. I was excitedly curious about a wine on the menu that supposedly tasted like fruit punch—which it did in the best possible way—and then we just got to talking about all sorts of things and have kept the conversation going.

When I decided to launch this new column called Good Taste, it made perfect sense to start with Jessie and her love for wine, good food, subjectivity, and creative uncertainty. —Amelia Rina

Amelia Rina: Let’s start with the restaurant name, which is full of literary intrigue. What does it mean and where did it come from?

Jessie Manning: So the name Street Disco came from a documentary about the origins of hip hop. People threw underground parties called ‘street discos’ basically as a way to stick it to the man. The idea of building something out of nothing and going against the grain really resonated with us. We like to say “we cook what we want to eat and pour what we want to drink.”

AR: I feel like every time I talk to you, there are a million sub-conversations and stories I want to go off on but I have to stay focused: tell me a story about how you started loving wine.

JM: The first time I tried a dry Riesling (it was at Brooks Vineyard in the Willamette Valley), it blew my mind. I had always associated Rieslings with sweetness, which of course some are. But tasting these different dry Riesling flavor profiles, like petrol, wet stone, and preserved lemon made me wonder what else is out there, what else don’t I know. I realized I was trapped by preconceived notions when it came to wine and that was limiting my experience. I’m a naturally curious person and that was the catalyst that really set me off on a journey of discovery regarding wine and eventually led into wanting to share this new knowledge with other people. 

Photo: Gilbert Terrazas.

AR: Were there any steps you took to get to your current wine troubadour level?

JM: I started taking wine classes in McMinnville and Portland that really started to open my eyes to all kinds of possibilities. I then began working in tasting rooms in the valley and got my WSET certification. I had prior experience working as a server in restaurants in DC and in Portland, but when I took a job at newly opened Dame in Northeast Portland, my love affair with wines and particularly natural wines really took off. And here I am today at Street Disco and it all started with a dry Riesling.

AR: It sounds like wine is really tied to memory for you, are there any particularly vivid scent memories?

JM: I’ve recently been gravitating towards wines that remind me of my childhood. A good example was an Italian skin contact Pinot Grigio that smelled exactly like the Snapple Raspberry iced tea I used to chug down as a kid. The similarity was uncanny and quickly became a staff favorite. Another smell memory I get in some aromatic white’s is Peach O Gummy rings! Every time I have these kinds of nostalgic smells it always reminds me not to take wine too seriously and that’s what I want to convey to our guests at Street Disco. Just enjoy. 

 AR: This is a self indulgent question, because I run an art magazine: does wine have anything to do with art?

JM: I think wine and art are both subjective. Some people might like Avant Garde art, while others are more classically oriented. Beauty in the eye of the beholder. With wine, some people might prefer a serious Borolo, rooted in history and tradition, while others might like a funky modern orange wine.  The point is, wines can be both serious and fun. While I have the utmost respect for the history and tradition of fine wines, our selection at Street Disco is more playful. Plus, they are all natural wines.  

The playful part of wine is that it can take you out of your comfort zone and into new ways of thinking about it if you give it a chance. Everyone has a different palate and that’s part of the fun of it all, because peoples experiences with wine opens up conversations. And conversations can get wildly amusing. The point is, wine should be fun and accessible and not put under a microscope. 

Photo: Gilbert Terrazas.
Photo: Gilbert Terrazas.

AR: The descriptors you have on your wine list are so evocative and exciting—bloody, sunset, electric, mouth puncher…one wine is “YELLOW FLOWERS / MEADOW BREEZE / SOFT BUBBS / ‘YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL’” which reads like a poem to me—how do you come up with them?

JM: Mostly by having a conversation with my reps and staff. Sometimes I don’t know how to explain what I’ve just tasted until I start talking about it. I love talking with my staff, whose descriptions may be vastly different because every pallet is different, but it’s a good group exercise and makes everyone feel that their input is meaningful and it is. Sometimes our descriptors cad be pretty out there and everyone has a good laugh, but it won’t necessarily make it to the wine list. That’s my call when I settle in to really think things over and refer to my notes.  

AR: I love thinking about wine as something that’s playful, because I feel like most people experience it as something that’s highly regulated and predictable. What’s the most unpredictable thing about wine?

JM: Well, wine is always a gamble. Especially with natural wines because of the low intervention hands off approach in making them. So any number of things can go wrong. Faults such as cork taint, smoke taint, mouse, the list goes on and on. You never quite know what you’re going to get when you pop that cork or twist that cap and that’s part of the fun of it too. It keeps me on my toes. A bottle could be a total failure or a smashing success because of the bottle variation you get with natural wines. That’s why its always important to taste and inspect before you pour.

AR: Another art/creative industry crossover questions: where do you find inspiration for your work?

JM: Honestly, I don’t really know yet. It changes day to day. I’m still trying to figure out who I am in the wine industry. With a successful restaurant a lot of new stuff has been thrown at us. So right now I’d say my entire team inspires me. Kyle’s food has always been a HUGE inspiration and our pallets have always worked in harmony which is why I think we have such a special thing going. I’ve also developed strong bonds with wine reps, wine makers, friends, and mentors in the restaurant industry, people I’ve formed strong bonds with over the years and understand my perspective. They are my biggest fans and remind me every day to trust my gut and of course my nose and pallet. It’s a matter of confidence which is building in direct proportion to our restaurant’s success. 

AR: I can feel that energy in the restaurant. It’s hard to pin down a vibe and describe it, but there is a kind of electric joy that saturates the place and makes it really magnetic to be there. What do you find most invigorating about your job?

JM: I’d say it’s the time at restaurant when its not super crazy-busy and I’m able to talk to guests about wine. It’s the education end of things that really appeals to me. People tell me that I seem to really light up when talking about wine. It’s about sharing a passion and that’s why it feels so effortless to me I guess. It reminds me how I feel about wine and I realize I’m pretty good at what I do. It’s also kind of cool when people emotionally react to my wine choices. It’s not something I felt I was capable before, but now it just feels right. Like it’s what I was meant to be doing.

Street Disco
4144a SE 60th Ave
Portland, OR 97206
Thursday–Monday 5PM–11:30 PM

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