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A Wine Lover’s Guide to Maine

A Wine Lover’s Guide to Maine

The coastal Maine of postcards and social media feeds has a cinematic, all-American quality that beckons one to don a striped sweater and go eat a lobster roll on a dock. It’s been known as Vacationland since the slogan first appeared on the state’s license plates in the 1930s, but Maine has been a playground for leisure travelers for as long as there have been city dwellers craving water views and bucolic vibes. 

In recent years, Portland has been a star on the culinary scene, nabbing national attention and drawing food-focused travelers to standouts like modern New England destination Twelve and Tandem Coffee + Bakery. And while a handful of (deservedly hyped) spots get all the glossy-magazine attention, local food and drink pros have their own favorites that often escape the notice of the media machine—among them, a number of fantastic wine-focused bars, shops and restaurants.

“There is so much beautiful wine in our state, and I hear that from people coming from much larger markets—from New York, from Boston,” says Cecily Upton of Friends & Family in Portland. “They’re kind of blown away by the selection we’re able to get.”

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Beyond the city, some of the most interesting spots in Maine are found far off the beaten path, in small river towns and along quiet back roads.

“When there’s no money and there’s no people, you’re disincentivized to try and chase down the dollar,” says Peter Hale, who, with his wife Orenda Hale, co-owns Portland wine shop Maine & Loire. “You’re incentivized to cover your costs and do something really authentic—and it’s really exciting to see that combination.” 

Road-tripping through Maine can be a commitment—“you can’t get there from here” is an oft-repeated local saying that holds true—but the colonial buildings are high on charm and there are forest and sea views to relish as you wend your way along the coast. Ahead, we’ve tapped some in-the-know wine pros from across Maine’s small-but-mighty wine scene to weigh in on the best places to eat, drink and explore from Kittery to Camden and beyond. 

Southern Maine

Where to Drink

In the stretch of Maine south of Portland, Lorne Wine in Biddeford is the place to be if you’ve got wine on the brain.

“Go there and you know you’re going to have a really interesting conversation with a super knowledgeable human with a distinct—and I think very unique—list,” says Upton. “It’s curated, and it’s small, but they have stuff that nobody else is getting.”

Tucked into a brightly-colored storefront on Biddeford’s main drag, this cheerful little wine bar and shop offers a rotating by-the-glass list, small bites, occasional pop-up dinners and a complete lack of pretension. 

For a change of pace, the team at Lorne suggests the Sacred Profane Brewery & Tankpub, also a favorite Biddo stop for Peter and Orenda Hale. “If you need a break from wine, their beers are amazing,” says Peter Hale. Expect Czech-style lagers and dishes like stroganoff, bratwurst and soft pretzels, and if you’re going for a full meal, a side of mustard-braised cabbage is an absolute must.

For gin fans, Sheehan suggests Round Turn in Biddeford, a distillery producing artful spirits and a well-edited, perfectly executed selection of cocktails. Further south, there’s more great beer to be found on the Maine side of the Piscataqua: “If you’re pulling off in Kittery, we always recommend people go to Tributary Brewing,” says Erin Sheehan of Lorne Wine. [“Co-founder] Tod [Mott] is one of Maine’s—if not New England’s—most iconic brewers, and he’s making absolutely beautiful beers.” 

Image Courtesy of Searching the Shadows Photography

Where to Eat

Palace Diner makes it onto every Biddeford greatest-hits list, and with good reason—there’s not a miss on the menu, and the pillowy French toast is the stuff of weekend morning dreams.

For a seafood fix, Fish & Whistle is a top recommendation, and a favorite of the Lorne Wine crew. There, head chef Jason Eckerson, formerly of Eventide in Portland, churns out excellently prepared sustainable seafood. “I love the fish sandwich,” says Sheehan. “It’s a classic, beautiful sandwich with a very delicate yeasted batter—and the squidwich, which is absolutely delicious and also visually stunning.” 

For fine dining, Elda (which closes for the winter season) lives up to the hype, with a rotating nightly tasting menu that pays homage to the seasons and ingredients of coastal Maine. Magnus on Water is another Biddeford standout, and though their locally-farmed-and-foraged food menu has nabbed plenty of attention both locally and nationally, don’t skip out on a pre-dinner cocktail.

“[Co-owner] Brian Catapang is the head of the bar program there, and he is truly an astonishing cocktail genius,” says Sheehan. “If folks come through and they want a cocktail, we send them there.”

Where to Stay

There’s only one real game in town, but it’s a good one. Centrally located in a former mill building near the Saco River, the Lincoln Hotel is a 33-room boutique stay with a moody lobby lounge, a rooftop pool and convenient access to all the Biddo hotspots.

Friends & Family
Image Courtesy of Will Russell

In & Around Portland

Where to Drink 

Every wine pro we spoke to mentioned Maine & Loire, one of the O.G. giants of the Maine wine scene, founded by Orenda and Peter Hale in 2015.

“They deserve a lot of kudos for being the people who sort of helped to spearhead the movement into having more natural wine in the state,” explains Upton. “There’s a huge and beautiful selection at their shop. And they’re super knowledgeable and friendly.”

Upton’s own restaurant and wine bar, Friends & Family, is also a favorite among wine pros. The pint-sized joint in the Arts District serves small plates and a fun and funky selection of wines, along with a to-go lineup of fancy pantry goods and natural wines by the bottle. “They have a great little place and Cecily has a great palate,” says Carson James of Lorne Wine. “It’s so fun to drink wine there.”

Half an hour north of Portland in the college town of Brunswick, “there’s great stuff going on at Vessel & Vine,” says Upton. “The whole shop is wonderful, and there’s a great wine selection, but you can also stay and have a cocktail, get some snacks for a picnic and pick up some special bottles.” 

Where to Eat

Leeward, which a number of pros name-checked for its stellar natural wine selection, has raked in accolades since the moment the restaurant threw open its doors, and deservedly so. All of their fresh pastas are out-of-this-world, but you’d be remiss to overlook the gnocchi fritti appetizer.

Meanwhile, Helm Oyster Bar & Bistro, near the Old Port, offers a hefty bottle list of natural wines to accompany elegant seafood-focused dishes. And Regards is a southern-California-meets-Maine fine-dining joint with cheffy small plates and a selection of natural wines available by the glass or bottle. “Regards is, like, inside the mind of a chef,” says Hale of Maine & Loire.

For a cozy atmosphere and excellent New England-inspired fare, venture to Wayside Tavern in the West End. The neighborhood spot, run by a husband-and-wife team, fits the bill for a number of experiences. “You can bring kids. You can go on a date. You can go on Mondays for their smash burger” says Hale. “You can really have a relationship with that restaurant.” 

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Just west of Portland in Westbrook, George and Leon’s, an extension of the roast beef sandwich empire that started with George’s North Shore in Portland, is luring wine drinkers with a compelling lineup. “He’s doing all fizzy, fuzzy, yummy, funky wines—he’s really on the nattys,” says Hale. “It’s great because these days it’s less about where can you get natural wine and more about, like, which of the places that serve that do we want to go?”

Heading north out of Portland, stop at the Purple House in North Yarmouth, a wood-fired bakery that punches far above its weight. You’ll find all the standard Euro patisserie fare and Montreal-style bagels underpinning sandwiches in both standard (lox, cream cheese, capers, etc.) and out-of-the-box (sea urchin terrine with hard-cider gelée) combos. If you’re driving through come summertime, venture to sister spot Bresca and the Honeybee in New Gloucester, a seasonal ice-cream shack on the shore of Sabbathday Lake serving inventive, perfectly executed flavors such as artichoke with candied citrus, salted licorice, and gin and calamansi lime with poached cherries. “Whatever she does, I will be there, because I’m completely obsessed with her,” says Sheehan of chef-owner Krista Kern Desjarlais.

Rendering of The Longfellow Hotel by Leonardo R. Merlos
Image Courtesy of The Long Fellow Hotel

Where to Stay

There are a handful of standout spots on the Portland peninsula, but the Francis, an intimate spot in the West End (and home to the aforementioned Wayside Tavern), nails the easy blend of style, creature comforts and ease right in the heart of the action. It’s a Hale family favorite for wintertime staycations. Later this spring, the Francis’s owners are expanding with the much anticipated Longfellow Hotel, located just across Congress St. and right next to Tandem Bakery, home of New England’s most delicious breakfast sandwiches and baked goods from pastry oracle Briana Holt. As they say: Location, location, location.

Table Bar
Image Courtesy of Nicole Wolf

Midcoast Maine

Where to Drink

Road trippers willing to leave Route 1 and those coastal views behind to venture inland will find themselves handsomely rewarded at the utterly cool Table Bar. About a 30-minutes’ drive to Gardiner from Brunswick, every wine pro we spoke with cited this under-the-radar standout. “The vibe is really legit,” says Hale. “It’s great.”

From Table Bar, it’s another 25 minutes over to Winthrop for a visit to Absolem Cider, a favorite of Sheehan’s. Here, brewers tap into Old World wine and cider-making techniques and often co-ferment the two together to create sophisticated, dry bottlings that bear little resemblance to the cloying mass-market stuff. Try the Roses Red, a rosé cider made with heirloom apples and Pinot Noir and aged on the lees in French oak, or the Dayglow, an orange-wine-inspired cider made with L’Acadie grape must and aged in Moscatel barrels. 

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Back on the coast in Wiscasset, bypass the traffic-stopping line of tourists waiting for lobster rolls at Red’s Eats and head instead to In a Silent Way, an elegant, understated spot with views of the Sheepscot River from the back windows. “We are huge fans—it’s a beautiful, beautiful wine bar with a tiny but perfect retail selection,” says Sheehan.

Maine’s peninsulas don’t lend themselves to a quick side trip, so target your shopping based on your final destination. If you’re headed down to Harpswell, make a pit stop at Black Sheep Wine Shop, a favorite of Upton’s for its wide selection that spans from natural to classics and its unique vibe. “It’s basically this guy’s house, and he has a little side room that’s a wine shop—you ring the doorbell, and he comes out,” she says.

On the Blue Hill peninsula, Upton recommends the Blue Hill Wine Shop, a quirky, well-stocked gem of a store where leaving without chatting with the purveyor, the iconic Max Treitler, would be a grave error on both the wine-buying and memorable-travel-experiences fronts. If you’re wandering northward, make a pit stop in Warren for a visit to the farm of Oyster River Winegrowers—its Morphos pet-nat is the perfect crisp warm-weather sipper—or in the shoulder season, visit the Oyster River tasting room on Main Street in downtown Camden. 

Glidden Point - shucking oysters on dock
Image Courtesy of Kelsey Gayle Photography

Where to Eat

This being Maine, seafood is in order. In good weather, a trip to Glidden Point Oyster Farms is a must, says Upton: “They always have good wine that’s delicious with oysters—it’s nothing crazy or fancy, but the surroundings and the activity in and of itself are super fun.”

In Wiscasset, hit up the riverfront Jolie Rogers Oyster Bar and toss back a few Mere Points or Pemaquids cracked open by none other than the U.S. National Oyster Shucking Championships’ fourth-place finisher. “[Co-owner] Andy [Rogers] shucks the cleanest oyster that I’ve ever seen,” says Brian Smith, winemaker at Oyster River Winegrowers. For the requisite lobster roll, Smith is a devotee of McLoons Lobster Shack in Spruce Head. “It’s one of those great eat-outside, fresh-seafood kind of places, and somehow their buttered roll is just perfect.”

The MidCoast has plenty of standout restaurants, but the darling of industry pros is Sammy’s Deluxe in Camden. Much of the seafood and other ingredients at the unpretentious spot have been fresh-caught or foraged by chef-owner Sam Richman himself. “It’s just a guy cranking out food that he believes in,” says James. “I think people are starting to recognize that he’s actually cranking out some of the best food in New England.” 

And in Rockport, the Italian-inflected Nina June—run by Camden-born chef Sara Jenkins, who grew up moving from place to place throughout the Mediterranean—is worth a pilgrimage. “They have really beautiful, incredible food, gorgeous space, gorgeous view, lovely wine,” says Upton. “From a total experience perspective, that’s a winner for sure.”

Norumbega Inn
Image Courtesy of Douglas Merriam

Where to Stay

Coastal Maine is swimming in quaint family-run inns, but the Hales are fans of the Lincolnville Motel, just off Route 1. “We go up every year for a few days to kick off summer, we’ve gone almost since she’s been open,” says Orenda. “It’s a favorite.” Set in a spruced-up 1950s motel just off Route 1, the rooms are bright and breezy, with record players and pared-down furnishings.

For those who prefer a luxury stay, the recently refreshed Norumbega, a turreted Gilded Age-mansion-turned-inn just north of Camden, feels of-the-moment despite its historic setting. Scrappier travelers should pack a tent and head to Reach Knolls, a perfectly situated campground in Brooklin, on the Blue Hill Peninsula, says Upton. “It’s right on the water, and the people who run it are a hoot, it’s just a really beautiful camping spot.”

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