Sunflower Sake was an idea as early as 6 years ago, when I first had a bottle of Amabuki Himawari Junmai Ginjo, which is brewed using a yeast derived from Sunflower pollen. We were making yakiniku with our brand new grill and figured we'd get some sake to pair with dinner. This beautiful turquoise bottle with a marigold paper sash and a little sunflower icon stood out and so we brought it home, shared with friends, and loved it. In the following 4 years our sake preferences were pretty narrowly defined as "the sunflower one." Even back then, in Los Angeles, I thought to myself that it would be nice if I could buy sake from somewhere with knowledgeable staff rather than my neighborhood Marukai or Wally Wines-- neither of which were very helpful.
Many years later, I left a 9-year career in insurance and stumbled headfirst into wine. Eager to learn anything and everything, more importantly to catch up to my peers, I worked as a harvest hand, poured in a local tasting room, worked as a viticulture intern, and spent a year and a half as a wine sales rep. I pursued wine education up to and including the WSET Diploma, which I hope to finish by June 2022. The sum of this experience taught me that wine is an incredibly competitive, saturated, and in many ways unethical market. There are gatekeepers everywhere, the expectation is to work long hours for very little, and ownership and power in the industry is consolidated under white men. While I'm committed to change in the wine industry, at the end of the day, I kept turning to sake for respite.
Sake provided respite from tasting practice because sake is so subtle, so different from wine, and so much easier to pair. Sake's longevity provided respite from the incessant and unsustainable demand for "newness" in the wine market. Sake's rich and complex history, method of manufacture and traditions provided food for my brain and my soul. Sake's struggling economic and cultural position (despite its extraordinary quality) provided meaning and determination. And finally, the relative lack of competition-- in an environment of increasing demand and curiosity-- provided the motivation to act.
As a child, I wanted to own a restaurant. It would be named Sun Up Sun Down, and I would give my guests a wonderful experience. Great food, generous hospitality, a curated and thoughtfully designed environment with all the tiny details. On Sundays, I practiced at home with my parents: writing little menus, cooking them tiny breakfasts. Even after 20 years, I never really let go of that idea. Something about hospitality, about connecting with people one on one, is at the core of my being.
Sunflower Sake officially launched in October 2021 when my incessant planning and business plan writing bubbled up into spur of the moment pop-up arrangement with Dame Restaurant in NE PDX. From my time selling wine to Dame, I knew there was a shipping container bottle shop sitting empty in their side alley. A hundred-item to-do list later, I opened my doors on October 21 with 105 SKU's of sake and an optimistic heart full of ideas. I served little snacks, I poured flights, glasses, and carafes, and I regaled guests with stories as long as they would listen. Slowly but surely, Sunflower developed a friendly little following in the outer reaches of NE Killingsworth.
The Sunflower Sake pop-up project continued through the cold, rainy, Omicron-dusted winter of 21-22. In April 2022 its doors closed for good (The OLCC permits a maximum of one liquor licensee per address, making pop-ups a problem). On July 1st, I signed my new lease at the Olympic Mills building in the SE industrial neighborhood, deep in the beating heart of Portland food and drink manufacturing and distribution. After a long wait for permits, licenses and so on, I officially opened the Sunflower Sake brick and mortar on October 11, 2022. I hosted my first sake festival, Fuyu Fest, in January 2023, and in an ongoing capacity Sunflower operates as a tasting room, retail store, online store, sake school, and mentor to Portland's aspiring sake professionals.
Will Prouty of Division Wines once told me that as members of the hospitality industry, it is a privilege to serve our guests. It is a privilege to be entrusted with the responsibility of making our guests happy. It's important to never take that for granted and it's important to create an environment where that comes naturally.
This resonated with me completely and is my guiding philosophy.
Thanks for reading my silly story and for taking an interest in Sunflower.
For press kit, please see here.