EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Chris and Nelly Saraiva had worked for more than a decade in the wedding industry, Chris as a DJ, Nelly as a photographer, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Like a lot of people, they reassessed things. And in those early days, without weddings happening at all, they had ample time to do it. They decided to follow a long-held dream: importing wine and spirits from Portugal.
East Providence-based Brands of Portugal is the sort of business that, if you’re a second-generation Portuguese-American who loves wine, will give you a pallet-size case of envy. Yes, the job involves traveling to Portugal several times a year, trying great new wines to bring back, and hearing the stories of people working small family winemakers in the old country. For the Saraivas, both of whom come from families of Portuguese immigrants, it was a natural fit.
“They’re making some of the most incredible wines in the world,” Chris Saraiva said. “And not a lot of people know about it in the US.”
The business started in February 2021, and got its first container in September that year. Rhode Island has a tiered liquor distribution system, so you won’t be able to buy bottles directly from them. Instead, their customers are liquor stores and restaurants around Rhode Island and Massachusetts and even into Tennessee, with expansion plans for Maine and New Hampshire soon. You can find the products they’ve imported at, for example, the Town Wine & Spirits in Rumford, which has a broad selection of its products and can fulfill special orders from the company’s portfolio, or at Portuguese restaurants like O Dinis in East Providence and Aguardente in Providence.
They also have tastings for prospective distribution customers, and they hold consumer events at the East Providence location and ticketed wine dinners at area restaurants. They may someday even lead wine-focused trips to Portugal that people can join.
Chris did his last wedding in October, and Nelly is contracted for a few weddings in 2023, but then that’s it. The new line of work they’re diving into does seem to bring in some of the skills Chris and Nelly developed in the wedding industry, though. Chris, full of energy, seems like he can talk to anyone. Nelly captures photographs of their visits to Portugal on an Instagram account that could double as a tourism advertisement.
A collage of those photographs decorates one of the walls in their smartly designed office within Phillipsdale Landing, an industrial building in Rumford. Here, purple-tinted feet from their stomping of grapes; there, the bright blue sky of Portugal.
It’s behind the scenes, though, in the unfinished warehouse space, that the oenophile will find true beauty: rows and rows of boxes of wine.
Each case is not just a case of wine, but a story of the winemakers they know in Portugal, like the winery opened by a family that bred Lusitano horses in an area where Roman artifacts were discovered. The palm on the label isn’t from a palm tree; it’s from a Roman headdress. All that comes in each bottle. Not just wine, but a connection to Portugal and its history.
“We love the history, and we love talking about it,” Nelly Saraiva said. “It’s more interesting sometimes than just talking about wine, notes, aromas, and all that stuff, which is also obviously important too.”
The wines they’re importing range from all around mainland Portugal and the islands: ports from Porto and Madeira, vinho verdes in the northern mainland, numerous options from the southern Alentejo region. They import wines from regions the casual wine-lover will enjoy, like the Douro and Alentejo, and wines from underappreciated wine areas, like the Tejo region, Lisbon, and the Azores.
They also import the harder stuff, like Licor Beirão and Ginja, a liqueur made from cherries that originated in the walled city of Obidos that can be — should be — consumed from a cup made out of chocolate. The brand they import is made from cherries in the area of Portugal where Ginja originated, with no artificial additives.
Their value proposition is the slightly higher price point than the sub-$10 wine bin that you can already find plenty of in the US, though they do have some sub-10′s, too. They focus on hand-picked and, in some cases, foot-trodden wines. Although there’s nothing wrong with some of the bigger, cheaper Portuguese brands you get in the US, Chris and Nelly said that for some of the most recognizable ones in the US, they’re import-only — wines that are made in Portugal but that you can’t actually buy in Portugal.
The Saraivas are going for a more tangible connection. The products they import broaden the scope of wine choices in the US — while also promoting the culture of Portugal.
“We want to be a hub for Portugal in the United States,” Chris Saraiva said. “We want to be one of the faces of Portugal.”