PORTLAND - The quiet residential street seems just like any other — kids riding their bikes, couples walking their dogs. But the open door of one garage reveals quite a surprise: wine barrels are stacked to the ceiling and a big funnel-topped de-stemming machine is parked in the driveway.
In this northwestern U.S. city, some dynamic and innovative winemakers, who love city life and lack the money needed to open conventional wineries, have converted garages or industrial spaces into exciting boutique wineries.
In their 350-square-foot garagiste, Jan-Marc and Barbara Baker, who trained as professional chefs, produce 1,000 cases annually. And there’s not a vine in sight.
“We live and work here; the grapes do the commuting,” says Jan-Marc, who sources the grapes from vineyards in the nearby Columbia River Gorge and Willamette Valley.
“Portland is not a corporate town like Seattle or San Francisco, so it has become a great place to start a home business. Ours is a terrific icebreaker with our neighbours. They know they can ring me up any time, and I will open the garage door for a tasting or to make a sale.”
Jan-Marc is one of 11 urban vintners banded together under the PDX umbrella, who are creating an urban-winery culture, which allows you to bike, bus, cab or even walk to their tasting rooms and special events. The Portland Short Bus (picture a small, old school bus) offers wine-obsessed visitors four-hour touring and tasting experiences, all within the city limits.
Across town in the hip Eastside neighbourhood, the huge garage door at ENSO Urban Winery and Tasting Lounge slides open right onto the street, revealing an unassuming, friendly space that says “stay awhile and relax.”
Owner/winemaker Ryan Sharp, who four years ago was a professional musician, now produces 6,000 cases of wine annually. He says he likes to experiment with different varietals, and that his $14 ENSO rosé includes seven varietals.
Left: Oregon is home to some of the finest urban wineries in the United States. Middle: Oregon wines are the talk of the world right now. Right: No trip to Oregon would be complete without a visit to one of its world-class wineries.
Next stop is Hip Chicks Do Wine, where ‘Wine Goddess’ Laurie Lewis and her partner Renee ‘the Wine Maven’ Neely, led the charge of the urban ‘winetrepreneurs’ in 1999, establishing their winery in a gritty 1940s warehouse.
“It was tough in the beginning being the only one,” says Laurie, as she pours a sample of her reasonably priced — and very good — Bad Girl Blanc. “Now there’s strength in numbers. It’s all about having fun and making seriously good wine.”
While living their dream, these passionate, city-centric entrepreneurs are disproving the conventional wisdom that to make a little money making wine, you have to start with a lot.
In the rolling hills of Willamette Valley, an hour’s drive south of the city, it’s a different scenario.
Running north-south and nestled between the Coast Range and the Cascade Mountains, choice vineyard land here costs upwards of $40,000 (U.S.) per acre. Many of the 440 wineries are small, family-owned operations, but the valley is also home to the state’s largest and most celebrated wineries.
Pinot Noir — the pride of Burgundy — reigns supreme here. There are just a handful of places where proper moisture, temperature and length of growing season coincide to grow this most difficult of grapes. The Willamette Valley is one of them.
From the little town of Dundee, the heart of wine country, we head off into the countryside to visit three of the largest wineries in the region — Erath, Domaine Serene and King Estate. Unlike California’s Napa Valley, with its wall-to-wall vineyards and standstill traffic, here there are relaxed country roads, green fields and roadside stands offering farm-fresh produce.
In 1968, Dick Erath gave up a successful engineering career in California to become one of Oregon’s wine pioneers. When he sold the winery in 2006, planning to semi-retire, he was producing 90,000 cases annually, having won numerous awards along the way. In an ideal world, my wine cellar would never be without a few bottles of Erath’s basic Oregon Pinot Noir.
A love affair with Burgundy dating back to their college years, coupled with a burning desire to produce the world’s best Pinot Noir, lured Ken and Grace Evenstad from Minnesota to the Dundee Hills in 1989, where they purchased land and founded Domaine Serene.
With seed money from Evenstad’s hugely successful pharmaceutical company, they built a state-of-the-art facility in an elegant Tuscan-style villa, and began to produce world-class Pinot Noir. Accolades galore have been heaped on their wines, including besting Domaine de la Romanee Conti, one of the world’s greatest wine producers, in blind tastings. Even if you can’t afford to stock a wine cellar here, a tasting is a not-to-miss opportunity to sample truly memorable wines.
Eager to taste what has been billed as the Oregon benchmark Pinot Gris, we next visit King Estate. At age 70, having sold his thriving electronics business, Ed King Jr. was ready for another “venture adventure.” So was his son.
“We started by following the Oregon wine industry, creating a vision of what we thought it could become,” says Ed King III. “We recognized that to become a national player, Oregon wine needed to be consistent, needed to be high quality and needed to be pegged at a reasonable price.”
Today, the winery these entrepreneurs built in 1991 sits atop a hill, surrounded by orchards, gardens and 470 acres of organic vineyards.
Before lunch in the award-winning restaurant, we enjoy a complimentary tasting of Signature Pinot Gris, Acrobat Rosé and Signature Pinot Noir. True to the Kings’ vision, these are luscious wines at reasonable prices.
While Oregon’s wines are no longer a best-kept secret, the best bottles are rarely seen outside the state — which means you have to visit to enjoy them.
- To learn more about Oregon wines, go to http://www.oregonwine.org/