Portland for wine lovers

Samantha Cole-Johnson, who supplied this picture of wine country in Willamette Valley, makes our mouths water for Portland, Oregon. You can find links to all the other articles in this series in Writing competition 2019 – latest

Portland is a wine and food city. The local climate not only allows us a world-class wine region an hour south of the city, but also supports a bounty of seasonal produce. Since Nick Lander wrote about the gastronomic charms of Portland in 2015, the city has added a number of vinous charms to match, with just under a dozen wine bars opening in the last three years.

While the city abounds in good food, beautifully curated wine lists, and knowledgeable and passionate wine professionals, we’re not much for pomp or white tablecloths; you can wear your jeans and t-shirt to any of the wine destinations discussed below.

To start … a few things

  • Corkage is legal in Oregon. If you find an amazing bottle at a shop or winery, you can take it into a restaurant and have it opened for a fee (as long as it’s not on their list). It is polite, but certainly not required, to order a glass or cocktail off the restaurant’s list if you do this.
  • You are free to take open bottles with you when you leave. As a single diner this is wonderful. I can order a bottle, drink half, and take the rest home with me.

Wine shops/wine bars

Oregon’s laws allow a retail wine shop to serve wine and food on premise. While not everyone takes the state up on the arrangement, it has certainly made for some very cool wine spaces.

Vinopolis
Located in northwest Portland, this is a true retail shop. They always seem to have the hardest to find labels and older vintages at ridiculously good prices. Their selection is overwhelmingly old world with coveted bottles from France, Italy, Spain, Germany, and a small new world selection focused on US producers. The selection from the southern hemisphere is short and the owner has a reputation for being pretentious, but the prices aren’t to be beaten anywhere in town.

Park Avenue/The Bar at Park Avenue
Located downtown this is a ‘wine space.’ It combines wine shop, wine bar, restaurant, and wine club. The back of the building is devoted to the shop with selections from all over the world. At the far back of the shop, they have a wall for old and rare bottlings. Downstairs is a large dining room for special wine dinners. The real gem, in my mind is the bar in the front. It offers a large glass-pour list featuring wines from all over the world, the option to do flights, including a flight of local wine that changes regularly, a Coravin selection of rare wines, and some of the best farm-to-table food in Portland. Go Tuesday night for a blind flight of three wines. If you’d like a bottle you can grab anything from the shop and pay a $10 corkage fee.

Division Wines
Located in southeast Portland, this is a neighborhood wine shop/bar. They have a smaller retail selection than the two shops above, but it’s beautifully curated and highlights interesting wines from all over. The bar is cosy and small, offering a short menu of small nibbles that are locally sourced to pair with your glass, flight, or bottle from their shop ($10 corkage).

Restaurants/wine bars

Les Caves
This cozy subterranean natural wine bar is located in northeast Portland and was opened by the winemakers for Ovum Wines and Golden Cluster. Their list features wines from their own labels, as well as other local natural wines and selections from around the globe. The focus is on organic, biodynamic, native ferments with an especially good selection of orange wines. Recent selections from Georgia, Turkey, and Tuscany are complimented by a small bites menu.

Ambonnay
A bizarre space in an industrial area on the east side of Portland. The menu exclusively features champagne at great prices from excellent producers. Owner David Speer is usually present and can help you with a selection. I’ve lost count of how many times he’s been to Champagne to talk to winemakers. Don’t expect to eat here, but definitely pop in before or after dinner.

Shift Drinks
A large space in downtown Portland, aptly named for its role in catering to industry professionals in need of a shift drink after they’ve closed down their own establishments. This space is open till 2.30am and is great for larger groups. They have a wonderful wine list, great paninis, beer, and excellent cocktails.

OK Omens
In southeast Portland, chef Justin Woodward pairs his food with a wine list from Food and Wine’s 2017 Sommelier of the Year, Brent Braun. The food is creative and delicious and the wine list is accessibly priced, has some great natural gems, and is very fun (wine shots anyone?).  

Enoteca
This southeast Portland wine bar has a two-storey wine cellar, a seasonal patio, negronis galore, and decent small plates. Go after 10pm for half-off all glass-pours and bottles.

Le Pigeon and Canard
Le Pigeon has been a Portland fine dining staple for the last decade. Chef/co-owner Gabriel Rucker has won two James Beard awards and if you want to go out for an upscale dinner or are looking for a tasting menu (five or seven courses) there’s not a better place to do it. While the bottle list is amazing and sommelier/co-owner Andy Fortgang has been collecting gems for years, I recommend going with the well-thought-out and eclectic wine pairings. Next door to Le Pigeon, Canard is a wine bar/restaurant that Rucker and Fortgang opened last year. The wine list is weighted with natural and classic rarities and changes almost daily. Small plates are meant to be shared family style, and the vibe is casual. If you’re looking to sample from Rucker’s creative genius at a more casual price, this is the place!

Bar Casa Vale
Walking distance from the above, this is a Spanish-inspired restaurant with an exclusively Spanish and Portuguese wine list. They offer an exciting amount of sherry by the glass. I recommend you go for paella Sundays, but the food is always good no matter the day of the week.

Lovely’s 50/50
Portlanders will argue that it’s the best pizza you’ve ever had, praising Sarah Minnick as a dough savant. The produce is fresh, the pizzas have chewy sour crusts, the ice cream and fudge are on point, and everyone working there seems legitimately happy. It’s intimate, cosy, and feels like home. An admittedly short, but excellent, wine selection is offered in glass, bottle, or my favourite: 500ml carafe.

Navarre
The French and Spanish-inspired menu here changes daily based on seasonal produce. Dishes can be ordered in small or large portions. There are 50+ regularly rotating wines offered by the glass every day, ranging from well-known grapes and regions to esoteric wines made with varietals grown only in one place in the world (I always have my Oxford Companion ready on my phone). The patio is excellent for people watching.

Oregon wines to try

I originally started writing about all the wineries you should drive down to the Willamette Valley to visit, but this article is about Portland (and truthfully, I ran out of space waxing poetic about all our lovely vinous delights in the city). Still, I feel I’d be remiss not to at least provide you a short list of some of my favorite local producers. I have doubtless missed many and will kick myself later, we have far too many excellent wineries to have such a small list do them justice. I hope it provides a good start.

Ayres Fun watermelon rind-y rosé and serious Ribbon Ridge Pinot Noirs.

Bethel Heights Other than Eyrie Vineyards, Bethel Heights boasts some of the oldest vines in the valley. The Pinot Noirs are distinctive and flavourful.

Brick House Biodynamic Ribbon Ridge property with excellent Pinot Noirs and Gamay.

Cameron Dundee Hills property with ripe, high-acid, long-lived Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Fun projects include a spritz rosé, a ramato Pinot Gris, and Nebbiolo!

Cristom Eola-Amity Hills producer. The highlights are Pinot Noir and Syrah. Wines age very well—see if you can’t find older vintages.

The Eyrie Vineyards Oregon history. Back vintages galore, Park Avenue Wines (see wine shops) often has one of their older vintages featured on Coravin, and if you make it to the tasting room, you can buy bottles dating back to the 1980s. They have so many different bottlings; bubbles, whites, rosé, and reds.

Hiyu The only winery n this list not in Willamette Valley; they’re located near Hood River. Go for lunch, buy a bottle of Tzum.

Lingua Franca A newcomer to the Oregon wine scene—fruit driven Pinot Noirs and fantastic Chardonnays from Eola-Amity Hills.

Martin Woods Juicy, earthy Gamay.

Teutonic An urban winery in Portland with Riesling. Go Sundays for live jazz music and tasting or just pick up a bottle.

Thomas An Oregon cult wine. If you can find some, buy it!

Twill Great Syrah!

Walter Scott Clean, ageworthy Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Eola-Amity Hills.

Willamette Valley wine country in Oregon