Building Wine Culture in a Beer Town

By Lisa Elbert


Lisa Elbert
Somm Christopher Sky pouring Oregon juice at St.Jack
Somm Christopher Sky pouring Oregon juice at St.Jack

“Portland has always been a beer town, and then it was a cocktail town, and now, finally, wine is about to have its big moment,” says Rising Star Sommelier Brent Braun of Castagna. Wine has always been integral to the tasting menu format at 19-year-old Castagna, and Braun’s guests, who have fewer price constraints than the average diner, “will try just about anything if it’s from Oregon.” Not every restaurant, nor sommelier, can sell wine—let alone from the region—with such ease.
Portland’s early wine palate was shaped by Italian restaurant lists, and thus arose a paradox of buy-local evangelists sipping wine from 10,000 miles away. “Part of the path forward is educating guests to drink more wine and to drink better wine,” says Braun. As the city and its population evolve, a new generation of wine drinkers—many of whom moved to town to work for the likes of Nike, Columbia Sportswear, and Lithia Motors—has emerged, and the city’s young sommeliers are working to share their passion for local juice.
More restaurants also are supporting salaries for more robust beverage programs—even if somms’ roles often encompass a whole lot more than wine. (Caryn Benke, sommelier at Ava Gene’s, has dubbed the role “sommager.”) “In an ideal world, it would be great to see a working somm on every upscale dining room floor for every shift, especially in restaurants with intimidating wine lists,” says Sommelier Emily Salko of Olympia Provisions Southeast. Until that happens, wine professionals and somm hopefuls can either take their talents up the road to wine country, where there’s more opportunity, or hunker down with the passionate few in Portland, who are multi-tasking to make a difference.

Katie Sombat, sommelier at Tusk, has found that hand selling Oregon wines is critical to moving inventory. “Typically, I can get a guest excited or at least interested by talking about the cellar techniques, such as anfora aging, or the story behind winemakers like Sterling [Whitted] from Holden, who started making wine in his garage,” says Sombat. She also occasionally opens bottles on busy Friday nights to get guests “pumped up” about new wine coming onto the list. Benke also laments that in a town with never-ending happy hours, it’s not easy to offer Tuesday-night value with Oregon Pinot Noir. Luckily, she can source local Gamay, Dolcetto, Cabernet Franc, and Blaufr√§nkisch for her menu—not to mention Gew√ľrztraminer, Malvasia, and Vermentino that are growing in local vineyards.
“Andrew and Annedria Beckham at A.D. Beckham are making wine so delicious you can’t ignore it,” says Rising Star Sommelier Ksandek Podbielski of Coquine. “They live on and farm a small vineyard that they taught themselves to plant by hand and manage—sustainably! Andrew ferments and ages many of his wines in terra cotta vessels that he makes himself. His day job is teaching high-school ceramics. Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris from the Willamette Valley and Grenache and Vermentino from Southern Oregon are all compelling.”

In that regard, Oregon winemakers are embracing the anything-goes ethos that makes Portland and its restaurant scene so special. Pop goes the beer bubble!

Oregon Producers to Watch
A.D. Beckham
Bow & Arrow
Clos Electrique
Holden Wine
Hundred Suns
Viola Wine Cellars
Walter Scott

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