The heart of Oregon wine country in the scenic North Willamette Valley makes a fine summer getaway, but on a winter weekend, sampling and sipping your way around the state ...
PORTLAND The heart of Oregon wine country in the scenic North Willamette Valley makes a fine summer getaway, but on a winter weekend, sampling and sipping your way around the state and the world is as easy as checking into a downtown Portland hotel and finding the nearest wine bar.
As brew pubs have caught on in towns with beer cultures, wine bars have blossomed in the Rose City, an hour’s drive from two-thirds of the state’s wineries.
“It’s almost like living in a wine town because we’re so close. Kind of like a little Napa,” says Kimberly Bernosky, co-owner of Noble Rot, a year-old wine bar in Southeast Portland’s burgeoning ethnic restaurant and vintage shopping district. “A lot of the winemakers live here, and there are wine events all the time.”
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Oregon is known mainly for its pinot noir, and lately some winemakers have been producing reds from Bordeaux and Rhone grapes, but not all the bars emphasize local wines.
Portland wine shops and restaurants have forged ties with Italian vintners over the years, and some of the bars focus more on European wines dear to the hearts of their well-traveled owners.
Like Noble Rot, with its cozy booths and polished fir bar, all have intimate interiors and invite experimenting with dozens of wines by the glass or “taste.” These 1.5- to 2-ounce pours are often available in “flights” that allow you to compare three or four wines from the same region or wines produced by the same vintner in different years.
Food tends toward twists on Spanish-style tapas (small plates) of gourmet nibbles. Sweets are paired with dessert wines.
A weekend spent sipping and snacking is an excellent way to get acquainted with some of the city’s liveliest neighborhoods, all worth exploring for their antique shops, art galleries, museums and bookstores.
Here are a few ideas on where to start:
Vigne, 417 N.W. 10th Ave.
Pearl District. Tuesday-Saturday, 4-11 p.m. No reservations. Phone: 503-295-9536. Web: www.vignewinebar.com
The scene: Soft jazz, candlelight, glass tables, black leather furniture, exposed brick and bamboo floors. Two-year-old Vigne feels more like New York than Portland.
Even competitors give the nod to Vigne as the city’s classiest wine bar.
Co-owner Brian Martin, 30, sits in a corner, tracking his inventory on a laptop computer. “It’s not as homey as most people in Portland would like,” he says. “But we’re in the Pearl District, and we’re in the Gregory Building (a new, art-deco style condo and office complex), and I think what we did really fits.”
The clientele is sophisticated retirees and young professionals, some of whom have worked up a thirst combing the neighborhood’s design stores for $8,000 leather sofas and $400 table lamps.
The wine: Vigne specializes in hard-to-find European vintages. The collection includes 40 champagnes, a large Austrian Riesling selection and a huge list of German wines. Nine hundred bottles ($20 to $1,200) are for sale in a glass-enclosed “cellar” across from the bar. Twenty-four wines are available by the glass ($7-$13) or a two-ounce taste ($2.75-$5).
Best bargain: The weekly changing flight of four, two-ounce pours. One selection ($20) of Italian wines from Arnaldo-Caprai, a family-owned winery in Umbria, included a taste from a $95 bottle of Sagrantinio, a grape that’s brought some renown to wineries in the village of Montefalco.
The food: Not dinner, but hardly an afterthought. Standout plates ($3-$8) include cold-smoked salmon, bowls of marinated olives served with crusty bread and a caramelized onion and bacon tart. There’s also a nicely edited selection of French cheeses.
The neighborhood: Art galleries, chic restaurants, tea shops and furniture stores are replacing warehouses and transmission shops in the Pearl District, an industrial part of downtown north of West Burnside between 8th and 15th Avenues. Among Vigne’s neighbors are a gourmet chocolate shop, a Tibetan carpet seller and the Desperado Western store that sells Rogers trail mix for $6.50 and suede cowboy shirts for $329.
The Czech-manufactured Portland streetcars travel a 2.4-mile route from Portland State University and downtown through the Pearl along tracks on 10th and 11th Avenues.
750ml, 232 N.W. 12th Ave.
Pearl District. Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Friday-Saturday until midnight. Reservations recommended on weekends. Phone: 503-224-1432. Web: www.750-ML.com
The scene: The music creates a lively buzz, and by 8 p.m. on a Friday, well-dressed Portlanders in their 20s and 30s are huddled around butcher-block tables or settled in near floor level on white vinyl cushions stuffed with lentils.
Three women in black discuss yoga postures while sipping red wine and eating truffle-scented French fries from what looks like an oversized, stainless steel martini glass.
If Vigne is Portland’s most sophisticated wine bar, 750ml is its hippest a place to make the scene from lunchtime through midnight.
Owner Rena Vatch, 40, works the room, refilling water glasses and chatting up regulars. She opened 750ml as a store-front wine shop in 1999 and put in a full kitchen last year.
The wine: Vatch lived and traveled abroad for three years. Her 100-label inventory includes a globe-trotting list of wines from Greece to Australia and Argentina as well as Oregon, Washington and California.
Wines by the bottle, glass ($5-$15) or sip ($2-$6) are grouped according to taste (light-bodied, full-bodied etc.) rather than region. The menu suggests food and wine pairings, and customers are encouraged to build their own flights from 35-40 wines available by the 2.5-ounce sip or glass.
The food: Vatch has expanded her menu from cheese, olives and snacks to an array of sandwiches ($7.50) and small plates ($4-$12) described as “nouvelle American.”
The best idea is to bring a friend or two and compose a meal by mixing and matching dishes.
Share an order of the fries sprayed with black truffle oil as a starter, then move onto a salad of winter greens with blue cheese, Fuji apples and toasted walnuts. More substantial dishes include a seared duck breast in a sweet and sour red wine sauce and short ribs braised in Italian Dolcetto wine and served with polenta and sautéed greens.
The neighborhood: Just north of Powell’s Books, this section of the Pearl is still evolving. 750ml’s neighbors include a home-design store, an auto-parts store and In Good Taste, a gourmet kitchen shop that sponsors weekend wine tastings and Friday wine dinners.
Southpark Seafood Grill & Wine Bar, 901 S.W. Salmon St.
Downtown, South Park District. Wine bar open 11 a.m, no reservations, Saturday and Sunday, and 11:30 a.m. Monday-Friday; until 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday and midnight Sunday-Thursday. Phone: 503-326-1300. Web: www.southpark.citysearch.com
The scene: South Park pioneered the wine-bar trend in Portland when it opened a bar six years ago next door to its full-service bistro.
Business travelers and pre- and post-symphony and theatergoers fill stools around a horseshoe-shaped stainless-steel bar. Tables are tucked away in candlelit alcoves curtained off from the main restaurant.
Murals depict a Mediterranean bar scene with people eating, drinking and dancing, but Southpark is low-key and quiet, ideal for a romantic evening or for unwinding alone without feeling rushed or hassled.
The wine: The list features 140 wines from a dozen countries to complement a menu with Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, Italian and North African influences.
Wines are organized by taste (lush, intense, fruit-driven reds; crisp, fresh dry whites etc.) and about 30 are sold by the half-glass ($3-$5), glass ($6-$9) and carafe.
For the most fun and the best bargain, put together a medley of appetizers and your own flight: A 1.5-ounce taste of any wine sold by the glass, except sparkling wines, is $2.75, regardless of the bottle price.
The food: The “small plates” 22 tapas-style nibbles ($4-$15) are inventive and tasty.
Two could share the antipasti platter of olives, cheeses, apples, grapes, meats and roasted red peppers. Try the Moroccan spice crab cakes with mint, cilantro and lime or the warm dates stuffed with almonds and wrapped in slivers of cured Spanish ham.
The neighborhood: South Park is in the cultural heart of Portland. Nearby is the symphony hall, the Portland Center for Performing Arts, the art museum and the South Park Blocks, an 8.5-acre urban park adjacent to Portland State University.
Oregon Wines on Broadway, 515 Southwest Broadway
Downtown. Tuesday-Saturday, noon-8 p.m. Phone: 503-228-4655. On the Web: www.oregonwinesonbroadway.com
The scene: Business travelers and tourists frequent this tiny storefront first opened by St. Innocent Winery of Salem, Oregon, and owned for the past four years by sisters Kate and Betsy Bolling.
Bottles are stored on wooden shelves opposite an oak bar. Wedged into 800 square feet of space are five tiny marble-topped tables and a few cushioned seats upholstered in red and gold.
The wine: The shop specializes in wines made by more than 100 producers in Oregon and Washington. Most are boutique wineries producing 10,000 cases or less annually.
Lined up behind the bar are 36 reds (30 are Oregon pinots), and five whites, all available by the taste ($1-$6) and glass ($4-$15), depending on the bottle price.
Mike Zacchino, who moonlights here when he’s not working on the photo desk at the Portland Oregonian, likes helping customers customize their own flights.
Ask for a suggestion, and he’ll slide a sheet of paper in front of you with six circles and a place for notes.
You select three wines in different price ranges (a $3 taste from a $30 bottle; a $5 sample from a $42 wine and a $6 taste from a $50 bottle). He sets each glass inside one of the circles and lets you compare.
The food: Wedges of brie, blue and jack cheese with bread from the Pearl Bakery are available for $5. There’s also a mix of olives, almonds, dried cherries and apricots ($3) and a duck liver mousse ($8).
The neighborhood: The shop is across the street from Marriott Hotel, in the heart of the downtown hotel and shopping district. Nordstrom’s is just down the street, but take a few minutes to wander inside Morgan’s Alley. Oregon Wines anchors this classy little urban mall that houses and an art-glass shop and Pinkham Millinery, specializing in handmade hats.
2724 S.E. Ankeny St.
Southeast Portland. Monday-Saturday, 5 p.m.-midnight. No reservations. Phone: 503-233-1999. Web: www.noblerot.biz
The scene: Neighborhood casual. If you don’t have a car, take a bus or taxi to get here. The 10-minute ride from downtown across the Burnside Bridge will land you in the heart of the Kearns/Buckman neighborhood of Southeast Portland near Northeast and Southeast 28th Avenue.
A handful of ethnic restaurants cater to a mostly local crowd, and Noble Rot, owned by Kimberly Bernosky, 39, and Courtney Storrs, 32, has the kind of “insider” feel that comes with being part a neighborhood.
Storrs’ husband, Leather, prepares food behind the bar near a glass garage door that opens to the sidewalk in nice weather. Wine is stored on shelves lining cinderblock walls. You can slide into one of three red vinyl booths across from the bar, or ask for a table in the cozy back room. No reservations are taken, so be prepared for a wait after 6 p.m.
The wine: Bernosky was first inspired when she lived in Seattle and enjoyed dropping into a Wallingford wine bar called the Bungalow. She owned a wine shop in Northeast Portland before opening Noble Rot (named after the mold used for making Sauternes).
The inventory includes 500 labels from Oregon; other parts of the world, especially the Rhone River Valley in Germany; Spain and Portugal; and recently, more wine from Washington.
About 60 wines, including dessert wines, are sold by the glass ($4-$15) along with a rotating list of four to five flights built around different themes (ie: ABC-Anything but Chardonnay, a $7 tasting of two-ounce pours from Spain, Australia and Oregon).
The food: Eating and drinking here is easier on your wallet than in any of the downtown wine bars.
Spanish almonds ($2) are roasted in-house and olives ($2) are scooped from a big jar on the bar. Add a panini ($7) with grilled butternut squash, goat cheese and fig jam, the Ruby trout or Baby back ribs ($10), and you might not have room for dessert.
The neighborhood: Funky and worth exploring for its vintage clothing shops and ethnic restaurants.
Navarre, a tapas restaurant/wine bar, is nearby at 10 N.E. 28th. The Glamour Gallery, 9 S.E. 28th, is the place to find sequined sunglasses in retro styles, and anyone could kill a half hour at Fairly Honest Bill’s, a store at 40 S.E. 28th with a sign outside advertising “Just good used stuff!!!”
Carol Pucci, 206-464-3701 or email@example.com