I'VE NOTICED a new skepticism from my out-of-town family when they ask how I like living in Portland. I suspect the cause is Portlandia, but I can't be sure. Skepticism is, however, a symptom of curiosity, so when I go see them I like to bring a bottle or two of local wine along. I tell them that with Portland's exploding wine scene, it's becoming more and more possible to walk a mile in any direction and hit a winery.
For me, that winery is Jan-Marc Wine Cellars. Jan-Marc Baker produces wine in a small facility—a 350-square-foot two-car garage at his house in the Overlook neighborhood. I met him there recently to see the space.
"It's worked out perfectly," Baker tells me, gesturing widely, as though my eyes couldn't take in the entire space at once. It looks like any other garage, except for the 32 oak barrels and various presses and fermentation tanks taking up more than half of the space. "We just had to insulate it, put in the washable walls, and bring water and power in here." He also poured a concrete driveway next to the garage, doubling his space while trying to keep it from becoming an eyesore in the residential community.
But do his neighbors ever complain? "Oh, they love it. They've been very supportive." The city, it seems, has endless support for entrepreneurs, so long as they make good wine, beer, or coffee. People in Portland are interested in their own interests, and they like to follow their tastes to the source.
Baker says the success of urban wineries like his has something to do with that attitude. "The shops have been very good to [urban wineries] in general. And then, you know, you find your specific champions, the shops that will pour your wine and represent you. Everyone's looking for a story."
Luckily, these urban wineries produce wines that live up to their stories. Jan-Marc's pinot noir is one of the prime examples of cool-weather Willamette Valley pinot—light and earthy, like berry compote with marble-y mineral accents. At $28, it's a great wine to show off the city to family elsewhere. Jan-Marc's whites range from a sturdy, serious, barrel-fermented chardonnay (forget California, forget Chablis, Ainsworth Street is where chardonnay is made) to a riesling that's aromatic, bone dry, and finely acidic, like a petal-wrapped Asian pear.
But Jan-Marc is not the only member of the ever-expanding PDX Urban Wineries association, or the Portland wine scene in general. Anne Hubatch's marvelous Helioterra Wines has done well enough that Hubatch has spun off a more budget-friendly line under the label Whoa Nelly! Check out the Whoa Nelly White, a pretty (but slightly raucous) wine; a fistful of bright fruit that won't set you back more than a fistful of dollars.
Ryan Sharp's incredibly well-received Enso Winery has also spun off a line of more affordable wine in his Resonate series, but Sharp's sharp sourcing eye keeps even these "easy and fun" table wines interesting. The current red is Portland's answer to France's "Baby Bandol" style, a neutral-oak-aged mourvedre/cinsault/grenache with plenty of red fruit and earth ($16).
Then there are your graduates of the Portland scene, Grochau Cellars and Bow & Arrow. These producers started small in shared spaces and have expanded. John Grochau's Commuter Cuvée pinot noir is now made out of the city, in McMinnville, in the famed Yamhill Valley pinot noir growing region. A true "pinot for the people" at $16, Commuter at first seems just knockout-rich, but unbristles and unwinds when faced with equally bold food (it took a truffle and shallot burger to coax out some berry subtlety, but there it was).
While Grochau moved his operation closer to the vineyards, Bow & Arrow, who once shared the Southeast Wine Collective space, have expanded and moved to NE Sandy. Bow & Arrow's Rhinestones is the perfect holiday wine. A blend of gamay and pinot noir, it resembles both wines in subtlety, lightness, and balance, but plays up the potential of each with qualities of tobacco, earth spice, and light berry-skin fuzziness in a way that's great for the Thanksgiving table ($23).
With wine like this, it won't be long before the family wants to visit Portland just for the wine scene. And they should. As Baker puts it, "People might say, 'Oh, there's no vineyard right next door? No scenic views?' No. It's not bucolic, but hey—you get a nice high-foot-traffic area, people can walk around from winery to winery—life is good."
So put on your sneakers, go outside, and head in any direction. When you find somebody making wine, buy a bottle or a case. That's the story people are looking for to slake their curiosity and their thirst, and now it's yours to tell.