YOU KNOW IT'S GOING to be one hell of a party when it begins by drinking bottles of wine swaddled in paper bags. Such is the case with the Portland Indie Wine Festival. Except in this case, the bagged bottles contain something far more potent than fortified rotgut—they contain the alchemy that occurs when grape varietals meet Oregon soil.
On March 15, a jury of wine experts and chefs faced down 163 bottles from 67 independent winemakers in a blind tasting. Brown paper crinkled softly; there was sniffing, slurping, and surprised glances. Eventually 82 wines were selected from 40 producers who will take to the Bison Building on Saturday, May 8, with some of Portland's best chefs, to pour their liquid art.
Far from the big-name labels you find in your local grocery store or wine shop, these wines are often the result of the skill and care of a single winemaker. The festival doesn't accept entries from any winery that produces over 2,500 cases.
"This is the ultimate un-manufactured wine experience," says Lisa Donoughe, Indie Wine Fest founder. "These are winemakers who want to reach a local audience, and care more about the unique expression of the land and vintage."
Donoughe explains she came up with the idea of the festival after discovering Oregon had an underground community of producers, often assistant winemakers themselves, piggybacking their production with larger wineries to avoid costs of buying expensive equipment. Some had small vineyards, some bought their grapes, but one thing in common between them was the difficulty of discovering or marketing their end product.
"Winemaking is farming," says Donoughe. "In 2005, we decided to create a commercial enterprise modeled after a farmers market."
Donoughe explains that, like a farmers market, festival attendees get a better understanding of what they're buying by talking to the person who watched over the product at every step.
"It gives you a sense of place," says Donoughe. "It gives a story and a meaning. So if you have a particular interest, you can find out how those grapes were grown. You understand what the vintage was like and when the rain happened. That's what we're after. We pull back the veil of the pretense."
And that's one of the aspects of the Indie Wine Fest that makes it so appealing: Craftsmanship trumps snobbery.
That's an issue particularly important to winemaker Byron Dooley of Seven of Hearts Wine and Luminous Hills.
"On some level it's just wine. Enjoy it," says Dooley. "The great thing about wine is all the layers of complexity, but also the beauty is it never bores you. These are things that anyone can experience. It doesn't have to be some mystical thing."
He should know. Memories of his first sips of Oregon pinot noir, while a student at Oregon State University in the 1980s, would eventually prompt him to ditch a career in computer science to become a winemaker 20 years later. Now on his third vintage, Dooley will be participating in the Portland Indie Wine Fest for a third year.
It's no surprise Dooley's great love is pinot noir, which he crafts in a "more old-world way." His knowledge is extensive, but the same can be said about his peers. That's one of the beauties of the festival, Dooley says, especially for a novice wine drinker.
"You're going to find a group of winemakers and wine producers who are really engaged with their customers," he says. "We're very enthusiastic to talk to people who are learning about wine on a very common sense level."
As much as the festival offers a unique opportunity to learn about wine, expanding your palate and discovering unknown gems, it's also an opportunity to eat amazing food from the city's top restaurants. This year's roster includes restaurants like Beaker and Flask, Biwa, Nostrana, and Wildwood (and so much more).
But the stars of the show are those 82 wines, 26 of which cost less than $25. Small batches crafted by attentive winemakers mean unique and quirky wines that may have started their time at the festival concealed in paper bags, but will likely occupy a place of honor at the dinner table.
"They're making these wines to satisfy their own particular palate preferences," says Donoughe. "So if someone cares about supporting a local artist they should care about supporting a local winemaker with that same passion."
Wine, art, food, and passion—it's going to be one hell of a party. What more could you want?