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Portland By the Glass

This gateway to Oregon's wine country is a wine destination in its own right. Writer Chip Brown sips his way around the city.

The soul of Portland, Oregon, has traditionally been depicted by iconic images of rain, roses, slate skies, steel bridges and the woolly fashions of the lumberjack, but anyone who likes wine can be excused for also envisioning a bunch of grapes. Over the past three decades, more than 120 wineries have sprung up in the Willamette Valley within a day's drive of the city—a worthwhile trip, if just for the views of lush pastures and coniferous ridges where giant Douglas firs sway in mint-ocean air. Yet Portland is not only the gateway to wine country but a wine destination itself, with terrific restaurants and wine bars that let visitors get a taste of Willamette without leaving the city.

With great wine on my mind, I put up for a couple of nights at Hotel Lucia, Portland's latest contribution to the boutique genre. Patronized by cattlemen when it was known as the Imperial Hotel, the 1908 landmark building now has new African-mahogany walls and an Italian-marble lobby. Some 680 photographs by former White House photographer David Hume Kennerly, an appropriately postmodern mélange of Presidential snapshots and portraits of the Seinfeld cast, line the hallways. The Lucia, which opened a little more than a year ago, is still raising eyebrows around town, in part because the staff is generally so much better dressed than the guests, and the atmosphere of arty sophistication in the lobby made me wonder whether the bowls of gleaming Granny Smith apples are for eating or for show. (For eating: Portland is still exempt from some pretensions.)

My first night, I was planning to go to Paley's Place, which has a burgeoning national reputation, but I never got out of Noble Rot, a year-old wine bar on the east side of the Willamette River. It's hardly in a glamorous location—what with the blood-plasma center across the street. But Kimberly Bernosky and Courtney Storrs have a shrewd selection of bottles from France, Spain and South Africa as well as some of the best Willamette Valley wines, from producers such as Bergström, Patricia Green and Brick House. Courtney's husband, Leather, who's also the chef, serves wonderful small plates: a slice of onion tart, a potato gratin with leeks and morels, wine-braised beef over risotto. Noble Rot also offers wine dinners and classes, and a newsletter with, for example, their Top 10 Reasons We Still Like the French ("No. 1: Dogs are allowed in restaurants").

I sat at a sidewalk table with winemaker Doug Tunnell of Brick House and his wife, Melissa Mills. Tunnell is a former CBS News correspondent who, when he became weary of covering the Middle East in the late 1980s, bought an old hazelnut farm and began growing grapes organically. "The Oregon wine scene is really collegial," says Tunnell. Indeed, he was able to teach himself how to make wine by watching and talking to other growers. He produces only 2,500 cases a year, which allows him to attend to details from start to finish. Tunnell opened an unlabeled bottle of 2001 Brick House Chardonnay he'd brought, which tasted even better after Leather served us plates of warm asparagus salad with locally grown shiitake mushrooms and pea shoots in a sesame-ginger vinaigrette. "There are very few places like Oregon. We have such long temperate growing seasons, with bountiful rain when you need it and well-drained soils," Tunnell says. "The fruit becomes ripe, but it's not rushed to ripeness."

The weather that's ideal for growing grapes also suits the farms that provide Portland with high-quality produce. Shaking off the aftereffect of a long night at Noble Rot, I wandered through one of the city's farmers' markets. In a grassy park shaded by elm trees, vendors had set out fresh eggs, tomatoes, peppers, squash. The abundance of markets is one reason the food scene here is so vibrant. For example, Gene "The Potato Machine" Thiel is something of a celebrity among Portland chefs for his potatoes, which he hauls in from Joseph, 350 miles away.

That afternoon, once again on my way to Paley's Place, I nearly missed my reservation thanks to a beguiling flight of Pinots at Oregon Wines on Broadway, a wine bar and shop dedicated to local producers. A few blocks from Hotel Lucia, Oregon Wines is owned by the Bolling sisters, Betsy and Kate. Betsy Bolling was especially pleased with a barrel of Evesham Wood Pinot Noir, with a black-cherry bouquet and silky-sweet fruit, that she had bottled as the store's own Broadway Cuvee.

And was I glad I finally made it to Paley's Place, where the wine list ranges far beyond Oregon, but the menu wisely stays close to home. Chef Vitaly Paley's French-bistro cooking reflects his stints at Union Square Cafe and Chanterelle in New York City, and at Au Moulin de la Gorce, a Michelin two-star restaurant near Limoges, France. For a Normandy-inspired dish, for example, Paley braises local trout with cider, mushrooms and bacon. The morels stuffed with spring vegetables in a sherry-cream sauce and an amazingly moist and light piece of olive-oil-poached halibut tasted delicious paired with the 2000 Ken Wright Cellars Canary Hill Pinot Noir.

Satisfied with all that Portland offered me, I remembered something a bookstore cashier said when I asked about life in her city of sturdy bridges and weeping skies: "There's not much to do except read books and drink wine." Nothing seemed so iconic, all of a sudden, as her unmistakable air of contentment.

Chip Brown is the author, most recently, of Good Morning Midnight: Life and Death in the Wild.

Published August 2003
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