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 citya 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 locationwhat 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").