How Portland is becoming an urban hotspot for winemaking

Portland’s famously eccentric streak is reflected in its burgeoning wine scene, where enterprising growers are tearing up the rule book to produce wines full of character.

This article was adapted from National Geographic Traveller (UK)

The sun hangs low, the horizon muddled in a blue haze. A few giant firs, of the gangling kind the Pacific Northwest is famed for, rise from a hillside striped with vines of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. 

You’d think I was in the belly of Oregon wine country, parcelled among misty forests, meadows and rivers. But Amaterra Winery, opened in Portland’s West Hills area in January 2022, is just 15 minutes from Downtown. A sleek, glass-clad juggernaut of a building, it’s one of more than 900 wineries in the state — and one of the newest spots in the city’s burgeoning urban wine scene.

In the cavernous tasting-room-cum-restaurant, with its stone fireplace and giant horseshoe-shaped bar, bartender Robbie Wilson hands me a flight of reds: two house blends and a Pinot Noir. As I sip, he drifts around the bar, topping up glasses and whipping up cocktails like a scientist in a lab, while chatting to customers as though they’re old friends. He once owned a popular cocktail bar in the city’s buzzy Pearl District, but the pandemic forced it to close. “We all share similar dreams of making it and being successful doing what we love,” he tells me, as I sample a chocolatey blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. “Portland has been and always will be that kind of city to me.” 

Occasionally, Robbie brings me something else to try — a dram of whiskey here, a fermented cocktail there. But it’s the wine that really sings. Pinot Noir, the varietal the region’s most famous for, accounts for 59% of Oregon’s planted acres; the state’s cooler climes offer perfect growing conditions. Amaterra’s variety is rich and woody, and pairs beautifully with the restaurant’s earthy butternut squash risotto. 

It’s no surprise that Portlanders make great wine — this is a makers’ town at heart, with a craft scene that dates to the 1800s. Whether it’s sewing clothes, tempering artisanal chocolate or brewing craft beer, the folks here aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. It’s a land of forward-thinkers and freewheelers. Even its name was decided by the flip of a coin back in 1845. Down in the Old Town, the words ‘Keep Portland Weird’ are painted on a wall in fat yellow letters.

“Everyone’s a little weird, right?” Robbie says. “If we listen to our inner child, we’re all unique and different. Portland is a collaborative place, one where weirdos come together and solve modern-day problems.” 

You need only walk along Mississippi Avenue to see more of that rebellious, free-spirited streak: food-cart pods jostle for space alongside breweries and concept restaurants, while Stem Wine Bar offers tarot readings with tastings. Over in hip Northeast Portland, you’ll find Sports Bra, a bar showing exclusively women’s sports while championing female winemakers, brewers and distillers. And at Abbey Creek Vineyard, owned and run by winemaker Bertony Faustin, that rebel spirit is an ingredient in every bottle.

“I make sacrilegious blends,” says Bertony as he greets me in his North Plains tasting room, less than 30 minutes from Downtown, where The Notorious BIG pumps from the speakers. “I’ve got a Bordeaux-Burgundy blend; I’ve got a Pinot-Malbec blend. The wine industry traditionally has boxes, corners, boundaries — and I’m a rebel by blood.”

A “rebel by blood”, a winemaker by trade and a music lover at heart, Bertony established his hip-hop-themed winery in 2008. Here, tasting flights are presented as playlists — a fizzing Blanc de Noir for Track 1, a Pinot Gris for Track 2 — and you’ll swill your wine to a stream of hip-hop’s greatest hits. In the corner of the tasting room, a DJ deck is carved into a wine barrel. “When visitors come in, I want them dizzy,” chuckles Bertony. “I want you to be like, ‘Damn, hold up. Did we just hear Biggie?’ Yeah, you heard Biggie and you’re sipping Pinot Noir.”

Yet, for Bertony, it’s not just about breaking boundaries, it’s about expressing his identity. He was raised in New York — “I grew up literally down the street from Run-DMC” — but his parents and two siblings were born in Haiti. It was his father’s death in 2007 that pushed Bertony to embrace the “immigrant hustle” and open a winery, and now his Haitian heritage keeps a steady beat throughout the menu. “Growing up in New York in the 1980s, it wasn’t cool to be Haitian,” he says. “But I’ve stepped into my heritage now. Everything on the menu is going to have this Caribbean, Haitian flair.”

That Haitian flair is showcased in a mushroom slider made with epis (a traditional marinade built on citrus and herbs) and finished with pikliz (a zingy cabbage slaw). He pairs it with a “food-friendly, winter-style” rosé — a fine, fruity accompaniment to the Haitian spice. We close with pain patate, a Haitian-style sweet potato pie that’s doused in cremas-based sauce. Cremas, Bertony tells me, is Haiti’s traditional tipple, made with coconut cream and rum. He pours me a glug of his signature port-style wine, or POP (Port of Pinot). The name is a tribute to both his late father and Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. It’s muscular and brandy-heavy, and it makes the dessert sing. 

Bolstered by the success of his North Plains venture, Bertony opened a tasting room Downtown in July 2020. It was a tumultuous time for Portland — the pandemic was boarding up businesses and, following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, fierce protests rocked the city. “I was the first tenant in my building for months,” he says. “When everything else was closed up, I felt people needed to see something open.” His tenacity paid off. Business is now booming, just like the hip-hop music that fills the room.

Another spot with staying power is Hip Chicks Do Wine, Portland’s oldest urban winery. The on-site tasting room has a laid-back, come-as-you-are vibe. Stacked barrels line the walls and wine flights are served in little test tubes at a mishmash of tables. It’s genial and unshowy — much like Portland itself. 

“We’ve been making wine in this location for 23 years,” says Laurie Lewis, who owns the winery with her wife, Renee Neely. “When we opened our tasting room in 2001, we were the only winery in Portland.” As a young lesbian couple in the late 1990s, staying urban was important for the couple, who’ve been shaking up the wine industry since. “We didn’t always feel the most welcome in some tasting rooms,” says Laurie. “I felt a real disconnect. So coming into this we were, like: ‘We want to be something different.’”

That goes right down to the bottles, which have designs inspired by 1940s pulp novels. A redhead perches on a barrel on the label of Riot Girl Rosé, while for Bad Girl Blanc — a crisp Pinot Gris-Phoenix blend — a Marilyn Monroe-esque blonde struts forwards in a turtleneck. 

With Hip Chicks as a pioneer, Portland’s urban wine scene has grown exponentially in the past decade. “These days, the PDX Urban Wineries association [a collective founded by the pair in 2011] has a membership numbering 15, but realistically there are more like 30 to 32 wineries inside Portland’s city limits,” says Laurie. “Now we have enough urban wineries for tours. You could spend the whole weekend and visit seven or eight tasting rooms where they’re actually making wine on the premises. Portland is the gateway to Oregon wine.” 

Hip Chicks recently showcased its offerings at the world’s first Queer Wine Fest in Dayton, less than an hour’s drive from Portland. Plans are already afoot for the next festival, and Laurie has high hopes for the future of urban wine, too. “I think it will continue to grow,” she says. “There’s certainly enough space and the people of Portland are open to it.” 

Whatever’s next, in true Portland style, it’s sure to be rebellious, creative and, as bartender Robbie puts it, wonderfully weird.

How to do it

British Airways flies direct from Heathrow to Portland. First Nature Tours offers customisable wine tours for up to four people.

Published in the US Cities guide, distributed with the March 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) 

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