I spent a few days in Portland, Ore., last week, and you can't deny it has a distinctive personality, a combo of the laidback vibe of the West Coast with the rusty sneer of an old East Coast port city.
It's also one of the hipster capitals of America. Every generation has its young, counter-culture crowd, from the beatniks and hippies to the punks, rappers and beyond, but today's hipsters have created a lifestyle. You may have seen it parodied on The Simpsons and Portlandia on TV.
Those of us from the New Wave generation can certainly relate to them. I was shopping for thin ties, vintage clothing and used records in New York's East Village more than 30 years ago, and while there weren't as many tats and funny hats and piercings back then, there was plenty of wild and ironic hair on the heads of a whole lot of folks.
One thing that distinguishes this new generation of hipsters is its passion for serious food and wine and, in the past five years, dozens of hip restaurants and wine bars targeting that crowd have sprung up in Portland. These aren't places you just stumble upon. They're generally smallish and quirky, hidden away in one of the city's numerous neighborhoods. You have to go looking for them.
They have names like Ox, Olympic Provisions and Woodsman Tavern, and there are restaurants with similar attitudes in San Francisco, Brooklyn, Seattle and beyond. Whether they're worth the search depends on who you are.
In Portland, as with any city, some restaurants are worth seeking out and some aren't, but one thing that struck me about the new restaurants aimed at hipsters was the lack of Oregon wines offered. In several cases, lists that included 100 wines had three or four Oregon wines, and the rest were from France, Italy, Spain and South America.
I'm as adventuresome as any wine drinker, and I certainly don't think Portland's wine lists should be parochial. And indeed, many of the long-established restaurants such as Paley's Place and Higgins have an impressive blend of Oregon wines and other bottlings around the world.
But think about it this way: Portland is about the same distance to Willamette Valley as the city center of Bordeaux is to the village of Margaux. Can you imagine a restaurant in Bordeaux that carried few if any wines of the region? Preposterous!
"They talk about how they're farm-to-table and how they source their food locally," one Willamette Valley winemaker told me, "but they don't have any Oregon wines on their list."
Vintners in other regions, from California to New York state, can relate, I'm sure. There are high-profile restaurants in San Francisco that carry few if any California wines. I recognize their argument—that California wines are too big and ripe to go with food—although I don't agree with them in most cases.
But how can anyone make the argument that Oregon Pinot Noir, for example, doesn't go with food? The best are elegant and lovely and complex. Certainly there are reasons beyond that. Top Oregon Pinots are not cheap and anyone who wants to appeal to the under-30 crowd these days can't expect them to buy many $75 bottles of wine with dinner.
Is it because the wine buyers are young and inexperienced? Are they just being anti-establishment? How can they love everything local, except for wine? What am I missing here? It certainly opens up a world of debate.
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