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From Farm to Table, Except for Wine

The new hipster restaurants of Portland, Ore., are emblematic of a national phenomenon
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: May 8, 2013 10:40am ET

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.

Kyle Schlachter
Colorado —  May 8, 2013 11:32am ET
Tim, the lack of local wines at "locavore" restaurants is just mind-boggling. Though CA, OR and WA vintners may complain about a lack of local restaurant support, they have it good when compared to CO, NY, VA et cetera...
Michael Thigpen
Georgia —  May 8, 2013 5:04pm ET
I think a lot of it is just the "mystique" of having a wine from France or Italy. It just sounds so much more interesting whether it is any better or not.
Cutting Edge Selections
ohio —  May 8, 2013 10:46pm ET
Personally, I think it's ashame those restauranteurs don't support the abundant wealth of wines in their own backyard. On the other hand if the wines on their lists match well with the dishes plated I'd have little to btch about.
David Rossi
Napa, CA —  May 9, 2013 8:27am ET

Same thing on the east coast. Go eat in Manhattan and look at the paltry number of Long Island and Finger lakes wines on the lists. Sure you will find a few, but hardly broad support.

I can understand not having as much Long Island wine because the competition for Merlot and Chardonnay is fierce and while LI wines are very good, I wouldn't say world class. Riesling from the Finger lakes is world class and should be on every list in abundance.

Disclaimer- I don't make or sell NY wines, so this is just from a consumers perspective.
David Rapoport
CA —  May 9, 2013 9:55am ET
Ah yes. Brought to you by the folks whose aesthetic sense gave us the resurrection of the the olde-timey mustache, the skinny jeans, the abusive saturation of plaid, and the questionable re-birth of PBR; for whom image is far more important than quality. Who, in general, have little real experience with wine
Caroline Bergstrom
Portland, Oregon —  May 9, 2013 11:05am ET
Hi Tim,
Josh Bergstrom here from Bergstrom Wines in Oregon. Thanks for your blog on the Portland food scene. It is indeed alive and vibrant and I am glad you had a chance to check it out!
Personally I can add that Oregon is my largest wholesale market in the world. We personally sell to and have great relationships with over 300 accounts (mostly restaurants) in the state of Oregon. We sell more wine here than in New York and California combined. That being said, I agree with you that the market could definitely grow when it comes to Oregon presence on wine lists. When I travel to Seattle or San FranciscoI see a much larger representation of Washington or Californian wines on their menus, highlighting the support they give to the wines of their state.
I believe that Oregon chefs and wine buyers/ sommeliers have a deep connection and appreciation for Oregon wines and wineries and show this whenever they can. We are all very close here on a personal level. But, Portland chefs want to perform and be seen on the world's stage, as many of us winemakers do. They want to be recognized by foundations such as the James Beard House or even the Wine Spectator for diverse and complex wine,beer and spirits lists showcasing how world class beverages from around the globe complement the local ingredients and the style that they offer. I understand this for sure and also talk about this often with friends and tourists who come to the winery. Tourists and visitors from the outside want desperately to drink Oregon Pinot Noir when they come to Oregon, yet the locals who keep these restaurants alive throughout the entire season, including the slower winter months, want to taste what the world has to offer when it comes to drink.
It should probably also be mentioned that the exciting food and wine scene in Portland is less than 45 years old. As our wine and beer and spirits and coffee roasting and restaurant industries grow and age and mature, I am sure that you will see things change and shift and maybe find a balance that everyone can appreciate.
Best regards.
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento, CA —  May 9, 2013 3:49pm ET
Whenever and whereever I go to a "farm to table" restaurants, I always pre-check the winelist online. If they do not have a significant portion of their list devoted to local wines, then I do not eat there.
Tim Fish
Sonoma County —  May 9, 2013 4:04pm ET
Thanks for the comments everyone. I'm more convinced then ever that Portland represents a new and growing phenomenon in restaurants nationally.
Ben Odonnell
New York —  May 9, 2013 6:19pm ET
Interesting discussion, Tim. For a post last fall, I polled a few industry people who cater to the same type of young, "hip" drinker these places you mention do, and these were some of the styles/regions that they considered hot: dry rosé, orange wine, Riesling, Sicily, Primitivo, Lambrusco, Torrontés, Crémant de Bourgogne, Prosecco, Muscadet, the Jura, southern France and Malbec. (And let us not forget Sherry.) Common denominator here, of course, is "probably not American." More broadly, I've got one study on my desk that shows the 25-34 demographic drinks the least share of domestic table wine and the most share of imported. And another has that group least likely to have bought a California bottle in the last three months and most likely to have bought French, Spanish and Portuguese (a close second on Italian).

So these wine lists tend to privilege wines that are, or are perceived as, site-driven, non-corporate, off-the-beaten-path, perhaps organic, perhaps low-alcohol and high-acidity. There are plenty of American wines—especially Oregon wines!—that could find a home on such a list, but A) perception among these drinkers lingers that American wine = generic Cabernet/Chardonnay or something similar and B) American wines that do fit this profile are more likely to be pricey and hard to come by than similar wines from, say, the Languedoc or Beaujolais. No doubt there's some generational pushback against drinking Mom and Dad's favorite regions as well. It's a shame there's not more local pride yet, but the good news is it's a generation of curious drinkers.

Ben O'Donnell
Wine Spectator
Pam Strayer
Oakland CA —  May 10, 2013 10:54pm ET
I have to say I am always struck by this anomaly in the Bay Area. I write about organically grown wines - and can never find ANY of the wines I write about on any local merchant flyer (they only do French organic) or restaurant list. It's time for a change.
Morewine Bishar
Del Mar, California —  May 11, 2013 3:20pm ET

Interesting observation "these were some of the styles/regions that they considered hot: dry rosé, orange wine, Riesling, Sicily, Primitivo, Lambrusco, Torrontés, Crémant de Bourgogne, Prosecco, Muscadet, the Jura, southern France and Malbec. (And let us not forget Sherry.) Common denominator here, of course, is "probably not American."

It seems to me that the real common denominator here is big bang for a little buck! This younger wine-drinking cohort are facing terrible economic prospects, with many un- or under-employed. Many of them cannot afford to waste money on wines that cost more than they are worth to them. Neither prestige or tradition are of any particular value in this regard.

The wines you list above often represent tremendous values. The high-spending ways of the Boomers (my cohort) are fast becoming a thing of the past. If the younger wine lovers have the sense to recognize good taste and good value, more power to them! The kids are alright!

David Clark
fro The Wine Connection
Ross Mckinney
Chapel Hill, NC —  May 11, 2013 5:41pm ET
Sometimes it works right. We were on vacation in Oregon, eating at the wonderful Red Hills Provincial Dining in Dundee. They had a wine list with lots of Oregon pinots, but also quite a few Burgundies. We asked our waitress which we should focus on, and she gave the correct response -"Duh - where are you?" So we asked which we should have with our duck? She named a winery, but when I asked which of several bottlings, she said she was underage, but would ask the chef. When she came back she made a recommendation, which we ordered and loved. After the meal, I asked why she was so strongly in favor of that one winery? Turns out her father is co-owner of the vineyard. A real local connection (that paid off for us). [The next chapter is that this winery doesn't ship to the East Coast, so I have my brother buy it for me in Portland).
Tim Fish
Sonoma County —  May 11, 2013 5:44pm ET
Excellent discussion. Some really challenging ideas. Thanks everyone.
Ben Odonnell
New York —  May 13, 2013 11:49am ET
David: Definitely, cost is a big part of it. Interestingly, in the years I've followed the data, the Millennial demographic surveyed has always been the most willing to spend over $25 on a bottle, though now we're seeing a split that roughly aligns with pre- vs. post-recession graduates, e.g. this is more true of the 27-34 group.

However, "over $25" is not quite the same thing as Napa Cabernet or classified Bordeaux. One sommelier I spoke with recently lamented that his was the last generation that was able to come into wine young and afford bottles from the "great" regions with any regularity. On the flip side, sort of, another argued that his wine list is not "esoteric": Just because Americans don't know Savagnin doesn't mean it's new or strange. People in the Jura have been drinking it for centuries. (See also: Barolo 30 years ago.) So in short, the prestige and tradition can be there, without, necessarily, the huge price tag.

Ben O'Donnell
Wine Spectator
Jack Gualtieri
Portland,OR —  June 5, 2013 8:10pm ET

There are plenty of places in Portland that serve local wines. You just need to broaden your definition of where you dine. There are a few urban wineries in town that have set up shop that serve small plates. Just to name a few in my neighborhood - Cyril's @ Clay Pigeon Winery, Enso, and SE Wine Collective. Being able to talk to the winemaker makes the experience that much more enjoyable.


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