It's an iconic episode of Portlandia. Appearing in the very first season, it's a skit that even those that have not seen the show know. When you enter a search for Portlandia Chic... Google auto-fills the link before you even can finish typing. It's the Portlandia chicken episode. A couple in a Portland restaurant become so obsessed with determining just how local the chicken is that they actually leave the restaurant without eating to go to the farm itself.
Like most things in Portlandia, as outrageous the skits are, anyone who knows the city understands that there is a bit of reality in each of them. Indeed there are few cities where the restaurants are more obsessed with farm-to-table provenance. And with good reason, the farmers, dairies, fishermen of the Northwest provide exceptional foodstuffs. It's very hard to understand why so many of the best chefs in Portland know every farmer they work with by name - except the farmers that grow wine grapes.
In Portland restaurants that would not consider buying an egg from more than a hundred miles away, or use a cheese not from the Northwest, or pork not from Carlton Farms, it’s common to find wine lists dominated by wines from Europe. While working dead center between two world-class wine regions in Oregon and Washington they somehow rationalize buying wines that have to be shipped in containers across the ocean instead of the internationally respected wines made in their own backyard. Not too long ago I walked into a Portland oyster bar to do some serious slurping only to discover that not a single wine-by-the-glass was from the Northwest. The essentially French list was well chosen, but considering they only featured Northwest oysters maybe a local wine or two might have been in order. Perhaps I'm overly sensitive, but I'd think anyone can see the irony here. However, I am sensitive to their pain. It can take a lot of work to find interesting American wines in the wine-by-the-glass price range. But isn’t that the work that a sommelier is paid to do?
We're not talking about restaurants in Arkansas or Alaska with no significant local wine industry to draw upon, but a city within a few hours driving distance of important, world-famous wine appellations like the Eola and Dundee Hills, Yamhill-Carlton, Walla Walla and Red Mountain. These are not some upstart appellations, but vineyards that have been researched and worked for decades. These AVAs and many others literally produce wine in any style from almost any variety you could want. - also in any price point.
Incredible as it may seem, I constantly meet wine buyers in Portland who've never gotten their shoes dirty in a local vineyard. People that pour over books breaking down every minuscule detail of tiny appellations in Burgundy or Barolo ignore the vineyards that surround them. While most have understandably never been to France or Italy, it is hard to comprehend why they’ve not been to the Dundee Hills or Walla Walla. One thing for sure, you never truly understand a wine region until you’ve walked in its vineyards.
You're either a farm-to-table restaurant or you're not. It’s time they got off their butts and buy local wine as well as local food. You want biodynamic we've got it, want commercial plonk, we've got it, these and everything in-between. Cheap, expensive, rare, widely available, no problem we've got them. Popular varieties, obscure varieties, we've got them. High alcohol, low alcohol, no problem we've got them. Literally, no matter what you want in wine you can find it in the Northwest. What is their excuse? I have no problem with European wines just don't pretend to be a farm-to-table restaurant if they dominate your wine list.
Italian and French restaurants feel they need to sell wines from those countries, but little or none of the products they use to cook come from Europe - they come from here and for good reason. I understand that if you’re an Italian restaurant you feel the need to have a decent Italian wine list as part of your motif. After it all it makes you seem more authentically Italian. Yet the very essence of the best Italian cooking is based on quality local ingredients. In a country not much larger than Oregon itself, cuisine changes dramatically with a drive of a few hundred miles. When dining in Piemonte the wine selection from Toscana is going to be pathetic at best - and vice versa when you’re having dinner in Siena. No matter if you’re a French, Italian or Spanish restaurant in the Northwest, there is a wide range of local wines that will match perfectly with any dish that you are cooking - with your exclusively local farm-to-table ingredients. Wine comes from farms too.
I love farm-to-table restaurants, but I think it’s time for a table-to-farm movement for wine buyers in the Northwest. The chefs are out with the farmers and fishermen, but sommeliers need to get out with the winegrowers. The wines of the Northwest should be treated with the same respect on a wine list that local produce gets on the menu.
The closer the farm and vineyard are to my table the happier I am.