Portland Oregon is a famously green city. Named the most sustainable city in the United States, the city even boasts an Office of Sustainable Development. The city’s restaurant scene also follows the sustainable mantra with a passion. The number of restaurants featuring sustainable, locally grown ingredients makes Portland a foodie nirvana. Considering that Portland sits at the head of the verdant Willamette Valley, the supply and diversity of sustainably grown meat, fruit and vegetables available to local chefs is almost overwhelming. Indeed Portland is in, “A golden age of dining and drinking,” as Eric Asimov wrote in The New York Times.
Not much more than a half hour drive from this hotbed of sustainable restaurants owned by chefs obsessed with the freshest local produce sits one of the world’s most highly regarded wine regions, the Willamette Valley. The same rich diversity of soil types and microclimates that provide the endless sustainable pantry for local chefs also offers world-class wines, which are now sought after by the best sommeliers and fine wine shops. No serious wine list in New York, Chicago or other major American city would feel it had a complete wine list without a significant selection of Oregon Pinot Noir. Just a few hours away are the great vineyards of the Columbia Valley and the emerging regions of Southern Oregon. Portland restaurants are literally surrounded by outstanding wine regions, which grow the full range of the world’s finest wine varieties.
Like Portland, Oregon is arguably the greenest wine growing region on the planet. The movement towards sustainable winegrowing in Oregon seemed to develop its own natural (appropriately enough) momentum based on the personality and beliefs of the people that came here to grow grapes. It makes perfect sense that winegrowers who came here to grow Pinot Noir—the most terroir driven of grape varieties—would have a closeness to the earth itself that would inevitably lead them to be good stewards of the land and move away from conventional agriculture to the various sustainable disciplines.
In Oregon, there are a variety of sustainable certifications and, as usual, practitioners of each discipline assert the superiority of their methods, but of most importance is the unique commitment among Oregon wine growers to use methods that have minimum impact on the environment. While environmental aspects have helped fuel the greening of the Oregon wine industry, there are two indisputable factors that are driving this growth. First is the obvious fact that grapes farmed by any of these methods make better wine. All of the top wineries in Oregon use one of these methods. The simple truth: To achieve any of these certifications, you have to spend more time in your vineyards and that contact inevitably leads to better fruit, which always means better wine. The second reason for the explosion in sustainably certified vineyards is a little less altruistic, but is important nonetheless. Being green means more than bettering the environment, as certified wines command more greenbacks. Green makes for good marketing and has, in fact, become a marketing focal point for the Oregon Wine Board, which has now introduced its own certification, Oregon Certified Sustainable.
So we have a match made in heaven: a hot sustainable food scene in Portland surrounded by dedicated sustainable winegrowers producing wines in an incredible range of styles from every important wine grape variety in the world. Unfortunately, and with a logic I cannot follow, this is a match that hasn’t happened. I have never seen a city so close to major wine regions that is so disconnected from its local wines. If people eat in Bordeaux, they drink Bordeaux, in Alba they drink Barolo, in Dijon they drink Burgundy, in San Francisco they drink California; but in Portland, you are more likely to find wines grown 5,000 miles away rather than 50.
There is a disconnect between Portland and its regional wines. It is common to dine at a restaurant that prides itself on serving the freshest local provenance while featuring wines from France and Spain with only a nod to the wines of the Northwest. Unfortunately, that also goes for the city’s fine wine shops, on whose shelves Northwest wines are often second-class citizens.
Within a four-hour drive of Portland, some of the world’s most sought-after, respected wines are grown. Great Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Tempranillo, Syrah and many other varieties, along with exceptional Champagne-method sparkling wines and dessert wines, are produced in Washington and Oregon. This fact leaves local restaurants little excuse for not offering interesting wine lists based on local wines. That’s certainly not to say there’s no room for the world’s other wines, but a food community that believes in a sustainable model and does not take full advantage of the exciting wines grown in its own backyard is only paying lip-service to sustainability. This, of course, means more work for restaurateurs who must spend more time in wine country, tasting and finding wines from producers who make wines that they find exciting with their food, but that’s how chefs working in the world’s other wine regions do it.
The concept of sustainability is important to Portland’s restaurateurs, winegrowers and their customers. Serving local wines in local restaurants is a part of the sustainability model that should not be overlooked. Putting wine on a ship, then on a truck and transporting it thousands of miles leaves a big carbon footprint hard to ignore.
In 2005, the “Eat Local” challenge (www.eatlocal.net ) was launched by the Ecotrust, Portland Farmers Market and the Portland Chapter of the Chefs Collaborative to educate consumers on the benefits of eating locally grown food. Perhaps it’s time we launch a “Drink Local” project with the same goal. Eating locally and drinking locally cannot be separated when you live in the heart of a great wine region.
This article originally appeared in The Oregon Wine Press