Urban wineries fighting the good fight
With a world-renowned region to the south in the Willamette Valley, and competition to the north and east, it's already a challenge for Portland's urban wineries.
Add in the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing economic turmoil, not to mention all the other things turning our world upside-down (including wildfires and smoke), and it's a tough go all the way around in 2020. But, the likes of Hip Chicks Do Wine and Division Winemaking Company, and the scores of other wineries and tasting rooms that call the streets of Portland home, continue to persevere.
For the committed, the people who really love wine, they ain't going anywhere.
"The upside for us is we're in a pretty good location and we've been around long enough that folks know who we are," said Tom Monroe, who, along with business partner and winemaker Kate Norris, started Division Winemaking 10 years ago.
The pair also lead the SE Wine Collective, which, in its eighth year, has felt the scourge of 2020, including having to close its wine bar, Oui!
"We have to bide our time. It's been an odd, challenging kind of crazy year," Monroe added.
The city's oldest urban winery, formed in 1999 by Laurie Lewis and Renee Neely, Hip Chicks Do Wine has held steady because of its reputation and stability, Lewis said.
"That's what made all the COVID-19 closures scary, 'Is this going to be it?'" said Lewis, who also serves as president of PDX Urban Wineries. "Especially when you look at all the great restaurants closing and not reopening, it's not that far away to think that could happen to us. Definitely crossed my mind, but I think I'm too stubborn to give up. We wouldn't want to do anything else; that's where passion lies for Renee and I."
It's harvest time for wineries. So, Monroe and Norris and Lewis and Neely remain pretty busy. It's also a time to try to lure in customers with harvest specials and events, and plans to try to create business. PDX Urban Wineries intends to offer 20% discounts on all wines for the holiday season, Lewis said. (Coupon code will be PDX20).
Let's get out of 2020, and see what 2021 brings, Lewis said. Hope for the best.
Hip Chicks' business, like many wineries, deals in direct-to-consumer sales, bolstered by customers visiting the tasting room at 4510 S.E. 23rd Ave. So, it has survived well.
When government restrictions allowed visitors — under maximum capacity and social distancing/mask rules — under Phase 1, business picked up.
"But we knew people would be hesitant about getting out there; myself, I'm hesitant about getting out there," Lewis said. "I go online and see what other wineries are doing around the state (including Willamette Valley, Columbia Gorge and Southern Oregon), but I forget they have different rules than we have.
"As other wineries around the state were able to open up and accept visitors, I literally sat and watched our delivery orders start to dwindle. I got upset about it, but the people supporting our small Portland wineries will continue to do it. We were able to reopen and have guests for tasting, even if it's limited. People are looking for things to do. … And, the fact is, people don't want to venture too far from home."
But what happens when weather turns cold and people won't want to sit outside? It'll be just another hurdle to overcome.
Lewis said PDX Urban Wineries members have fought hard to stay open. Only one — Jan-Marc Wine Cellars — closed a wine bar, but it remained open as a pop-up tasting room at Jan-Marc's home garage.
Another winery, Adega Northwest, actually plans to open in November.
Lewis said PDX Urban Wineries also has the respect of the Oregon Wine Board. "They're focusing on us selling wines to Oregonians," she said. "In years past it was about getting the word out to wine-drinking cities and people in other states."
She added: "With the increase of wineries in Portland, it's nice to see us get more of a seat at the (wine board) table. I've been a member for the past couple years, and that helps." She's engaged with other statewide winery association officials on Zoom calls.
For Division Winemaking, it's been an adjustment away from wholesale and distribution sales, including to restaurants and retail outlets, to strictly focusing on direct-to-consumer.
"The direct is so good, it makes us slightly up on margin," Monroe said. "But we have more wine than we need at the moment.
"All in all, it could be worse. It's required an immense amount of pivoting — I'm starting to tire of that word. It's about finding little pockets where there's activity going and running with it."
It has set up a tasting room at 2425 S.E. 35th Place (site of Oui!), but "we can't have more than 10 people here, and it's complicated to run it."
As far as the SE Wine Collective, which in recent years boasted 11 members, the membership has dwindled to five of the wineries making 2020 vintage wine.
Will more wineries restart in 2021?
"That's going to be determined a lot with this whole pandemic," Monroe said. "Part of me feels there's going to be, unfortunately, a shuffling of the decks in the restaurant and all hospitality businesses.
"We're not going to walk away from it, because it would sting too much. We're not going anywhere. Division is viable. Given the circumstances, we're as strong as we can be."
But, competition also remains vigorous.
There is the Willamette Valley with its large, spacious wineries. "I get it, if I was a Portland resident, I'd want to get away to the valley, too," Monroe said, "and not hang out in a tiny room in a city winery."
There are the Columbia River Gorge wineries on the Oregon and Washington sides. "We think the gorge has a lot of potential," Monroe said. "It's never going to grow like the Willamette Valley; the (Columbia River) Gorge Commission is more restrictive of what's allowed."
And, there are more tasting rooms in Portland (Erath in the Pearl District) and Clark County, Washington, which has several wineries represented on its new Vancouver Waterfront (including Maryhill Winery) and elsewhere.
How much does it all affect an urban winery?
"Tourism is so off, it's hard to point to anything," Monroe said. "By having a certain number of tasting rooms or places that are good experiences that are well done, it makes it more attractive in general for people wanting to hang out in those areas."
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