Starting as a winemaker means tough love—regardless of whom you call daddy. Take Jason Lett, son of Oregon wine-industry deity David Lett: In 2002 he made a wee batch of 66 cases of his Black Cap Pinot Noir, a splendid start but far shy of the 500 required to participate in Oregon's premier showcase, the International Pinot Noir Festival. Recognizing there are many like Lett, LAD Communications Principal Lisa Donoughe saw the need for a new venue and debuted the first Indie Wine Festival in 2005. "The IPNC has done great job building a stage for Oregon Pinots and someone needed to do the same with smaller artisan winemakers," she says. "I decided that would be me."
The Third Annual Indie Wine Festival is the backyard barbecue of wine galas. Held in Northwest Portland's Urban Wineworks warehouse, the gathering replaces the formal air of a wine festival with an industrial farmers-market kinda feel. Each winery has a booth, and patrons and restaurateurs may mingle with the artisans—like a Saturday morning in the Park Blocks. Participants are selected by a jury, as at a film festival, and only 40 of 138 were chosen this year (20 for each day). To be considered "indie," a winemaker must produce fewer than 2,000 cases and, with the fest's exposure, a small producer can rise from obscurity to cult status in an afternoon. The accompanying dinners at Wildwood, Nostrana, Simpatica and Red Star Tavern throughout the week also help showcase the talent by pairing it with some of Portland's best eats.
The first two years were so successful that Donoughe went to New York City's James Beard House in April to promote the 2007 festival, staging a dinner featuring wine paired with cuisine by Wildwood's star chef Dustin Clark. Even at $200 per person, "It was smoking," she says. The Portland Oregon Visitors Association (POVA) paid for two tables so writers from The New York Times, Saveur and Food and Wine could attend. The secret is out.
The wine fest is the only one of its kind, and that it takes place in indie-rock capital Portland is no fluke. Though rockers are more likely to "oy!" the merits of cheap beer over $30 jugs of Pinot, "people here are united by their independence—whether it's music, Alma Chocolates or artisan wine," says Donoughe. There's also that saying: "It takes a lot of good beer to make a good wine."
So, do the indies want to be a major label? Yes and no. "We hope to outgrow the indie festival," says Laura Gordon of Apolloni Vineyards in Forest Grove, echoing the sentiments of many up-and-comers. For other winemakers—namely jobbers with a second income—being small suits them fine. Either way, Donoughe expects the festival to grow—and with 400 wineries in Oregon and counting, that's a safe bet.