Message in a Bottle

Does wine always tell a story? Sure. But more important, I’ve learned, it always gives you a story to tell.

By Zach Dundas October 1, 2013 Published in the October 2013 issue of Portland Monthly

Someone once told me that wine always tells a story. (It didn’t sound pretentious at the time, but we may have been drunk.) As I think about it, I guess I agree. It did take me awhile to catch on to the plot, though.  

In my Montana youth, you see, wine was mysterious. One read about it in 19th-century novels. Actors ordered it in movies. The grocery store kept some next to the expensive cheese. But we didn’t have the sort of scene in which every 8-year-old got watered-down vin ordinaire with dinner, that’s for sure. When wine made an awkward cameo at Christmas, my elders never seemed to know quite what to do. Get the kind that comes in a basket, or the one with the fish-shaped bottle? Ice? We had a ways to go.

But who didn’t? After a few misadventures—I could tell you of the jug of Carlo Rossi, summer of ’93, but I promised several people I never would—I realized that our whole country was still figuring out wine’s subtle epic. Just about every American wine tale, from the rise of critic Robert Parker to the inevitable Napa-fication of every vine-friendly region, carries a coming-of-age subtext. And after I moved to Oregon, I discovered that one of the more interesting chapters of this narrative was being written here. Naturally, I memorized the foundation legend: a few pioneering ’60s dreamers planted pinot noir in Willamette Valley fruit orchards and invented a wine country. 

Before long, I recognized that the Oregon wine story had only begun. In this issue of Portland Monthly, we explore a few new subplots. Cole Danehower unveils the local winemaking scene in Portland itself, where enterprising tinkerers are reinventing old spaces and creating spectacular wine right in the city. It’s a classic Portland story of ambitious taste and big dreams playing out against a backdrop of refinished concrete and recycled wood. 

Meanwhile, my dear colleague Allison Jones (trust me: if you saw the bottles she has lying around her desk, you’d butter her up too) curates our annual list of Oregon’s 50 best wines. Our sacred pinot and the Willamette heartland loom large, of course—but so, too, do obscure varietals and new frontiers. The list runs from established names to purple-handed upstarts barely known outside their own garages. Talking points, of course, abound.

Wine has taken me some intriguing places since that Carlo Rossi incident. I’ve consumed no-label plonk poured from a reused soda bottle in Croatia. I’ve meditated with a Canadian winemaker (his idea) in the replica pyramid he built for aging his product. I’ve made my own pinot, then poured the poisonous results down the basement sink. Does wine always tell a story? Sure. But more important, I’ve learned, it always gives you a story to tell.

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