Portland Wine and Spirits Abound by Deborah Grossman
Portland presents an exceptional array of beverage tasting opportunities along with farm-fresh Pacific Northwest food. The city’s proximity to Willamette Valley translates to the abundance of wine tasting rooms. Distilleries have also spring up in the urban environment. There are exceptional breweries to explore which we reserved for another visit.
Our stay at the downtown Sentinel Hotel afforded proximity to attractions, restaurants and wine tasting rooms, distilleries and bars. We looked forward to the city views and Pan-Asian food at Departure Restaurant and Lounge located on the 15th floor of the Nines Hotel, but timing precluded a visit. We enjoyed happy hour drinks at Fortune bar conveniently located in the Sentinel Hotel.
I was eager to stop by Pacific Standard bar located within the Kex hotel in the Kerns neighborhood. The name Kex means cook, and the Icelandic owners of Kex incorporated the bar and dining area on the ground floor, dwarfing the reception area. Linked to the Kex website, the description of the bar is fitting: “A modern West Coast drinking and dining hall…which celebrates the hotel bar by aiming to be a living room for the city.”
An esteemed bartender and bar owner for over 25 years, manager Jeffrey Morgenthaler created all the drinks. Morgenthaler brings unique riffs and local ingredients to a raft of classics. He also influenced the food menu which features fresh seafood from the Pacific Northwest and more.
A trained architect, Morgenthaler was attracted to the Kex for the architecture and global travel sensibility of the hotel. The wooden floors are repurposed from a historic railroad station and historic light fixtures are set in display cases.
The cocktail menu includes a picture of the unique glass selected for each drink. I chose the Rosé Negroni, a beautiful blend of gin, bianco bitter, rosé vermouth, sea salt and lemon peel. Intriguing drinks included the non-alcoholic Wandering Path with nonalcoholic hemp spirit and an “All-Day Bloody Mary” with Icelandic vodka, zesty house mix, and dill pickles. The colorful, mid-afternoon pick-me-up Strawberry-Rhubarb Aperol Spritz prepared by Morgenthaler brought smiles to customers.
Morgenthaler’s favorite gin is Portland’s Freeland Spirits. Here both owner and distiller are women. Owner Jill Kuehler named her distillery after her grandmother, “Meemaw” Freeland. Meemaw’s image is showcased on the “history” mural on the hallway leading from the tasting room to the production area. Kuehler was strongly influenced by Meemaw’s mantra, “All good things come from scratch,” and she sources Oregon grains and local botanicals when available.
Visible through the window in the tasting room is distiller Molly Troupe’s favorite piece of equipment, a gorgeous copper pot still named Hellbitch. Troupe uses a unique cold distillation process to maximize flavors of the botanicals. She also uses a team to identify what she calls the “art of making spirits—finding the heart of the alcohol,” identifying the best distillate as it flows through the distillation.
I enjoyed samples from teardrop-shaped bottles including bourbon and new Freeland Olea Amaro. The gins range from Freeland’s blue bottle with 13 botanicals including cucumber, rosemary, mint and thyme to London dry and Geneva styles.
The highlight of our visit was the tasting flight of expertly crafted cocktails. Though some were pre-mixed and batched, we chose the Fresh Mixed creative option. The Love Club with Freeland Bourbon, black cherry juice, balsamic glaze, dark cacao bitters was the favorite.
Located nearby, Aviation Gin was our next stop. The new Aviation Gin tasting room opened in July 2022 to much fanfare. The reason for the media fuss was the escape room featuring new owner, actor Ryan Reynolds. Launched in 2006, the gin is distributed in 40 countries. The founders took 32 tries in making a gin ideal for cocktails beyond a gin and tonic.
In 2018 Reynolds of Deadpool fame signed on as a stakeholder based on his love of Negroni’ made with Aviation Gin and Campari. The company was sold to liquor behemoth Diegeo in 2020.
Reynolds’ influence remains strong at the distillery. The Aviation tour is full-on geeky with a historical overview of gin, detailed information on the production method and hands-on learning about the botanicals. You can dig in and create a small bag of how you would “season” the gin.
The main event of the tour was the escape room. Ryan Reynolds, from a “talking” portrait above the fake fireplace, gives the instructions on how to find clues for “escape.” Not a movie aficionado, I was one of the last to get the Aviation pin memento.
Domaine Serene 262
The first wine tasting room we visited was conveniently located in the west wing of the Sentinel hotel. Domaine Serene is based in nearby Dundee Hills of Willamette Valley. Owners Ken and Grace Evenstad named the winery after their daughter, Serene. Originally from Minnesota, the Evenstads had a storied career in pharmaceuticals before opening their winery. Renowned for their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the wine has been poured at least three times in the White House since their first vintage in 1990.
Set in an artfully designed room with large windows, the tasting area is casual yet elegant. The exceptional aspect of this wine tasting is the option to taste Oregon and French wines. The Evenstads purchased several wineries in the Côte de Nuits in Burgundy.
In Oregon, Domaine Serene owns six estates in two AVAs (appellations). We began with their fourth vintage of Oregon bubbles, a full-bodied rendition of both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. I liked the pear and white pepper notes and the deep textural elements of the wine.
The Pinot Noir wines, served at cellar temperature to heighten the refreshing flavors, are floral and fruity and served a cellar temperature with brings a refreshing element to the wine. The winery has one cellar to produce the red wines along with the 2022 addition of a new white and sparkling wine cellar. I liked wines from their Oregon and French estates. The takeaway was the top-of-the-line, 2017 vintage of Monogram which was released in 2022. An alluring wine with spice, my friend said, “It sucks you in to sip again and again.”
Abbey Creek Winery
For a wine change of pace, we visited Abbey Creek Winery located a half-block away from the Sentinel. Owner/winemaker Bertony Faustin exudes enthusiasm for wine and hospitality. Previously an anesthesiology technician, Faustin decided to combine his passion for music, cooking and wine by founding Abbey Creek as a hip-hop winery. The urban tasting room leaves no doubt that Faustin loves wine, music, and spending time at the table.
The upbeat vibe in the tasting room Faustin’s genuine delight in sharing his wine with friends and strangers is contagious. “I sell love, magic, and moments together,” The Portland tasting room is also known as CrickPDX, a take on “creek” and the airport-city code. The winery and original tasting room is located a half-hour drive west of Portland in North Plains. On Sundays Faustin cooks up an enticing twice-monthly, Haitian-influenced brunch menu for visitors.
From the first sip of Abbey Creek Pinot Grigio lived up to its social media tag of #sunshine. Bright and lively, I noted the medium body which would pair with light salads or main dishes. The Rosé of Pinot Noir was also refreshing and well-crafted. I can picture myself sharing a glass of his Pinot Not on the patio or fancy restaurant. Faustin stated that sentiment more clearly, “You can dress this wine up or down.”
What Faustin’s comment about his Pinot Noir correlates with the atmosphere at many Portland beverage establishments. The approach of presenting drinks made with care by down-to-earth people who source quality ingredients covers nearly all the beverage experiences we had in the city. We shall raise a glass in Portland again soon.