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Posted May 2006

Going Indie in Portland

By Heather Irwin

PORTLAND—Winegrowers Jack and Kathleen Carter barely made 500 cases of Pinot Noir in 2003. With highly desirable Pinot grapes growing on their Eola Hills property (just west of Salem, Oregon) since the late 1980's, most of their fruit has gone into other well-known bottlings of Pinot Noir, like Panther Creek, Domaine Serene and Ken Wright Cellars. But with Oregon Pinot Noir taking center stage on the wine scene over the last few years, it seemed to be just about the right time to start making a label of their own.

Pinot Noir, despite its notorious moodiness and difficulty in growing, has become a staple of Oregon winemaking, with some 80% growth in sales just in the last year—and folks are jumping on the bandwagon left and right.

So, reserving some of their much-coveted grapes, the Carters began their own label. Like so many other hopeful winemakers, the Carters have released a handful of vintages as "indie" or independent vintners, handcrafting their wines on a wing and a prayer and sending them out into the world, case by case, hoping for the best. And so far, the Carters have been successful, garnering 90+ scores by popular wine ratings magazines, as well as critics. They also happen to have a top winemaker, Ken Wright, at the helm, which doesn’t hurt.

But it's this kind of starry-eyed success that's bringing dozens of other Pinot makers into the fold. For the last two years, Portland has celebrated these newcomers at its annual Indie Wine Festival, featuring only winemakers who make less than 2,000 cases per year—a shockingly small number when compared to other winemaking facilities that turn out hundreds of thousands, if not millions of cases each year. The Carters were among the Indie winemakers featured at this year's event, held in Portland in early May 2006. In fact, it was their wine that was a benchmark for many of the others I tasted on Saturday—some 20 vintners were on hand that day, as well as another 20 the next, and samplings of many local restaurants paired with the Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris.

Among the small wineries pouring on Saturday, Black Cap, Ankeny Vineyard winery, Velocity Cellars (a notable label coming out of Southern Oregon), Paradis, Methven Family Vineyards, Bryce and Z'Ivo and Coeur de Terre: many names you'll likely hear of again. The wineries were selected by a jury of media and trade who picked the more than 40 wineries invited to the festival.

And though there were a fair number of clinkers--wines that need a bit more time and/or experience in the cellar--the passion and enthusiasm for Pinot making was evident by the owners and winemakers pouring at the event, as well as the attendees. Eager glasses were swirled and jostled through the crowd for a single pour of these indie wines, and folks stood in line for what seemed interminably long minutes waiting to speak to the owners and winemakers about the many purring, cherry and flower-tinged Pinots that are making Oregon the darling of the wine world.

In fact, the Carters were nearly overwhelmed by the response, pouring for several hours to adoring fans who love their supple, elegant Pinots and their pioneering, independent winemaking spirit. For the Carters and the other festival attendees, it was a weekend of thinking big, reaching for more…and realizing that being independent doesn't have anything to do with how big your dreams can be.

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