Firming Up the Foundation

By Karl Klooster

Four years ago, winemaker Jason Lett began talking with PR consultant Lisa Donoughe about ways to promote the first release of his new Black Cap brand.

Having produced just 66 cases of Pinot Noir from the 2002 vintage, this wasn’t going to be a nationwide rollout. Still, he was quite proud of the wine and wanted to spread the word.

Donoughe pondered the possibilities and came up with the idea of staging an event to showcase small, independent Oregon producers like Lett, whose wines epitomize the term “boutique.”

He thought it sounded terrific and they conferred to develop the concept.

The annual production limit was set at 2,000 cases. They decided wineries would be asked to submit wines for evaluation.

A total of 40 wineries would then be selected, with 20 to be featured each day of a two-day event. They would stage the inaugural edition in May 2005.

But where should this event be held? Donoughe and Lett decided on a place that, like the independent winemakers themselves, had built a reputation for cutting-edge innovation, quality and originality—Portland’s Pearl District.

Like their winery counterparts, individuals and businesses drawn to this dynamic, central city area came in search of an environment where they could both be part of a creative experience.

Thus was born the Portland Indie Wine Festival. The Pearl’s own winery, Urban Wineworks, served as festival headquarters, with the adjacent Chown Garage providing extra event space.

Situated on Northwest 16th and 17th streets, between Everett and Flanders, Indie action bordered the western edge of the Pearl. It unfolded just a block from McMenamin’s Mission Theater, where Indie films—what else would do?—were shown on Sunday for festival attendees.

Partnering with Portland-area restaurants has added to the festival’s allure, with top local chefs preparing dishes designed to complement the wines. Although heavily weighted toward Pinot Noir, they have included Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Viognier, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Syrah and Cabernet Franc as well.

Encouraged by its positive launch, organizers polished the event. Attendance has grown in each of the succeeding three years as a result.

Seminars were added for the 2008 festival, which sold out Saturday and hit three-fourths capacity on Sunday.

A total of 175 wines were submitted by 70 wineries this year. Chefs and staff from 19 restaurants and food purveyors were stationed throughout the event space, including a tented open area added to accommodate the overflow crowd.

Well-known local dining establishments such as Wildwood, Pazzo Ristorante, Typhoon and Red Star were joined by popular Portland newcomers Ten 01, Clyde Common, Country Cat and Celilo of Hood River.

Ethnic fare included Mediterranean from Lauro Kitchen, Japanese from Biwa and Scandinavian by Broder. Alma Chocolate passed out its decadent morsels while Caffe Vita from Seattle poured gourmet coffee.

All indicators seem to point to continued success. But there’s one catch: The Portland Indie Festival doesn’t turn a profit and isn’t likely to.

That reality brought organizers to ensure the event’s ongoing viability by forming a nonprofit corporation this year.

The Indie Wine Foundation’s mission is to preserve and sustain the art of craft winemaking. Its primary vehicle in that regard is the festival and the exposure it gives to Oregon’s small producers.

Seeking input regarding this new operating approach, Donoughe recently convened two meetings of festival participants and supporters, one in Portland and the other at Brookside Inn, east of Carlton on Abbey Road.

Attendees at the Brookside meeting included Dave Hansen of ArborBrook, Carol Dinger of Terra Vina, Chris Berg of Roots Wine Co., Kevin Howard of Zenas and innkeeper Bruce Bandstra, who has cultivated close ties to the local wine industry.

Donoughe and her associate, Amy Vaughn, gave a PowerPoint presentation on the festival’s financial impact, emphasizing its tourism component as a signature annual event in the Pearl.

To date, more than 7,500 people have attended the festival, which is run by 220 volunteers and generates an average of $2,000 in sales per winery. Media exposure has come in the form of 144 feature articles.

In addition to local and regional newspapers and magazines, stories have appeared in such prestigious national publications as the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Gourmet, Saveur, VIA and Martha Stewart Living.

According to Donoughe, strategic partnerships are the key to maintaining momentum. She is working on tourism tie-ins with both the industry and governmental entities and, of course, continued partnering with restaurateurs and caterers.

Sponsorships is another important avenue being pursued as well as the addition of educational elements to the weekend agenda.

“This is evolving into a full-time job,” Donoughe said. “Eventually, the foundation will need to hire an executive director. But, I feel we’re headed in the right direction to help build greater recognition for the state’s small wineries.

“When you think about it, almost all of Oregon’s wineries are small. Some are just smaller than others. That individual style and hands-on owner involvement is what sets our industry apart.” ◊

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