Small Town Revives

By Gail Oberst

Torie Bischopink takes a bite of cheese, sips some Champagne and gets a faraway look on her face.

"What is that?" she asks, not waiting for an answer before she nibbles again.

"Humboldt Fog," someone answers. "It's one of Jennifer's favorites."

J. Bella's Ristaurante, which stages a monthly wine-tasting event in downtown Independence, is joining a growing number of wine bars and restaurants - especially in small towns - attracting and educating visitors with wine and food.

J. Bella's event is at 6 p.m. the first Thursday of each month, featuring fruit, cheeses, samples of pizza, seafood and meats, all served by owner Jennifer Goodman - the "J" in J. Bella's.

Just a few doors south on Main Street, Riverview Wine & Coffee has a wine tasting each Thursday, from 5 to 8 p.m. That venue, in the front of Ragin' River Steak Company, recently attracted a crowd to a SMART reading program fundraiser, with Joey Harrington playing host. On quieter nights, Riverview Wine also provides live acoustic music.

Independence isn't the only town adding wine shops and tastings to its formerly sleepy downtowns. But it's a good example of how to do it with flair. Small, historic downtowns like Astoria, Silverton, Carlton, Oakland, even Wolf Creek, are attracting a new set of tourists who love fine Oregon wines served in the brick-and-mortar remnants of Old West towns.

Locals and visitors put regular events on their calendars and are showing up in growing numbers. At J. Bella's, the tastings are thematic. One month, the offerings all bubbled, literally. There were five sparkling wines from around the world, including Australia, Oregon and one Champagne. Previous months' wines have been from other U.S. regions and countries. Oregon wines, of course, are always a feature of the sampling.

The free event offers visitors a chance to learn from a representative of Mt. Hood Beverage a little about the variety of wine in an unpretentious setting. Goodman often prepares tasting notes for people who want to know more.

Queenie Waltman and Laurie Beals, two friends from Salem, came early so they can get a good seat at the bar. "It's a nice introduction," Waltman said. "You learn a lot."

As the tasting begins, more people arrive and crowd up to the bar. Some listen and ask questions. Others sip and chat, ignoring educational opportunities except those swallowed. Jeff Robbins, the server, pours a sparkling Pinot Grigio, thoughtfully sipped.

By the third tasting, the giggles begin. At the fourth tasting, Argyle Brut, everyone is happy. Tastings are usually less than an ounce, but this is bubbly. Bubbles, which rise, go directly to the brain.

When the weather is warm, tasters spill out into the outdoor patio, where they take seats around the flowers and under umbrellas. J. Bella's is an Italian restaurant that opened three years ago in the historic hotel building that also houses Lenora's Ghost, a night club. The restaurant has sponsored the tasting event for almost two years for a simple reason: "I like wine," said Goodman. If attendance to her events is any indication, she's not alone.

No reservations are needed for the tasting at J.Bella's, but dinner reservations that night are recommended. 

J. Bella's Ristaurante
Address: 114 S. Main St., Independence
Hours: Tuesday-Thursday 11 am - 8:30 pm
Friday-Saturday 11 am - 9 pm
Phone: 503-838-4425

Riverview Wine & Coffee
Address: 154 S. Main St., Independence
Hours: Monday 9 am-4 pm; Tuesday-Wednesday 9 am-6pm
Thursday-Saturday 9 am-8pm; Sunday 11 am-6 pm
Phone: 503-837-0495 

Gail Oberst is a freelance writer based in Independence.

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