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Portland's uptown vin de pays

Urban wineries stake a claim in the city's growing brewfest culture
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT, (From left) John Grochau, Anne Hubatch and Vincent Fritzsche sit atop of barrels of wine stored in Grochau's Northwest winery.

One wouldn't think people make fine wine in Portland's Northwest industrial area, far from the wineries and picturesque vineyards of the Willamette Valley.

But they do. John Grochau of Grochau Cellars shares a building with another winemaker on an ordinary industrial street - ironically across from a brewery producing beer, Portland's more notable libation.

For Grochau and others of the urban winery variety, living in the city and being in the heart of commerce outweighs residing in one of the many small towns in the valley of vineyards. He commuted to Newberg to make wine for about six years. That got old. He settled his business in Portland, and concentrated on making it work.

'I don't want to live in wine country,' he said. 'I'm not a fan of commuting, but (making wine) is what I've always wanted to do. I wanted to live in the city. My wife's job is in the city.'

So, barrels of aging wine and equipment - crusher, destemmer, sorting tables, fermenters, etc. - fill Grochau's space on Northwest 30th Avenue. He does about 3,000 cases of wine each year - pinot noir and others - contracting with vineyards, bringing the grapes to his Portland warehouse and going through the fermenting process by himself.

He isn't alone in the city. There are various other small wine operations in Portland that many people might not know about - Boedecker Cellars shares space with Grochau; Hip Chicks has been around since 2001; and others like Enso and Seven Bridges are getting off the ground.

Then, you have winemakers like Vincent Fritzsche and Anne Hubatch, operating wine businesses out of their home, buying grapes and arranging for production. A passion became an opportunity for them; rather than go the homemade route, making wine for the fun of it, they decided to start businesses, using Portland as their base of operation. In a way, it's like building widgets amongst the hills of Lafayette, Dundee or Dayton.

'The grapes live out there, but I live here,' says Hubatch, a Wisconsin native. 'There's no reason why grapes can't come to the city rather than the city person going to the country.

'It doesn't have the aesthetics (here). But the people are already in town. If you sort of change the paradigm - 'Hey, I can go to a winery and buy wine, versus the neighborhood wine shop - or both,' you get a different experience. You're only a few minutes away rather than making a whole adventure out of it. You don't have to commit an entire afternoon to going out to wine country.'

Economy of scale

There are inherent disadvantages.

'A lot of people don't know we're making wine in the city,' Grochau says. 'We're trying to let people know that good wine can be made in the city, it doesn't need to be out in the vineyards. … But, it's not a bucolic location.'

Grapes have to be shipped in. Grochau deals with about 11 vineyards, all over Oregon, but mostly in the Willamette Valley. Fritzsche says Yakima and Walla Walla growers are also used.

These are small operations. Grochau produces about 3,000 cases per year, Fritzsche and Hubatch less than 500.

Economy of scale can be difficult, producing such low numbers. Growing and harvesting can cost more than $20,000 for Fritzsche's business.

In Grochau's case, 'it's about 120 barrels for 3,000 cases - Mondavi will spill that much in a year' Grochau says. 'Where I am is where I want to stay. I can see growth, but I don't see it until I have the supply chains.

'Eventually I could see being 5,000 to 6,000 cases, and adding a full-time employee and maybe a part-time employee. But, you have to find a niche, and be at the price point and quality and style to try to expand that niche wider. At some point, it becomes about price and brand.' Grochau's wines sell for $15 to $36.

Crafting blends

Competition is also fierce in the wine business. There are a lot of different brands on the shelves, at wine tastings and being sold in restaurants. Getting your name out there and developing a following can be tough, especially for smaller vintners.

'But, we're a cohesive bunch,' says Grochau, 40, a Sunset High grad. 'We see it as our region against other regions rather than winery against winery.'

Grochau uses e-mail blasts, tastings, open houses and newspaper listings to promote his product. Grochau, Fritzsche and Hubatch are collaborating on another business, Guild Winemakers.

If a wine is tasty, they have learned, it can catch on. Vineyards grow the grapes, monitored by the winemaker, who then can manipulate flavor during the fermenting and aging process.

Fritzsche and Hubatch are trying to craft the best pinots possible, among others wines.

'I grew up playing music and my teacher told me there are only 12 notes in the western scale,' Fritzsche says. 'You'd think everything would sound the same. But the specific input from the player, in this case winemaker - you give them five ingredients and they come up with radically different things.'

He adds: 'I really want a savory quality, clean Earthy taste. We get plenty of sweet, fruit flavors in Oregon and across America. If it's too fruity, it seems too simple and innocuous, it doesn't last with you.'

Says Hubatch: 'Everyone has a different palette for pinot. You pick the path you want. I like wines that are elegant and nuanced. More provocative and keeps you guessing. I'm not trying to over-extract (flavors), I want the terra water and grapes to come through.' Hence, the name of her company: Helioterra.

Hubatch started producing her own wine about 10 years ago.

'This is my first business year,' she says. 'The level that Vincent and I are at - I don't expect to make a profit until year four or five. I need to grow the business and it takes capital to do that. Until you're moving product and rolling through, I'm not going to drop a ton (of money).'

Fritzsche, who moved from California to Oregon 10 years ago, works at Portland State University in its education programs. He doesn't depend on winemaking for his living.

After learning about the wine business, he wanted to try it.

'Part of it was - 'Would I ever shake the interest?' I just continue to love it,' he says.

'It's definitely an investment. But you don't need millions (of dollars) in the wine business. Although, as the old joke goes: 'How do you make a million in the wine business? Start with three.' '