Urban brand reflects on two-plus decades
When Laurie Lewis considers what makes Oregon the best place to live, she puts wine at the top of her list. Now, she’s witnessing more Oregonians outside the industry take notice and do more to support local wineries, especially during the pandemic.
“We’re all small businesses. Most of us are mom and pop, mom and mom, or dad and dad businesses. We need that support,” Lewis said.
Hip Chicks Do Wine is Portland’s oldest urban winery, in production since 1999. Lewis co-owns the winery with her wife, Renee Neely. Over the years, they’ve seen how Portland and the wine industry, as a whole, has grown and changed.
Lewis believes part of the changes regarding wine tasting is influenced by other wineries moving into the state. There’s been a shift from simply visiting a bunch of different places and picking up bottles to transforming the winery visit into more of an experience.
“People are wanting seated tastings and pairings,” she explained. “It’s very different from how it was when we started making wine.” With COVID-19, Lewis added, consumers are making a concerted effort to choose what they want and who they trust visiting.
Although Oregon is known for Pinot Noir, Lewis says one of the wine trends she notices are more varietals getting attention outside Pinot.
“I love Pinot, but it’s not the only grape out there,” she said, adding that at smaller and indie wineries, there’s more chance of exploring more varieties, which is something they have always strived to do.
Lewis says they don’t like to jump on buzzwords, but one growing trend is “natural winemaking,” an approach they’ve always embraced, but they haven’t called it that. “We just make wine the way we always do.”
Since opening, Hip Chicks’ winemaking style has matured. This year, they’re honoring some of their history by making wines — like Cabernet Franc and Malbec — they haven’t crafted in over a decade. With loyal wine club members requesting these wines for years, Lewis and Neely are excited for the opportunity to offer them once again.
The opinions of club members remain crucial to Hip Chicks. Lewis says the longer they’ve known their core customers they’ve tried to make wine tailored to them because they’re the ones drinking it. With both Lewis and Neely working in the tasting room and at events, they hear feedback directly from the source of what they liked or didn’t like.
“Decisions on blending or bottling a varietal are shaped by what the wine club has asked for,” she explained.
This year, Hip Chicks will also be dipping into new waters by making a Petit Verdot and collaborating with King’s Raven Winery for sparkling.
As the Oregon wine industry has changed, so has the city of Portland and the urban winery scene. While the City of Roses still isn’t the first place people connect with wine tasting, the popularity of city wineries has increased; consumers are increasingly aware of Portland’s wine offerings. The word is definitely out and the barriers are breaking down.
“I’m happy people are out and about and coming to Portland,” she said. “A lot of people coming lately are new customers. People are looking for things to do in a safe manner.”
That said, there is still work to be done because of the inconsistencies between the urban wineries that make them challenging for wine tasters, Lewis notes. Not every winery has the same hours, but “overall, the fact there’s more wineries now than ever before is helpful for all of us,” she said.
With COVID in particular, Hip Chicks has adapted to follow the state’s standards. They have been seating everyone outdoors and installed an air filter. When it rains, they use pop-up tents called “wine cabanas” so customers can be better protected, but Lewis recognizes that eventually they’ll have to seat customers inside. Owning the warehouse next door, they’ll use it for storage to free as much space as possible; in the winter, they plan to set up portable heaters and keep the doors open.
“It’s interesting to see how everyone is trying to think outside the box,” she said.
Lewis has also been excited by the Oregon Wine Board’s shift, taking more interest in selling wine to Oregonians. She called it a “hugely positive step.”
“It’s been something I’ve been saying for well over a decade,” she said. “It’s not that I don’t support selling wines outside Oregon, I do, but we’re small, and we’re never going to be distributed liked that. Many people in the state aren’t realizing how good the wine is here. To have the Board put effort into selling to our neighbors is exciting to see.”
Looking ahead, Lewis wants to continue to see support for Oregon wine to grow. Programs like the PDX Urban Winery Association are making it easier for consumers, too, offering a joint discount across participating wineries to bring awareness to the small business.
“We’re all thinking outside the box and different ways to make it fun and easy; if we don’t have that support, we won’t be around,” she said. “It’s been 21 years; we’d like to have 21 more.”