Food lovers in Vancouver frequently look to Portland with envy. The city is often cited as a model for food-cart and craft-beer culture. While growlers are a household word in Portland, Vancouverites are just becoming accustomed to the large, reusable jugs that can be filled with beer on tap. Always one step ahead, Portland has expanded the growler concept to include wine, reducing packaging and often the price of the beverage. Last April, Oregon made it legal to buy wine in growlers, something that’s still prohibited in B.C.
On a recent visit to Portland, the Georgia Straight asked the people behind several wine bars what they think of the change. Scott Dolich, chef and owner at the Bent Brick restaurant, was all for it. “It kind of takes the snootiness out of wine,” he said at his rustic small-plates restaurant in Portland’s Northwest District. He explained that the law allows any Oregon restaurant, wine bar, or wine shop—even grocery stores—that sells wine on tap to fill bulk containers for customers to take home.
The Bent Brick has 16 wines on tap, priced by the ounce (averaging around US$1 per ounce/30 millilitres), and it offers a 30-percent discount to those filling to-go bottles. A standard beer growler is 64 ounces (1.9 litres), but customers also bring in 32-ounce “growlettes” and standard 25-ounce wine bottles. “We’ll fill anything,” he said.
However, Portlanders haven’t embraced the concept as quickly as one might think. “There’s some explaining to do for sure,” Dolich said. “People don’t get that these are good wines.” He estimates that only two or three people fill wine growlers each week, partly because the notion of wine on tap is still catching on. Dolich has some high-quality local wines on tap, including 2012 Guadalupe Vineyard Pinot Noir from Oregon winemaker Ken Wright, who released his wine on tap at the Bent Brick before bottling it.
Indeed, wine growlers make it possible to take home a beverage that might otherwise only be available by the keg. That’s according to Corey Schuster, assistant general manager at Southeast Wine Collective. “It goes back to that European idea—you go into a small place and get your daily wine,” he added. The urban winery, which is located in Portland’s Division neighbourhood, is in the process of launching a growlette program, which its website promises will give members the best deal on the collective’s wine and beer on tap.
The downside of bulk wine purchasing is shelf life. According to Dolich, an ordinary growler of wine will keep for about two days, max. The upside is that growlers are great for parties, where four or five replace a case of wine and all those glass bottles. Plus, Dolich said, people love the novelty; at a recent party he attended, the wine jugs were “a huge hit”. And again, he emphasized that good wine does indeed come in kegs, stating that “growlers allow people to think about wine in a different way.”
Portlanders may warm up to the concept even more when Coopers Hall Winery and Taproom opens next month with 40 wines on tap. According to the Oregonian, the 8,000-square-foot urban winery in Portland’s Central Eastside district will likely have “the most extensive on-tap wine program in the country”, and it will welcome growlers.
Still, not everyone is convinced. “The keg is economy but the bottle is timeless romance,” opined Colin Howard, co-owner of Oso Market + Bar. “Holding the bottle and looking at the whole package, that’s huge for me,” he told the Straight as he cradled a bottle of Sesti Monteleccio Sangiovese. Pointing to the air bubble within, he added, “That’s Italian air. Good wine is a postcard from the region.”
So while Vancouverites may want to fill a growler full of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir to enjoy in their Portland hotel room, there will always be room for a bottle in the suitcase.