By Richard Jones, PQ Monthly
If “Hip Chicks Do Wine” strikes you as an unusual name for a winery, consider this: Laurie Lewis and Renee Neely have created some unusual wines since launching a one of a kind venture in Southeast Portland in 1999.
When Lewis arrived in Portland, she recalls, “Renee introduced me to wines.” It was not that Lewis had not sampled some very good wines made in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, but when Lewis tasted some outstanding Oregon pinot noirs, she wanted to learn to make world-class wines.
“Wine is supposed to be fun,” Lewis says. After all it is just a beverage; but, it can be more than fun. A good wine can be an emotional experience, she explains.
To satisfy their curiosity, Lewis and Neely took a few wine appreciation classes through Portland Community College. That only spurred them to sign up for some viticultural classes at Chemekata College.
The complexities of vineyard management overwhelmed them. “We decided we weren’t farmers,” Lewis muses. That allowed them to specialize in winemaking. “We decided to take one job and be the best that we could.”
The pair soon learned that Oregon’s climate held several surprises. If April turns too wet or too cold, the buds will not set sufficient fruit. If the summer is too cool, the grapes will not ripen well. If October becomes too wet, the rain will dilute the flavor of the grapes. The life of a vintner can generate a mania for checking thermometers and rain gauges.
To even out the odds, Lewis and Neely buy fruit from vineyards in several areas — southern Oregon, the Willamette Valley, the Columbia Gorge, and several sites in Washington. In the difficult 2007 vintage in the Willamette Valley, they bought fruit from Washington’s Walla Walla Valley where the grapes ripened nicely that year. That also allows them to create, from year to year, harmonious blends such as their “Wine Bunny Rouge,” which contain wines from several regions. A dozen other wines, including a tawny port, provide a wide variety from which to choose.
The ultimate success, Lewis says, is “the magical pairing of wine and food that makes your heart sing.”
In 1999 Lewis and Neely filled out bushels of federal forms to open Hip Chicks. At that time scores of like-minded people opened other wineries in Oregon. Most of them, she says, “wanted to make quality [wines] as good as they could.”
And that, Lewis points out, is difficult. Pinot noir, Oregon’s premier grape, is a bit more finicky than the others. “We want the true character of the fruit,” which, she believes, means avoiding the latest chemical additives, manipulative tricks to extract deeper color, and assorted gizmos.
“We don’t want to overdo the oak,” Lewis insists. She avoids this by not using new French oak barrels. And if her three and four year old barrels don’t quite do the job, she can add French oak chips or tubes.
“It’s been exciting to watch all the wineries open up here in Portland,” she says.
With 13 wineries now operating in the city, it made sense to create the Portland Urban Wine Association. “It’s nice to see us come together and support each other,” Lewis says. In cases where one needs a piece of equipment or another needs filter pads, other winemakers can pitch in to provide what others need.
Helping each other means helping to build public awareness of the region’s remarkable potential. Cooperation benefits all.
As of early October some promising grapes had come to the winery, but others were still hanging on the vines. The weather for the remainder of the month will determine if 2013 will go down as a great vintage — or something less. If you see someone with fingernails chewed to the nub, that person, my friends, is likely to be a winemaker.
If you were to sample some of Hip Chicks’ red wines blind, you might assume they came from a prestigious estate in northeastern Italy. The wines show a tanginess that moderates overwhelming fruitiness. Nor do Hip Chicks make any of the hyper-macho wines that prevail in some regions.
Although drinkable now, most Hip Chicks red wines could likely develop nicely for five to 10 years from the vintage.
Hip Chicks Do Wine 2009 Pinot Noir (Oregon). Made from fruit grown near Canby, this wine has restrained cherry fruit and French oak. Light tannins lend some backbone, without overwhelming the wine. At this stage the crisp acidity makes it just right for chicken accented with subtle herbs. A well-aged Gruyère should also make an excellent pairing. As the wine ages over the next four to six years, you can add beef to list of ideal mates. Tasted December 2012.
Hip Chicks Do Wine 2007 Syrah (Airport Ranch Vineyard, Washington). Ripe fruit yields a round fairly soft texture and a touch of smoky character to this wine. With six years to soften it up there are no aggressive edges to deal with. Ideal for lusty foods such as pizza or barbecued beef. Tasted October 2013.
Mixed 12-bottle cases earn a 15 percent discount.
Hip Chicks do Wine
4510 SE 23rd Ave., Portland
Hours: Daily, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.
(except some major holidays)
Hip Chicks wines are also available in some Fred Meyer, New Seasons and Whole Foods stores in Portland.