Nowadays, you can go almost anywhere in the state and enjoy a glass of Oregon wine with your locally sourced meal.
That was hardly the case in the 1970s, before Oregon wine country began to take root. It was 1972 when Stephanie Pearl Kimmel had just returned from studying in France. She had been so inspired by the regional cuisine that that she opened Excelsior Café in Eugene, not far from the University of Oregon, her alma mater, with a mission to embrace that same ethos of sustainably raised and farmed sourcing. “The chefs knew everyone; everything was so seasonal,” she says.
Except there was no Oregon wine. Soon after, however, Kimmel recalls that one of her friends, David Lett — the late founder of The Eyrie Vineyards in McMinnville — popped into the cafe and told her he was making wine.
“I was so thrilled. I thought, ‘Finally!’” she recalls. Kimmel started offering their pinot gris, and then pinot noir, then added labels from many of Oregon’s other wine pioneers — in essence becoming the first Oregon chef to promote Oregon wine.
Today, Oregon’s 700-plus wineries grace the menus of restaurants and wine bars around the world. Oregon Wine Month is celebrating that relationship between food and wine in May 2017.
“If you have the right pairing, it increases the enjoyment of the wine,” says Kimmel, one of five Oregon chefs who are sharing their favorite wine-paired recipes for home cooks. “And the food — there’s just a magical thing, the way it lingers on the palate. If you love the dish, you love the dish. If you love the wine, you love the wine. But if you have them together, you’ll love them both more.”
Since selling Excelsior Cafe in 1993, Kimmel has continued as an ambassador for Oregon wine — traveling in France, developing the culinary program for King Estate Winery in Eugene, producing the winery’s pinot gris and pinot noir cookbooks and directing a 13-part cooking series called New American Cuisine.
Today she’s at the helm of three acclaimed Eugene establishments that have grown from each other organically. There’s Marché, her award-winning French-style bistro, and Marche Museum Cafe in the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. There’s Provisions Market Hall, a European-style food emporium with cases of housemade specialties like charcuterie, ice cream, pizza and a wine bar and bistro within the market called Blackboard.
Whether it’s pairing a skirt steak with syrah or Oregon bay shrimp with pinot gris, Kimmel holds frequent wine pairing dinners, wine and cheese classes and other events to empower even the greenest palate. As is now the norm for many other Oregon chefs, she makes sure wine pairings are an integral part of her seasonal menus.
As for incredible growth of Oregon wine? “I didn’t have any idea it would grow to be such a huge thing, but I had confidence,” she says. “My friends assured me it was very comparable to Burgundy, with the climate, and these grape varieties were perfectly adapted. With good vineyard management, it would make exceptional wines. It didn’t take long for (Oregon winemakers) to realize that.”
Hundreds of wineries across the state are planning Oregon Wine Month tastings, specials, getaways and other events all month long, especially during Memorial Day weekend. Book a table at more than 100 restaurants participating in Oregon Wine Month. Travel safely, and salud!