Spring 2015

Nom de vine: Portlandia Vintners

When two business entities share the same name, usually the larger and better known — even if it wasn’t the first — sics its lawyers on the other and sends a cease-and-desist letter that orders a name change.

That Olympic National Park has kept its name is a legal triumph in the face of the International Olympic Committee's usual habit of pouncing on anything that even begins to type the letters O, l and y.

So Damian Davis, whose Seattle-based Rainier Wine was starting a new label using Willamette Valley, Oregon, grapes to produce Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris wines, must have braced for a similar response when “Saturday Night Live” alum Fred Armisen and Sleater-Kinney musician Carrie Brownstein launched their sketch comedy series, “Portlandia,” in 2011 on IFC.

Just prior to the show's first season, for his label’s wines Davis had chosen and trademarked the name Portlandia Vintners, after the Raymond Kaskey copper sculpture in front of the Portland Building. The massive sculpture depicts a classically dressed kneeling woman who holds a trident in her left hand and reaches out with her right, a symbol of Portland, featured in the opening credits of “Portlandia.”

Davis did get that call from the show's producers.

“They contacted us early on. And requested samples,” he said. “We sent some, and they were happy with the quality of the wine and offered to make us The Official Wine of ‘Portlandia.’”

Davis declined the sponsorship offer, a smart marketing move but one that would have required a significant investment.

“I’m not in the vodka business; I don’t have that kind of money,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean that Davis, an experienced marketer and a fan of the show — Google “Portlandia beet salad” for his favorite sketch — has discouraged the connection.

Portlandia’s labels feature a 19th-century bicycle with a huge front wheel for the Pinot Gris and a pair of horn-rim glasses for the Pinot Noir, sharing the same hipster aesthetic and sense of humor as the show. And, yes, while those glasses look pretty similar to what Armisen wears, Davis wears the same thick-rimmed style, as do “all the pretty girls” in Portland, he noted.

Oh, and if that isn’t enough of a Northwest thick-beard, craft-brew, farm-to-table, put-a-bird-on-it, Powell’s-Books-is-Mecca attitude, the labels themselves are made from 100 percent recycled kraft paper.

But even good marketing, an eye-catching label and an unofficial relationship with a hit TV show is only going to sell the first bottle of wine. The wine has to be worth buying a second time.

Both wines are made by veteran Oregon winemaker Judy Thoet from Willamette Valley grapes using facilities owned by Oregon winemaker Joe Dobbes. Portlandia’s 2012 Pinot Noir ($30) and its 2012 Pinot Gris ($20) each recently received “Outstanding” ratings from Great Northwest Wine.

Davis’ Rainier Wine, has, since 2005, produced a series of AVA-specific wines, including Mad Housewife from California vineyards and Diversion, produced by the Milbrandt family at its Wahluke Wine Co. from Eastern Washington grapes.

Davis, who grew up around wine in an East Coast restaurant family, draws on his marketing experience and acts as a kind of wine curator, working through friendships he's made in the region. He’s noticed that many great winemakers, like any passionate artist, would rather spend their time making wine than dealing with marketing and other aspects of the business side. So he’s starting labels to promote the talents of winemakers.

In addition to working with Thoet on Portlandia, he also is working on a project with Juergen Grieb of Treveri Cellars in Wapato, Wash. Treveri has made a name with its sparkling wines, but Grieb and Davis plan on releasing some still wines under a separate label from single-vineyard German-style varietals.

“I see a lot of people, working like an artist toiling in the studio, who very few people know about because marketing is so hard. You really have to have the time to make it work,” Davis said.

“The idea of a brand is to tell that winemaker’s story,” he said.

And everybody, especially Portland hipsters in beards and horn-rim glasses, likes a good story.

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