In our Rising Stars series, seasoned beverage professionals spotlight five of the most outstanding up-and-comers in their city—and discuss the mark each is making on the drinks scene.
Portland, Oregon, has been considered one of the country’s great restaurant cities for many years. It also has a thriving beverage scene—in part because there are so many great places to showcase creative cocktails and fine wines, and in part because of the entrepreneurial spirit and dedication to locally made, artisanal products that have always thrived here. Oregon is an exciting place to be right now, and it attracts talent in droves. From an ambitious hotel bartender with a passion for learning to the proprietor of an epicurean travel company, here are five standouts who were recognized by existing industry leaders for their contributions to the local drinks scene.
The Whole Package
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In a city full of food and beverage celebrities, Jeffrey Morgenthaler is one of the more recognizable figures. The best-selling author and six-time James Beard Award nominee was named American Bartender of the Year by Tales of the Cocktail in 2016 and has received numerous other honors. He wasn’t the only barkeep in town to call Lydia McLuen a special type of bartender. His reasoning: “Her level of hospitality is unparalleled in Portland. She really cares about what she does and takes the time to learn all she can. Her drinks are fantastic. She’s a great bartender, a great person—the whole package.”
McLuen started working at a bar while she was in college to help pay the bills, but she had such a passion for it that she decided to make hospitality her career. “I love the universality of hospitality,” she says. “No matter where you are in the world, when the martini hits the table, it should be cold. I really care about my guests. I try to make every single part of that experience perfect.”
After working at Bar Casa Vale, Palomar, and other Portland hot spots, McLuen was poached by The Hoxton last year. She was on the opening team for all three of the hotel’s bars and now spends her time at Tope, the rooftop bar. She was the Northwest champion in the Speed Rack competition last year and is currently studying for the WSET Level 3 exam. “My goal is to learn as much as I can from the really smart people around me,” she says. “I read all the time. I study constantly. I’ve never been naturally good at something, but I’ve always been very diligent and consistent with my training.” The last statement seems arguable, but it’s clear that this commitment to her craft will serve her well for decades to come.
The Winemaker Scion
Portland resident John Grochau, of Grochau Cellars—who was once the protégé of Doug Tunnell of Brick House Wines—is always on the lookout for young talent. Alex Fullerton, of Fullerton Wines, caught his eye for several reasons. “He really hit the ground running,” says Grochau. “He worked with his dad to make the family’s first vintage in 2012, and after that he took over the winemaking on his own. I’ve been impressed with the quality. We work with some of the same vineyard sites, so we’ll get together and taste through some of the wines. Alex isn’t just doing the same thing over and over. He’s pushing the envelope and trying new things.”
Fullerton’s interest in wine was piqued on a road trip through France when he was 18. He was moved by the generosity of the people who opened their cellars and barrels to strangers day after day. He found a similar spirit—this time among winemakers—when he started working in Oregon, first as an intern at Penner-Ash Wine Cellars and later with his family’s winery. “There are so many people who want to taste your wines and give you feedback and tell you what you did wrong but also what you did right,” he says. “We’re lucky in Oregon that we have a really good place to grow Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but also people who are willing to help out new guys. There’s no shortage of mentors.”
Given that the family company is relatively new, Fullerton is mostly focused on honing his ability to create world-class Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and blended wine under the family’s two labels: Fullerton Wines and Three Otters. “Last year, I found some Willamette Valley Chenin Blanc, which is hard to do,” he says. “We’re going to blend it with Chardonnay to make a Loire-inspired sparkling wine.”
Charles Porter, of Little Beast Brewing, began his career in the microbrewing business over 25 years ago and has always been at the forefront of the industry. He sees a little of himself in Shaun Kalis, the co-owner of Portland’s new Ruse Brewing. “He does some pretty innovative beers that are distinctive,” Porter says. “He’s done some barrel aging, which really excites me. He gets some pretty unique beers from that. He’s stepped it up and really stayed relevant, which is important. He’s also continued to reach out and work with other brewers to create other innovative brews.”
“My friend turned me on to brewing in 2001,” Kalis says, “and I haven’t really looked back since.” He moved to Portland in 2006 and spent several years at Culmination Brewing, whose proprietor, Tomas Sluiter, is known for creating a sort of incubator environment where employees are encouraged to work on their own projects. Kalis, who had always dreamed of opening his own business, nurtured the idea of Ruse there until he and his business partner, Devin Benware, were ready to open a taproom in 2018. (Benware serendipitously got his start as a professional beermaker when he took an assistant brewer position at Old Market Pub and Brewery—a job that had just been vacated by Kalis.)
Kalis and Benware have a busy 2019 planned. “We’re starting to release a lot of our barrel-aged beers for 2019, and I’m very excited about that,” Kalis says. “We’re releasing our pilsner in cans in a few weeks, and we’re honored to be a part of this year’s 3-Way IPA event with Fort George [in Astoria] and Cloudburst [in Seattle]. In the future, my goal is to stay small enough to take care of our employees and guests and continue to focus on quality.”
The Amaro Advocate
Lydia Reissmueller, the owner of Portland’s Tender Bar and a 15-year veteran of the hospitality industry, called out Erica Ramirez of Either/Or as one of the most talented people Reissmueller has encountered since she moved to Portland. “She’s a very efficient and attentive bartender,” Reissmueller says. “Both skilled and creative, she gives great hospitality and really embodies the Portland spirit—down-to-earth but fun and progressive.”
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Ramirez grew up in San Diego and came to Portland in 2011. She was cooking at a crêperie when a friend offered her a position at a neighborhood bar called Parkside. That launched her career in the drinks industry. She created her first cocktail program there and spent four years as the manager.
While at Parkside, Ramirez took a second position—bartending at The Solo Club. “It had a big amaro program,” she says, “and really phenomenal bartenders, so I learned a lot.” The recent move to Either/Or has given Ramirez a chance to build a cocktail program focused on those liqueurs. “I’m super proud of everything I’ve put on there,” she says. “There are a lot of amaros. I tried to incorporate them in every cocktail.” To continue to build her skills, she enters competitions—so far she’s done Portland’s Nog Off and a contest sponsored by St-Germain. Her goal, she says, is to stay true to the essence of what makes a good bartender: “I’m not trying to put on a show. I’m just trying to be myself and let everyone have a good time, and make some great cocktails.”
The entrepreneurial Kate Norris, who is half of the team behind Portland’s lauded Southeast Wine Collective and the Division Winemaking Company, has great admiration for others who are willing to take some chances in the business. That’s one reason she has such kind words for Chevonne Ball, the owner of Dirty Radish wine tours. “Chevonne is super passionate about sharing not only Oregon wine but wine from around the world with people,” she says. “She has that personality that’s larger than life, and she makes everybody feel really comfortable, which is a really important trait when it comes to learning about wine.”
After working at many notable Portland restaurants (including Le Pigeon, Park Street Kitchen, and Smallwares), Ball moved to France in 2009 “on a whim and a prayer,” she says. “I fell in love with the food, wine, and people in Beaujolais in particular. I wanted other people to know and like Beaujolais outside of Nouveau.” Ball took friends on unofficial tours of the region a few times, then started her company in 2017. She also offers tours in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and organizes wine-related events in Portland.
Ball describes the people she met when she first went to Beaujolais as humble, kind, and happy to put good wine in her glass. With Dirty Radish, she hopes to share their joie de vivre with others. “It took a huge leap of faith to start this company,” she says. “But now I’m able to share these amazing experiences I’ve had the privilege of having, and to advocate for winemakers here and in France who are doing good work.”
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Sophia McDonald is a freelance writer who lives in Eugene, Oregon. Her work has appeared in numerous publications and on websites, including Wine Enthusiast, Eating Well, Sip Northwest, and 1859 Oregon’s Magazine.