Portland’s Premier Champagne Bar Ends the Year by Toasting to Its Own Survival

New owner Michael Knisley promises subtle changes to the drink program and interior vibe while keeping the bar broadly accessible.

Champagne is synonymous with celebration, and as the new year approaches, Ambonnay, Portland's premier by-the-glass Champagne bar, has a lot to celebrate. Namely, that it's still open.

After launching Ambonnay in 2011, owner David Speer put the bar up for sale in May. It sold in September to Michael Knisley, who got his start selling Champagne and curating events in New Orleans under the name Bubblyothèque. Knisley is not just the new proprietor of Ambonnay—he's also a longtime fan of both the bar and Portland who uprooted his life to move here.

"I'd always dreamed of having a little Champagne-focused place, and when David opened Ambonnay, it felt so much like what I wanted to do someday," Knisley says. "And so when David decided to step away, I said to myself, 'What do I have to do to make this happen?'"

For now, the answer is, make subtle changes to the drink program and interior vibe while keeping Ambonnay broadly accessible. Bottles are available at a minimal markup, but what makes the place unique and essential is its range of Champagnes by the glass. Most lounges and restaurants—hell, even most posh wine bars—might offer to pour a single Champagne by the glass, if you're lucky. At Ambonnay, about five glasses are available each night, sometimes more, offering a range of experience that would cost hundreds of dollars by the bottle.

Recent visits featured glasses by Pascal Doquet ($15), Benoit Lahaye ($15) and Jacques Lassaigne ($10), offering a breadth and depth of taste to convert even the most steadfast Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label drinker. These are all "grower Champagnes," meaning they are produced by the same makers who grew the grapes. In a region where blending is the norm and large blending houses control the power and money—think Dom Perignon—indie winemakers offer another lens on Champagne as delicious, reverent and worthy of contemplation.

Which isn't to say they aren't down to party. This New Year's Eve, Knisley and his team will offer a range of grower Champagnes for glass pours starting at $15 in the magnum format. In the months to come, Knisley hopes to expand the bar's education program, incorporating classes and beginner tastings similar to his work in New Orleans.

"I love teaching and engaging with people of all ages and levels of expertise," says Knisley with a geeky glint in his eye. "For me, it's all about really good Champagne at a good price, and creating a place to come learn and explore."

DRINK: Ambonnay, 107 SE Washington St., Suite 167, 503-575-4861, ambonnaybar.com. 5-10 pm Thursday, 5-11 pm Friday-Saturday, 1-7 pm Sunday.

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