Dana Frank is unique enough to seem impossible—a Portland sommelier whose name carries weight in New York and London, gaining a level of acclaim rarely seen here. Last year, Bon Appétit and Food & Wine both placed her wine list at Ava Gene's among the best in the country.
The national press is about to come knocking again. Dame, the Northeast Killingsworth wine bar and restaurant Frank will open Sept. 14 with business partner Jane Smith, is Portland's first true destination for natural wines—those made with minimal intervention and biodynamic agricultural practices, eschewing the chemical monkeying and Frankenwine centrifuging that's common in commercial winemaking.
Located in the former Cocotte space, Dame doesn't just have the best natural wine list in the city. It's the best for 500 miles, and one of the best on the West Coast—doing justice to Frank's short list of inspirations, including London's Brawn and Ducksoup restaurants as well as the Four Horsemen, LCD Soundsystem founder James Murphy's convivial natural-wine-and-culture hive in Brooklyn. To get an idea of Dame's potential, look to the much-lauded wine list and vibe at Manhattan's famed Wildair, which The New York Times' Pete Wells said he wanted to pillage "like Genghis Khan."
Frank's previous wine lists in Portland have each been themed after specific locales. At Ava Gene's, she stocked only Italian wines. At now-closed seafood restaurant Riffle NW, it was coastal Mediterranean. And at Alpine-themed Grüner—which closed last year—the wines were likewise Alpine. But at Dame, there's no such exclusion, resulting in what Frank calls "my favorite list—there's nothing I'm not bursting at the seams to open."
The 140-odd bottles of natural wine come from France, Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Germany, Spain, Hungary, Croatia, Bosnia, California and Oregon, where Frank and her husband, Scott, make wine as Bow & Arrow. The restaurant will open with 14 orange wines alone—white wines made with grape-skin contact, resulting in something halfway between red and white—including two from some of Oregon's best natural-wine labels, Johan Vineyards and Minimus.
But the list remains accessible to the neophyte—a major point for Frank. "We want to be part of a neighborhood here," she says, "and part of that means making it accessible to everyone. If you want to come in and have a blowout and order Champagne, you can. If you want to come in for a snack and a glass of wine and leave for $20, you can do that, too."
You don't have to know anything about these kinds of wines to enjoy them, and many of the coolest bottles hover in the $30-to-$50 sweet spot. A bottle of Philippe Tessier's lush, delicious Cheverny rosé of pinot noir and gamay is priced in the low $30s. Cult Loire winemaker Quentin Borse, under the label Le Sot de L'Ange, produces one of the world's most unique bottle-fermented sparkling wines—petillant naturel—from the nigh-extinct chaulnay grape, and it's on Dame's list for less than $40.
Much more will be written as the restaurant opens. The interiors mix warmth with opulence, landing somewhere in the realm of Northwest forest deco. The food, from Seattle transplant Eli Dahlin (Damn the Weather, the Walrus and the Carpenter), promises a similar polyphony of influences, with French-, Italian- and Pacific Northwest-inspired dishes hinted at on the opening menu.
But, man, that wine list. If you've been looking for someplace to get your feet wet and check out this natural-wine thing, Dame is for you. If you're just casually into wine, or feel like you don't know if you care, then you should really go. Just don't be surprised if you look down at your glass at some point and say, "Holy shit."
Dame, 2930 NE Killingsworth St., damerestaurant.com. Opening date Sept. 14.
Three Wines to Try
Winemaker Stanko Radikon is like a pied piper of natural wine, winning converts with his gloriously unique orange wines and bringing attention to the historically overlooked Italian wine region of Oslavia, on the border with Slovenia. This one, made from the friulano grape, may cause you to rethink wine altogether.
This is delicious and utterly unique rosé from cult Lazio producer Andrea Occhipinti, who makes wine from the aleatico grape on the volcanic slopes of Lake Bolsena in central Italy. His rosé tastes of complex floral notes and cannabis tincture, is notoriously tough to find, and sits on Dame's list for less than a deluxe pedicure.
Only a trickle of cool, California natural wine makes it to Portland—and this is some of the best. Winemaker Matthew Rorick creates a singular series of wines using rare and underloved grape varieties like alvarelhão, most typically used in making port. This red wine has sweet perfume for days, and drinks like a silky liquid plum.