Dana Frank Leads Portland's Natural Wine Revolution

The Dame sommelier walks us through the wild, sometimes weird-smelling world of natural wine.

By Benjamin Tepler March 20, 2017 Published in the April 2017 issue of Portland Monthly

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All bottles available to drink at Dame. Looking for something to take home? Frank recommends Ardor Natural Wines and Pairings Wine Shop.

Image: Michael Novak

As with anything fashionable, wine trends come in waves. Remember Paul Giamatti bemoaning the ubiquity of California merlot in Sideways? Or, more recently, #roséallday? Natural wine, made with organic or biodynamic grapes and without additives, is quickly heading in that direction—except this is a trend that’s not always consumer friendly. Natural wine can smell like wet dog, taste funkier than George Clinton’s hair, and look cloudier than Portland in winter. It can also be transcendent.

A definite early adopter, Dana Frank spent a decade championing pure, wild fermentations, as both a wine distributor and a sommelier at Ava Gene’s, where she earned one of Food & Wine’s “Sommeliers of the Year” awards. By 2016, Frank felt ready to open Dame, her own natural wine–focused spot on a Concordia corner.

So how does natural pinot noir compare to the textbook case? “You are able to taste the soil, the place, the vintage. Temperature and weather dramatically affect how wine tastes,” says Frank. “Often, conventional wine is the same vintage after vintage.”

Natural wine has the added perk of dovetailing with the city’s back-to-the-land ethos and eschewing the alchemy of conventional winemaking, which employs everything from sulfites to fish bladders to achieve its consistency. Says Frank: “If these 500 chemicals were in your chicken breast, you would never it eat it. We’ve reverted from celebrating winemakers that go to very technical schools to now looking at a farmer doing as little as possible to the fruit.” (Curiously, there are few natural winemakers in the Pacific Northwest.)

The challenge? Sussing a “unique” bottle from a “bad” bottle. Off flavors and natural carbonation can be intentional qualities. But what about “mousiness,” a feral, mouse-cage flavor Frank describes as tasting like moldy salami skin. Or volatile acidity, which can give off the smell of nail polish? “It’s a problem,” she admits. “You walk away saying, ‘It tastes too weird.’ I won’t pretend that all natural wine is delicious wine.”

Lucky for us, Frank has done her research. Here are five bottles worth the risk.

Frank's Picks

La Petite Robe, Jean-Yves Péron
From $23

“This skin-contact orange wine is made with a grape called jacquère, which is almost always made into minerally, high-acid mountain white wine. Instead, it’s super-textural with a bit of tannin. Saline and salty, smells like oyster shells. This is a white that drinks more like a red.”

Piège à Filles, Les Capriades
From $23

“The king of pétillant-naturel, a.k.a. pét-nat—naturally carbonated—wines in the Loire Valley. Fruity but savory, tart and mouthwatering. Super-fresh. Would go great with something rich or fatty, like a tartare.”

Pésico, Nicolas Marcos 
From $14

“Asturias, in northwestern Spain, has been known for cider forever, but Dominio del Urogallo winery works with only native grapes—most that people have never heard of. It’s punchy, with a nice spiciness that reminds me of brambly, prickly fruit. Great acidity and tannins.”

Brichet, Casa Coste Piane
From $20

“For all intents and purposes, this is Prosecco, bottled with all of its residual yeast. Tropical nose, really citrusy and minerally with a broad, long mouthfeel. It’s great with food because it sticks around longer.”

Gavi, Cascina degli Ulivi
From $17

“This is a cortese grape from Piedmont, which is primarily known for reds. Stefano Bellotti is really far out on the natural spectrum. He only ages in wooden barrels, and his vineyards are full of wildflowers, vegetables, and fruit trees. This is his simplest, entry-level wine. High acid, very tropical, dry and tart on the palate.”

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