It’s Valentine’s Day. Instead of awkwardly munching our way through an overpriced tasting menu of oysters, steak and molten chocolate cake, my husband and I are embroiled in a vigorous discussion about the finer points of grappa distillation with a local winemaker over glasses of 2016 Clos de Rocs Macon-Loché En Pres Fret, a low-intervention white Burgundy, crisp and cool as a freshly made bed, while Biggie Smalls bumps on the stereo. I drag a marble-sized roasted potato through a mound of brick-red romesco with my fingers, pop it in my mouth and wonder: “Why can’t every wine dinner be this fun?”
Dana Frank is an evangelist for two things: natural wine, and the notion that wine should be a party, not a posh, pinkies-up affair. Her latest project, pop-up wine bar Natty by Nature, accomplishes both of those goals simultaneously by pairing natural wines from around the world with an old-school, hip-hop soundtrack. Everything’s accompanied by lively European-inspired food from the chefs at Tournant, a local café, event space and catering company.
“Even though we live in such a great wine community in Portland, I think there’s still this feeling that wine is reserved for only certain people,” Frank says. “That’s not how I feel about wine. I want people to think of wine in the same way we think of beer and cocktails.”
Over the course of her 15-year career in wine, Frank has done her best to change that hoity-toity attitude. She’s worked virtually every facet of the wine industry, from harvest to retail. She’s managed wine lists at Portland restaurants like Ava Gene’s, Dame and the now-shuttered Grüner, all while co-owning Bow & Arrow, a Loire-inspired wine label, with her husband Scott Frank.
All along, she’s been a champion of natural wine, a sometimes-fuzzy term used to refer to wines made with less intervention. For Frank, “natural wines” are those made without vineyard or cellar additives, including yeast. “I’m actually OK with sulfur,” she says, referring to the sulfur dioxide commonly added to wine as a preservative. “I kind of draw a line with heavily sulfured wines, but I’m not dogmatic about it. I’ve seen a lot of wines go sideways unsulfured, and had a lot of brilliant wines that are unsulfured, but I’m not in that camp that says natural wine has to be ’00,'” referring to a natural wine term that means zero sulfur, zero intervention.
For anyone who thinks all natural wine is orange, fizzy and funky, Frank has some pleasant surprises in store. “I really like to steer people who are new to natural wine to some of the classic producers who have been making their wine naturally for multiple generations,” she says. “The classic old school producers are often overlooked in the natural wine world because their wines are maybe cleaner or more ‘traditional,’ but they are in fact natural producers.”
Building on Natty by Nature’s success, Frank’s opening her own wine bar, Bar Norman, on Portland’s Southeast Clinton Street later this summer. “The inspiration is going to be very much all our favorite places to drink wine in Europe,” she adds. The wine list will — naturally — include natural wines from around the world, alongside a streamlined food menu designed to pair with the pours. “The bar is basically going to be Natty by Nature every night,” she laughs. “Except we won’t play only hip-hop.”
She’s also gearing up for the September 2018 release of her first book, “Wine Food,” co-authored with cookbook author Andrea Slonecker and dedicated to thinking outside the box when it comes to pairing wine and cuisine. One of her favorite pairings from the book? A campfire cassoulet paired with Oregon Pinot Noir. “You make the dish in an iron skillet over the campfire, it doesn’t take six hours to cook, and you can play horseshoes while it’s bubbling away,” she says.
Raised pinkies, of course, entirely optional.