Coffee With: Dana Frank of Bar Norman and The Wild Bunch

Feb 24, 2020

Dana Frank is the owner of Bar Norman, a natural wine bar tucked into the cozy Clinton neighborhood of Portland, OR. She’s also the co-author of Wine Food: New Adventures in Eating and Drinking, as well as a globally recognized sommelier. We’re fortunate to spend many an evening at her bar, where we’ve discovered absolutely mind-blowing wines AND new music, all the while feeling as if we’ve stumbled into her living room.

Our Head of Brand, Mallory Pilcher, sat down with Dana to learn more about her upcoming natural wine fair, The Wild Bunch, and to pick her brain about how the hell she became such a powerhouse.

Stumptown Coffee Roasters: Dana, you’re a real mover and shaker in the world of wine. What led you to be interested in wine and more specifically, natural wines?

Dana Frank: I got into wine by way of food. I really enjoyed cooking from a young age (holler, Home Ec classes!), but got into it more in college and then took the deep dive when I lived in Romania as a Peace Corps volunteer. I was there for almost 4 years and learned how important it is to cook with local, seasonal ingredients. I came back to the States intending to cook professionally, but after a few years of that, I was fried and needed to make more money. I made the switch to front-of-house, at a restaurant that had an amazing wine program, and that was basically it. I never looked back. Natural wine wasn't even part of the conversation at that point, 16 years ago, so I was just obsessed with wine, all wine. The “natural” part of the equation came into play more like 12 years ago when I was first introduced to the Louis/Dressner Selections portfolio as a wine sales rep. My mind was blown. I had no idea wine could be so transparent, so clearly indicative of where it comes from.

SCR: Natural wine is now officially a part of the lexicon -- what are your thoughts on something niche becoming more mainstream? Like, your favorite lesser-known band gaining massive popularity?

DF: I want wine to be accessible to all people, first and foremost. It's a fucking fermented beverage, meant for the table, for food, for people, not something that should be exclusive and saved for the rich or privileged. So, if “natural” wine is what gets more people curious, drinking, exploring, sharing, I'm all for it. That said, I take real issue with the co-opting of “natural” as a marketing tool. Like "Shit, natty wine is selling, millenials are all over it, we gotta come up with a new wine and call it natural." Not into that, I can't support it. I'm also not against conventional wine. To each their own, there's room for all of it. But just be honest about what you're doing. Because if you're not honest, you're watering down the category for people who are working really hard to farm with the soil in mind and make wine simply.

SCR: Wine can be a daunting world to get to know. What’s your suggestion for folks who are just starting to dip their toe into the natural wine world?

DF: Find your guide to help you navigate. Build a relationship with a wine shop where you can go in every week, choose a bottle with their help, drink it, and go back the next week to try something else. Let the shopkeep know what you liked and didn't like about the previous week's bottle so they can learn more about your palate and keep moving the needle on their recommendations. And be open to new flavors, aromas, acidity. We get comfortable and think we need to stay in our comfort zone. Like if you enjoyed listening to metal and someone was like, hey try some reggae and you listened to 30 seconds and were like, eh, no thanks. You'd probably have to listen to a few more reggae records to know if it was for you or not. Wine is the same.

SCR: Any tips for gaining a better understanding of what you like in wine? For example, in coffee, we usually discuss how soil development, altitude, and climate can affect taste, so if you’re into bright, acidic, fruit-forward coffees we push folks to East Africa and if you’re more into the nutty, chocolatey vibes we recommend starting in Central America.

DF: Taste a lot! Seriously, you can read and study, but tasting is THE BEST way to learn. Wine bars are great for tasting wines without commiting to a full bottle. Don't be shy to use any words you have to describe what you're tasting and smelling. Nothing is wrong and you're guaranteed to gain some new adjectives if you can put yourself in that terribly vulnerable position of opening up to the person pouring your wine. Good shopkeepers and bartenders can help you take those words and match them with wine.

SCR: Tell us a bit about Bar Norman -- what was the vision and what has surprised you the most about being a small business owner?

DF: The bar is my dream place, and I love it so so so much. I work with the most wonderful people, pour wine for the best customers, and spend my time in a space that feels really good. I walk into Bar Norman everyday and have the biggest sense of gratitude. It took me 40 years to get here, but it was worth the slog. The bar was founded on the principle of simplicity: no budget for a wild buildout, no funding for a deep cellar, just mostly-thrifted furniture, a coat of new paint, and quality wines. The hope was to create the kind of place Scott (my husband) and I want to hang out in: comfy, lived in vibes, a great hi-fi system, really nice staff, simple from top to bottom. Until about 5 years ago, I never wanted to have my own business. It always felt so risky. So I guess that's what's surprised me the most: the fact that I took the leap and just did it. I had a ton of encouragement, and in some ways, I felt like if I didn't do it, someone else would create this space and then I'd always see it as the opportunity that I passed on because I was too scared. Also surprising: you can do something simple and it can be great. I came from working at many restaurants, one after the other, that were big, expensive, bustling. Bar Norman is the opposite and it still works.

SCR: Any wild bar tales?

DF: We've had some really wild parties, something we like to do from time to time. One of the best was when our friend Michael Garofola of Cutter Cascadia released his skin-contact riesling, called Heavy Water, last summer. Astral was grilling up tacos and making esquites in the parking space out front, and the bar and street were packed. Like the best version of a European wine bar, where everyone is outside, reveling in the warm night, the music, the food. We sold so much food and wine that Astral had to run to the store and Michael had to send someone to get more wine from his house. It was fairly epic.

SCR: Speaking of wild (and as if you weren’t doing enough for the wine community), you are throwing the inaugural natural wine fair, The Wild Bunch, right here in Portland, OR. Tell us a bit about why you wanted to produce a natty wine fair and how it’s different from others we’ve seen out in the mix.

DF: It was just time! We have so many great places to drink natural wine in Portland and we're now part of the conversation nationally, so I really wanted to make it happen. My crew at Bar Norman are a very talented group and it's been an awesome opportunity to collaborate with them on design and social media. While it feels big in scale, it's a very grass-roots effort with no sponsorships or capitol, which I'm proud of. Initially, the idea was to have a lot of European winemakers here, but the fair was born at the same time as the threat of devastating wine tariffs were at a head, so it was nearly impossible to get any Europeans to commit. So we decided to beef up the domestic winemakers and to include importers who represent the best natural wines from around the world. It's proved to be a stellar line up and I couldn't be more excited. I also connected with my dear friends from House of Commons, who produce such amazing events as Roux and The Portland Bazaar, to add a European market component to the fair. Local makers will be selling their goods (cheese, charcuterie, breads, flowers) in a market-like atmosphere right next to the wine fair. It's like a 2-for-1, and just what we needed to make the fair feel more “Portland-ish.”

SCR: I know you’re a decaf drinker (which I adore). Tell us a bit about your dedication to decaf.

DF: Haha! Normally people just give me a serious eye roll when I order decaf. BUT! If your decaf is good (ahem, Stumptown), you have nothing to worry about. I started drinking decaf years ago when I was in Italy, of all places. I was on a wine trip with a friend and suffering horrible heart palpitations. My doctor told me to stop drinking espresso and coffee immediately and then sent me for an EKG when I got home. It was basically inconclusive, I have a normal type of palpitation. But by the time it was all said and done, I hadn't had fully-fueled coffee for several weeks and I just decided to maintain it. I am a super-dedicated coffee drinker, cup in the morning, cup in the afternoon, and I generally drink drip or an Americano, with an occasional cappuccino mixed in. We have every type of coffee maker and grinder, but after hand-grinding and pour-overs for years, we finally got a good ol' drip machine and we LOVE it.

SCR: You also have a very musical household -- your husband Scott (aka Bow & Arrow Wines) often DJs at the bar for special events. What are your top five desert island music artists?

DF: Oof, artists? That's tough one because my love of music comes almost entirely from Scott. He has expanded my mind in a million different directions. I love Minnie Ripperton, Seu Jorge, Mulatu Astatke, Tinariwen.

SCR: Top five desert island wines? (I know, I’m sorry to do this to you but the people must know!)

DF: Ooooh boy, ok, but not in any order: Loire Valley Gamay, Alto Piedmont Nebbiolo, German Riesling, Roussillon whites, Champagne.

SCR: Finally, on a scale of 1-10 how annoying is it for everyone in your world to always text you wine menus and ask “What’s good?” (I’m very, very guilty of this and I’d like to take this moment to publicly apologize).

DF: 1. Seriously, not annoying at all. I want to help you drink delicious wine!

SCR: Dana, we love you and I love you even MORE!

DF: I love you tooooooo!