Portland wine drinkers, rejoice! A new monthly wine party series is here to get you pumped, play your jams, make you think, and send you home happy (in that order). Natty By Nature is launching tonight—Wednesday, February 14th—at Tournant (920 NE Glisan St), a charming little event space in a neighborhood some people were trying to call “The Wildlife District” a couple of years ago, but I don't think people are trying to do that anymore, so let's just say it's in Portland. Pre-sale tickets are sold out, but walk-in guests are encouraged.
Natty By Nature is the work of Dana Frank, a noted Portland somm and wine thinker whose past work includes lists at Ava Gene's, Grüner (RIP), Dame, and with Holdfast Dining. I met her while profiling Dame for Willamette Week, and her CV includes accolades from national publications like Bon Appetit and Food And Wine. Later this year Dana's first book, Wine Food—a collaboration with Portland author and food stylist Andrea Slonecker—will be released via Lorena Jean Books, a division of Ten Speed Press for Penguin Random House.
Naturally enough, Natty By Nature will focus on fun, playful, naturally made wines, backed to a setlist of golden era hip hop curated by Frank's partner, Bow & Arrow winemaker Scott Frank, heard recently soundtracking an Oregon wine night at London's Brilliant Corners. Tonight's the jump off, with more events to be announced throughout the year, and—spoiler alert—Dana hopes to open her own wine bar here in Portland sometime over the next year. To learn more in advance of tonight's party I sat down with Dana Frank at an undisclosed location (that soon we will be able to properly disclosed) in SE Portland.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jordan Michelman: Hey Dana! Thanks for chatting with us about your new event. Start from the top—tell me all about Natty by Nature.
Dana Frank: So basically, I wanted to do something with wine that's really, just like fun. That was most what I was thinking—how do I do something fun? And so this idea of Natty by Nature came about—and I was actually surprised that nobody's ever used that name before.
Michelman: I'm surprised too! Are you sure there's not already a meme-y Instagram called that?
Frank: No! There's stuff called “Natty Wine” but nothing called Natty By Nature. We Googled it. I looked all over. And from there I ran it by Scott and I was like, “I'm thinking like natural wine, golden era hip hop”—sounds like a fun party to me. From there I talked to Mona and Jaret of Tournant, and that's how I ended up just planning it there.
Michelman: Why Valentine's Day for the launch?
Frank: It's like an alternative to the usual like pressure of going out to dinner, or having a serious date, and I think that's fine. I'm also kind of seeing it as like, come in before dinner, with your person, or your friends. Or come by after dinner and have a glass of wine, whatever.
Michelman: Are you going to be working with any specific distributors for the event?
Frank: So this one, I'm gonna do all Bow & Arrow wines. Not just from our winery, but from our book, because it's the first one and I want to sort of get my sea legs and see how it goes. From there, I'll definitely be branching out because there's books in the city that I absolutely love, like PDX Wine and Petit Mond.
Michelman: For folks that might not be familiar, how would you describe the book at Bow & Arrow?
Frank: You know, it's interesting. It's, the majority of the book is natural wine, but a big chunk of it is what I would consider like classics. So some of the great producers of Burgundy, some of the great producers of the Loire, and some really wonderful Piedmontese producers that come in through Neal Rosenthal. This is stuff that I would consider more classic than like, “natty”, you know?
Michelman: Yes, sure.
Frank: And then we've got a chunk of the book that's, you know, definitely hits more of those, what people think of as like the fun labels, the cloudy wines, the offbeat kind of stuff that comes from folks like Selection Massale. It's a blend of classics and what people think of as natural wine.
Michelman: So, some a little punky, some a little more grown up?
Frank: Yeah. And I think that that's just my overall approach with this whole natural wine thing. I don't want to be squarely on the side of who is the newest, coolest kid on the block, making the murkiest wine. I really also appreciate the guys who've been at it for a long time. People who are making natural wine—I mean, it fits all the parameters—but they wouldn't consider themselves in the “Natty” camp at all.
Michelman: I'm curious to ask you—Portland doesn't really have something that's like for the NattyNat world yet. We have a couple of good wine bars and wine lists at restaurants, but there's no Ordinaire here yet, no Ten Bells or Bar Bandini.
Frank: No P Franco or something like that.
Michelman: Exactly. Portland doesn't have it yet. Why do you think that is?
Frank: You know, I'm not sure. I mean I think part of it is access, because there's a lot of wines that we can't get here. By the time these natural wines make it to New York, they get gobbled up. LA and the Bay Area, they just get gobbled up. So that's part of it.
Michelman: Makes sense.
Frank: And I think the other thing is, we just tend to be a few years behind what's happening in bigger cities. But I think it's gonna come. I hear rumblings of other people wanting to do things that focus more specifically on those wines, but, you know, for me it's tough because…while I appreciate those wines for what they are, a lot of times I have a difficulty with a lot of the like “super Natty”, no sulfur wines that just don't hold up. It's hard to get behind those wines because there's so much bottle variation—though of course I know this is a generalization.
Frank: You know, it's hard, you know it's hard to recommend a wine to somebody because this bottle that you open could be great, but in an hour it goes mousey. Or you know, the next bottle that they open is completely different.
Michelman: Yeah. Right.
Frank: And again, that's a huge generalization of course, because there are some phenomenal, you know, no sulfur wines that really hold up and are absolutely gorgeous. But as for the whole, that Natty thing, I'm not gonna be the person to 100% get behind that.
Michelman: Yeah, for sure. It's interesting though because there is this kind of youthful energy of it.
Michelman: That feels like there's a driver for excitement and interest. And that certainly a good thing, and positive and engaging.
Frank: Yes, absolutely. I think that it's actually very good. Whatever we can do to get people to pay attention to wine and to drink more wine, I think is awesome. Absolutely awesome.
Michelman: For sure.
Frank: But I do think that we can talk about issues with that particular style of wine. I think back to being at La Dive last year, and really noticing the disparity between the wines. You know, like, everything at La Dive is natural, right, but you've got natural wines that are like super drinkable and delicious, and you've got natural wines that are quite frankly fucked up. And it's like there is a sort of division between those kinds of wines. So, you know I'm not sure how long that super natty thing is gonna hang on.
Frank: I don't know. That's just my opinion and I know there's so much debate over this right now.
Michelman: Yeah, there sure is.
Frank: And what is natural wine in the first place? I hesitate to weigh in too far on all that…
Michelman: Fair enough. So this is part of a series—this is month one—but have you figured out where your next event will be after tonight?
Frank: No, this is a good thing that you ask because I literally woke up in the middle of the night and was like, where am I doing this next?? So, I want to do the first one, see how it goes, tweak it, and then do the second one. But then I want to do one every month, which means I probably should be planning the next one right now. So, I've got my thinking cap on. I'm sort of looking at all different types of spaces, rather than just going in traditional pop up spaces. Spots where we can we make it work and also, you know, you have to take into account liquor license and all that.
Michelman: Sure. But is the plan for this to lead towards y'all opening a Bow & Arrow wine bar?
Frank: Yes. The plan is for me to have a natural wine spot here within hopefully the year. I'm actively looking at spaces now.
Michelman: Wow, amazing.
Frank: Yeah! I'm really excited. I think after opening Dame and going through that process, it was a really gratifying experience and I really love what we did up there. And, you know, for lots of different reasons, decided to step away. It will have been a year coming up this summer. And so I'm really looking forward to just getting my own thing open, a space where the focus can be on wine and some tasty food, but not a restaurant. No chef.
Michelman: Wow, well I am strongly here for it when this does happen. Last question: you mentioned Dame, and I know you and I have spoken before about how personally influential the all-Italian list is you built at Ava Gene's—and so I'm I'm curious, do you ever go back? After you step away from a restaurant, will you go back in as a guest?
Frank: It's funny.
Michelman: Is it like seeing an old flame from high school or something?
Frank: Yeah, oh yeah. I remember when I went back to Ava Gene's the first time—it must have been like six months after leaving—and I remember totally having butterflies. That for me was one of my favorite, favorite work experiences, my three years there. I absolutely loved that business, that restaurant, and those people so much. And it was bittersweet to leave, you know, it was like the time was right for me to go. I'd been there for three years. It was time to move on, but I, at the same time, loved it, so much. So it was very, very hard. And I think that's what was the hardest part about going back. It wasn't like, oh, I left and there was some weird shit that went down, and that's why I couldn't go back and face anyone. It was just this emotional tie.
Michelman: Right right.
Frank: It was like, I'm leaving because I know it's time for me just to spread my wings. But at the same time, I know every inch of every space in that restaurant, you know? So it's always funny to go back and like look at your lists and see how they morph. And I think that's what great about a wine list. Really, really good lists represent the buyer, the person who is curating that list. But I think they should also represent the food and the restaurant. And they should represent the guest that's coming in there, too. It's a complex thing.
Michelman: That's fascinating.
Frank: And so, it's great to go and see how a list evolves from buyer to buyer. You know, I think that list at Ava Gene's is still one of the best lists in the city, and still comprehensively Italian. I think it's phenomenal.
Michelman: Yeah, for sure. I fully agree with you.
Frank: And it was so gratifying to go back and see that the list at Ava Gene's had like, held steady. Sure there's a different buyer now, and he's doing different things, but the core, the heart of it is still there. They haven't gutted it. And that's super gratifying, to feel like you did something and it stuck.
Michelman: Wonderful. Well, I hope you come back and talk with us when Wine Food is released—I'm looking forward to seeing it and cooking my way through it—and thanks so much for your time today. Best of luck at your event launch tonight Dana!
Frank: Thank you.
Jordan Michelman is a co-founder of Sprudge. His writing has appeared in T Magazine, The New York Times, Seattle Metropolitan Magazine, and Willamette Week.