That Wine Lyfe: Dana Frank of Ava Gene’s, PDX

Americas sommeliers have access to some of the best wines in the world. But what are they drinking off duty? Welcome to "That Wine Lyfe," the drink diary of America's wine pros.

dana frank sommelier

Dana Frank used to show up to keggers with a liter of bottom-shelf red wine. Now “that girl” is the wine director at Ava Gene’s in Portland, Oregon, and is producing wine with her husband, Scott Frank, under their label, Bow & Arrow.

After a few formative years spent stationed in Romania for Peace Corps service, Frank returned to Oregon with an appreciation for palinka, the clear plum brandy of Eastern Europe, and a sense of uncertainty about next steps. She eventually followed her love of food into the kitchen, experimenting with cooking on the line and rising to the position of pastry chef before realizing that what she really wanted was to see people’s expressions as food and drinks hit the table.

She developed her wine chops in Bend—a Central Oregon vacation town—with a crew of skaters and artists who changed her perception of wine culture. She got her first wine gig at the now-closed Merenda, a restaurant run by San Francisco industry veterans with a wine list that boasted no shortage of quirky, lesser-known wines. Along the way she sat for two exams with the Court of Master Sommeliers before deciding on a DIY approach to wine education and service that seems to suit Portland, a town that is not so concerned with status or being bound by tradition in any arena.

This orientation is evident in the wine list at Ava Gene’s, where the selection routinely traverses along the road-less-traveled and where the majority of bottle prices hover around $50. Bow & Arrow also veers off the beaten path, eschewing the Willamette’s allegiance to the Burgundian paradigm in favor of pinot noir, gamay and (soon) cabernet franc inspired by the Loire Valley. It’s this desire to look beyond the obvious that also drives Frank’s drinking habits on the wine side.

However, when it comes to cocktails, she tends to stick to the classics. During the week that means a gin and tonic (made with Jack Rudy small-batch tonic) while cooking at home, an amaro and soda with an orange slice and the occasional daiquiri. On the weekends, it’s a dozen chilled oysters and just enough of the Woodman Tavern’s bottle-aged Bloody Mary to ease her into an afternoon with her toddler. And in between, there’s more wine (of course), a little whiskey (she insists, however, that she is not part of the “Portland hipster brown-liquor scene”) and lots of coffee (Coava and Stumptown, to be exact).

We asked Frank to keep track of what she drank for a week and give us a short list of the best wines she stumbled across. Here’s the damage:

Marco DeBartoli ‘Pietranera’ 2011 | $36
“I’m a nut for island wines: Sicily, Sardegna and the Canary Islands, specifically. And I love DeBartoli’s voice in the world of wine. We cook at home a lot during the beginning of the week, eat with our daughter and drink a good bottle. On Monday we made these lovely Israeli fishcakes in a spicy tomato sauce and basmati rice with curried chickpeas and loads of herbs. Perfect with zibbibo from Sicily.”

Paolo Bea ‘Santa Chiara’ 2011 | $43
“My post-work wind down this week included a big glass of Bea’s gorgeous Umbrian white blend. It actually sat out at room temperature in the office at Ava Gene’s for a few hours and its trademark tea leaf, tree bark earthiness came through in such a prominent way. Such a treat to finish the night that way. The following evening ended on a harder note with a Bulleit rye on the rocks and some kind of a beer back with a couple of friends from work.”

Domaine de la Pepiere ‘Granite de Clisson’ 2010 | $24
“I end up drinking a lot of wine from the Loire, being that it’s the inspiration for our winery. And honestly, we can afford to drink the best wines of the Loire more than we can afford to drink Burgundy or Barolo. We shared this muscadet with friends over dinner at Clyde Common, where there’s a new chef. The revamped menu is fantastic. We sat down to plates and plates and plates of food: salt and pepper squid, Brussels sprouts, chicharrones and trout roe, fideos with clams. Then we ate an epic three-foot-long braised oxtail with a bottle of 2010 Puffeney Trousseau ($30). The Clisson crushed the Puffeney.”

Suavia ‘Massifitti’ 2010 | $28
“Trebbiano di Soave! I chose this bottle to share with a group of girlfriends over dinner. It was a bunch of moms with young kids in serious need of drinks and food and lady time. Trebbiano is one of my favorite white grapes: the aromatics alone make a lot of friends. This is a stunning expression grown on basalt in Fittà and raised in stainless steel without skin contact, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t drink like a rich, leesy, textured white wine.”

“In between all of this, there was a classic daiquiri at our tiki palace, Hale Pele, followed by spicy, delicious thai food and bottles of Singha ($2) at Paa Dee.”