Dana Frank is a busy lady. She’s the wine director of Ava Gene’s in Portland, co-owner (with husband Scott) of Bow & Arrow Wines, and mom to Orly. Her wine list at AG is strictly Italian, so she certainly has a soft spot in her little wine-soaked heart for vino. My kind of lady! Dana has a palate and approach to wine that I respect and am inspired by. She is the perfect example of the modern sommelier- without attitude (or a suit)- just pure passion for her wines and her guests. And always a big smile.
How did you become a sommelier?
I became interested in wine because I’ve always loved food and cooking. I returned to Oregon in 2003 after almost four years in the peace corps in Romania. I was sort of in shock being back in the U.S. and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with myself, so I took a paid apprenticeship as a pantry and pastry cook in Bend, in central Oregon. After a year as a pastry chef, and ungodly hours in a small kitchen with four male cooks, I was really craving the interaction with guests in the dining room. I left the kitchen and took a job at another restaurant in Bend, this time as a server with no wine experience. But I fell into the right place at the right time, trained by front-of-house professionals from San Francisco and Jackson Hole. And I was tasting and talking about wine all the time. With support and encouragement from my co-workers and tasting group I took my Level 1 exam through the Court of Master Sommeliers and moved to Portland after passing.
Since being here, I’ve passed my Certified Exam and have worked in most facets of the wine business. My husband, Scott, and I were both retail buyers back in the day. I worked for Triage Wines, a now-defunct importer and wholesaler representing the likes of Louis/Dressner, Skurnik and José Pastor. I was the direct sales manager for the Casteel family at Bethel Heights Vineyard. And in 2010, Scott and I started our winery, Bow & Arrow. Scott makes Loire-inspired wines with fruit from the Willamette Valley at our winery in Portland, and I help where needed. After nearly 10 years working in wine, I’ve realized my heart lies in the restaurant business, and I’m now running my fifth wine program. It’s my favorite job, being a wine director and a sommelier, and although it’s not a job that gets quite as much play in Portland as it does in other cities, I really can’t imagine doing anything else. I go to work everyday, excited to do what i’m doing, grateful to be learning.
What’s your go-to look/daily uniform for work?
Portland is really casual, so I try to strike a balance between dressed-down and professional. Our front-of-house staff can wear anything they want, so I follow suit, in my own way. I generally wear skinny jeans or printed pants with heeled booties or clogs and some kind of a fun, bright-colored top, or a classic white t-shirt. The focal point of Ava Gene’s is a wood-burning hearth at the chef’s counter, so the restaurant always feels warm. As a result, I wear a sleeveless shirt most nights. Sometimes I’ll throw on a pencil skirt with a simple tank top, or a knee-length dress, but I find pockets totally necessary for my job, so pants are my go-to.
My make-up routine is spartanly simple, and I don’t even wear lipstick (I hate the half-worn-off look in the middle of service), so my face is the same whether I’m working or not. I love a good statement piece of jewelry. Depending on the day, it’s either a short, chunky necklace, or a long delicate necklace and gold or silver hanging earrings. Since I have short hair, I wear a necklace or earrings everyday, as well as my wedding rings and, lately, a big vintage navajo turquoise ring on my right hand.
Do you transition your outfit from daytime duties to nighttime floor action?
I can get away with wearing the same outfit day to evening for service. During the rainy season, I’ll often wear rain wellies and bring my work shoes with me. My admin days normally end around 6pm, so I usually wear sneakers or boots those days, and if I’m hanging in the warehouse schlepping wine or doing inventory, I’m almost always in a sweater or sweatshirt and a scarf.
What are the three things you can’t leave home without when heading to the restaurant?
- Pencil case (holds pencils, pens, wine key, and chapstick)
- Contact lens case and glasses. My 12-hour shifts are brutal on my lenses.
Three things a somm should never do or wear?
1. Be a know-it-all. The world of wine is massive, and we can always, always learn more. I can’t stand competitively talking about wine. That whole “I’ve drunk that wine, I know this winemaker, I have 15 vintages of x in my cellar” drives me bonkers.
2. Overtalk. Read your guest and know how much information they want from you, and how they want you to interact with them. I think being a great somm is about giving your guests an experience, not a lesson.
3. Make a guest keep a wine they aren’t enjoying. I’d rather take a wine back, pour it by the glass, sample it to staff, share it with other guests, than force a table to drink and pay for a wine that won’t contribute positively to their evening.
What wine (or wine region) on your list at Ava Gene’s is exciting you the most right now?
It’s a three-way toss-up: Sardinia, especially some of the bright, fresh versions of Cannonau and Bovale now available on the West coast. Northern Piedmont, because I’ve been incredibly excited about some offbeat things like Avana and Bequet as of late. And the Langhe, for the stunning Rieslings and Riesling blends that are perfect for this time of year. But, It’s actually really too hard to choose what I’m most excited about. Writing a list that’s 100% Italian means there’s something piquing my interest, pushing my button every week. A few weeks ago it was Marsala and Sagrantino.
What do you usually drink and/or eat at the end of a shift?
Either a glass of white or rosé while i’m buttoning up at work, or a Negroni or rye whiskey on the rocks after my shift.
Photos by Travis Blue