In Portland’s Central Eastside Industrial District, tucked into the side of a warehouse by the train tracks, there’s an unmarked door glazed with thick layers of gray paint and outfitted with a peephole. Inside, incongruously, is a jewel box of a boîte, outfitted with crystal chandeliers and a marble bartop.
On a recent chilly Friday night, the after-work crowd crammed themselves elbow-to-elbow into this semisecret spot, Ambonnay. They ordered glasses and half glasses of Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle, 2009 Vilmart Coeur de Cuvée, and other sparkling wines that should not, according to the order of things in the universe, be poured in such small quantities. At a bar. By the train tracks.
A couple of days later, just a mile away, yet more merrymakers gathered at Pix Pâtisserie, a quirky space that doubles as the sherry-and-tapas spot Bar Vivant. Located on a busy city street in a squat, ketchup-red building with its own pétanque court and Pinot Noir vines trellised out front, it doesn’t look, at first glance, like it could be a five-time winner of The World of Fine Wine’s award for Best Champagne & Sparkling Wine List in the World. But the wine list at Pix is indeed 450 cuvées strong, 12 months out of the year.
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On this Sunday afternoon, attendees at the Bubbly Spectacular tasted through 60 sparkling wines from 16 nations, and rare Champagnes, such as the 2002 Gaston Chiquet Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs d’Aÿ out of magnum. This being Portland, the partygoers also strutted around the room to songs like “Push It,” wearing offbeat festive vintage garb. And they cheered as executive chef and owner—and noted pâtissier—Cheryl Wakerhauser went through three costume changes and offered spirited sabering demonstrations.
Ambonnay and Pix are just two of Portland’s many wellsprings of Champagne. The wine bar Canard and restaurants such as Coquine and Davenport also boast killer lists. Oregon Wines on Broadway, a mainstay tasting room and bottle shop downtown, has been offering a different grower Champagne flight every Friday and Saturday for 16 years now. Says owner Kate Bolling, “I have a small problem with my Champagne addiction.”
At Willamette Wine Storage, where collectors keep their treasure troves and gather regularly to taste together, the finest sparkling wines can be found in virtually every locker. Once a month, thematic Wine Wednesday gatherings at the facility’s private bar are devoted to Champagne; Krug and Salon are as popular as grower Champagnes among this tony group. “When I first started Wine Wednesdays, whatever the theme was, it inevitably transitioned into bubbles later on. I finally said, ‘Let’s just make the last Wednesday of every month bubbles night,’” says owner John Olmstead with a shrug.
Another valuable source of Champagne in Portland, the retailer Liner & Elsen, which was founded in 1990 by Bob Liner and Matt Elsen, lists nine pages of Champagnes on its website. And Caveau Selections imports grower Champagnes directly to consumers, many of whom flock to its warehouse parties twice a year.
Portland, in short, is Valhalla for Champagne lovers.
“I travel frequently to New York, San Francisco, and Chicago, and in my opinion, Portland has the best Champagne selection,” says Julie Gulla, a wine collector who works in finance and is an aficionado of grower-producers like Cédric Bouchard and Pascal Doquet. “For years now, enthusiasts in Portland have been dedicated to finding and sourcing fantastic Champagnes.”
A Thirst for Quality
“Portland’s access today is second to none, not only in the United States but in the world, when it comes to the finest and hardest-to-find bottles of Champagne,” says Portland retailer Ed Paladino of E&R Wine Shop, repeating Gulla’s sentiment. “Virtually every visiting Champagne producer makes mention of this.”
How did this city come to offer such a cornucopia of Champagne? Insiders point to a few key players who’ve moved the market. Liner and Elsen are two of them—the founders of the eponymous retail shop introduced local enophiles to boutique Champagne houses such as Agrapart and Guy Charlemagne in the early 1990s, before the rest of the U.S. was aware of them. They also stocked labels like Taittinger, Bollinger, Krug, and Ruinart as a matter of course.
Liner and Elsen sold their retail business and started the wholesale firm Galaxy Wine Company in 1999, with Martine’s Wines as an original import partner (Galaxy was acquired in June 2018 by Wilson Daniels). Within a year of launching, Galaxy had landed the Terry Theise Champagne portfolio, and a local wine writer named Matt Kramer was championing the small producers the firm was bringing in.
Then there was Peter Liem, a young Champagne enthusiast who, long ago, worked in retail with his friend Brian Martin at Liner & Elsen (Martin is now a portfolio manager at Galaxy). In 2002, Liem and Martin and another partner, Jeremy Karp, opened a sophisticated Pearl District wine bar, Vigne, with a glassed-in wine wall that was stacked to the gills with grower Champagne, although no one was really using that term yet.
“Champagne was a special project of mine,” recalls Liem, “as I had already begun a deep dive into the region, which at the time was undergoing the beginnings of the profound change that has marked its contemporary era. Apart from a healthy collection of prestige cuvées, our extensive Champagne list was entirely grower oriented, which was unheard of at the time, and the consumer response was terrific.”
The Ripple Effect
Thanks to Vigne, as well as Liner & Elsen, Champagne’s big guns and growers all became aware that Portland was a uniquely committed market. “We did vertical tastings of Salon, Cristal, and Krug, and frankly, the economics of the time allowed for us to do this in a manner that was affordable,” says Martin. “Today’s prestige cuvée pricing would make [such tastings] prohibitively expensive, which really was not the ethos of what we were trying to do.”
Boutique distributors—who seem to grow up like weeds in Portland—had a habit of going to Vigne and asking the partners which small Champagne labels they should be representing. A key player at the time, Triage, is sadly no longer on the scene, but today Casa Bruno, Estelle Imports, PDX Wines, Petit Monde Wine Merchant, Prufrock, and Vin De Garde all push Champagne.
And all exist in the celestial orbit of Galaxy, whose book currently includes 32 unique Champagne producers, thanks in large part to relationships cultivated by Brian Martin during his many trips to France over the years. “There are other wholesalers nationwide who sell more volume, of course,” says Liem, “but it’s difficult to assemble a collection of Champagne as impressive as Galaxy’s, from both growers and houses, under one roof.”
“This year at La Fête du Champagne in New York, out of the 22 or so Champagne producers showing their best, Galaxy represented 12 of the them,” says Liner, the firm’s founder and president. “We feel we’ve taken a top place in the world of Champagne. We’re proud of our achievement.”
Many of the above firms, including Galaxy, also direct-import Champagne, often at the behest of the retailer E&R Wine Shop, which regularly hosts visiting growers like Pierre Péters, Chartogne-Taillet, Cédric Bouchard, and Emmanuel Lassaigne. The shop’s co-owner, Ed Paladino, and his associates have a habit of nosing around Europe twice a year, and they ask local Portland importers to bring in their finds. For a decade, E&R’s Stephanie Sprinkle (now with RedHen Collective) led the charge in Champagne. “She is an extraordinary, world-class wine talent and a genuine guru of Champagne,” Paladino says. “Through Stephanie’s work, producers like Eric Rodez, Benoît Lahaye, Benoît Marguet, Pascal Doquet, and Christophe Mignon came into Oregon—or even the USA—for the first time ever.”
The Ties That Bind
The result: Thanks to strong relationships, forged over decades, Portland enjoys VIP access to fine French bubbles. “We get lion’s share allocations that are far bigger than the size of the city [would suggest],” says David Speer, Ambonnay’s owner. “Pierre Péters is super allocated in other cities. Here, we get tons of it because we’ve been buying it for so long. A city like Chicago, that’s late to the game, is stuck fighting over the scraps.”
When I ask Speer how his quirky little Champagne bar by the train tracks survives—no, thrives—Speer points out that his rent is a lot lower than what he’d pay in San Francisco or New York. His liquor license must cost a lot less, too. But Speer also credits Champagne fanatics like Liem, Martin, and Sprinkle, who, with a certain Portlandian disregard for the status quo, established strong ties with Champagne producers early on.
“In most places, a producer like Savart comes through a larger distributor. Here, Galaxy direct-imports it,” Speer explains. “In most markets, you couldn’t pour Savart by the glass. Here, L’Accomplie is something like $42 (per bottle) wholesale, where you might see it for $60 in other markets. Here, because Brian and the Galaxy crew got to Savart so early, we have a huge amount. It’s not as precious as it would be in other markets, where it’s super allocated.”
Reflecting on Portland’s Passion for Bubbles
Still, despite all that history, laid-back Portland seems an odd match for Champagne fanaticism. Its population (including suburbs) is roughly a quarter of that of the Bay Area, and a ninth of that of greater New York City. It’s not noted for hosting black-tie galas on a par with, say, Dallas or Chicago. And unlike Seattle or Boston, Portland does not boast a concentration of particularly high net worth individuals.
None of the big-name Champagne importers—Terry Theise/Skurnik, Kermit Lynch, Robert Kacher/Domaine Select, Louis/Dressner Selections, Thomas Calder Selections, Wine Traditions, Martine’s Wines—is based here. Prestige cuvée release events do not happen here. And it’s hard to imagine an elegant event like La Fête du Champagne working here; Portland’s idea of a party is a naked bike ride.
And so, while Portlandians readily celebrate with Champagne, we don’t treat it as something precious. We like to drink our Champagne casually, by the glass pour—at Ambonnay, where the floors are concrete and trains rattle by, and at Pix, where the wallpaper is boudoir-red velvet jacquard and there’s a constant flow of foot traffic from the sidewalk, thanks to glass cases filled with fine modern French desserts and Basque-style pintxos, which are eaten standing up.
In Pix, Wakerhauser has created a space where Champagne is treated as a staple, as necessary to human existence as air. She characterizes her Champagne list as “anything interesting, rare, and off-the-cuff” and features Special Club bottlings, for example. What about Dom, or Krug, or Taittinger, or Veuve Clicquot, I ask. “I don’t have any of those,” replies Wakerhauser. “I think you get a better value with small producers. You aren’t paying a premium for a winery that’s also making handbags.”
Portlandians will pay for quality. We won’t pay for glitz. You can see it in the way we dress. Portland apparel brands—like Pendleton—turn out timeless, durable goods that will no doubt look the same a century from now as they did a century ago; oversized jewels and designer logos come across as garish here. Saks Fifth Avenue’s Portland location went belly-up, its perfumes and—yes—handbags attracting little notice, but the ultra-understated (and arguably more expensive) Frances May is going gangbusters.
Similarly, Portlandians will take or leave a Grande Marque’s prestige cuvée. A friend recently asked a well-known somm in town—whom I won’t name, as I don’t want to jeopardize his wholesale relationships—if she should splurge on the 1999 Cristal. He responded with a sigh, a shrug, and a “Meh,” and then went on to talk up the less-expensive grower selections on his list. (Just imagine asking the same question of a somm in London or Hong Kong. I can guarantee you the answer would be, “Of course! Cristal is unquestionably the best!”)
“I like to think that growers are very much like the Oregon wineries,” says Liner. “Growers represent terroir and sustainability, and a lot [of them] are one-man shows … Oregon winemakers love their grower Champagne, too.”
We can relate in other ways as well. The winemakers of Champagne grow the grapes we know here: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and even some mighty fine Pinot Meunier. And here in the Willamette Valley, we know, like them, what it feels like to soldier through cold, damp weather half the year with the ultimate goal of vinifying and bottling something spectacular.
Perhaps we should start sending them Pendleton blankets.
Katherine Cole is the author of four books on wine, including Rosé All Day. She is also the executive producer and host of “The Four Top,” a James Beard Award–winning food-and-beverage podcast on NPR One. She is currently working on a fifth book, Sparkling Wine Anytime (Abrams), to be published in Fall 2020.