At Ambonnay with Owner David Speer and DC Connoisseur Conrad Kenley
Portland is an interesting city. It's nicknames range from "Stumptown" to "The Rose City." I'm not sure they're looking for more names, but if they were I'd be tempted to propose "Champagne USA." I love good champagne--and I've never seen as much of it in one place as I did in Portland. Two outlets lead the way--both wine bars that also sell retail: Ambonnay and Pix Patisserie. My trip to IPNC gave me the opportunity to visit both.
David Speer is the owner and host at Ambonnay (named for the famous grand cru village in Champagne). It's a wine bar focused on sparkling wines (primarily, but not exclusively, champagne) located near the tracks and river in downtown Portland (incidentally, if anyone's confused by the inconsistent capitalization, I generally use a capital "C" for the region, a small "c" for the wine). David has been recognized as one of America's top sommeliers--and certainly one of the most knowledgeable about champagne. Ambonnay has won its own awards--including being cited by Food & Wine as one of America's 25 coolest places to drink wine. My opinion--all the recognition is well deserved.
Ambonnay is small and rustic--with the kind of casual warmth and personality that small places can sometimes achieve. With three or four tables plus seats at the small bar, you almost have the feel that you're at a cocktail party with friends rather than at a bar with strangers. And David is a very gracious host. While that makes visits more enjoyable, there are lots of friendly hosts...what makes David special is his knowledge of champagne, his focus on it and his relationships with producers that allow him to find and offer fabulous new discoveries--as well as cult bottlings that sell out in other markets in days (if not hours). I'll resist the temptation to describe each bottle we enjoyed there (they were really good). In a perfect world, I'd live down the street from Ambonnay, and would be able to drop in once or twice a week to see what new find David is pouring. I don't--but perhaps that makes my once a year visits more special.
But you don't have to be in Portland to capitalize on David's expertise. He sells champagne online at his website: www.ambonnaycellars.com. You'll find some wonderful champagnes on there--both grower and grand marque ('96 Krug, anyone?). And if those don't move your spirit (unlikely as that may be), talk to David. A few of the most special bottles don't get posted on the site. Two years in a row, I've bought a bottle of 1990 J. Lassalle Special Club from him to take to IPNC. The only word I can think of to describe it: stunning. The best champagne--maybe the best wine--I've ever had...an incredible combination of energy, focus and complexity. Sadly, I know of no more bottles for sale (I'll keep looking). But I trust David to find more special champagnes.
Amazingly, Ambonnay is not the only iconic champagne bar in Portland. If Ambonnay is unusual because of its laser focus on champagne, Pix Patisserie is unusual because it's not exactly focused on champagne--in fact, it's a bakery! That's right. A bakery. Owner Cheryl Wakerhauser is a serious pastry chef who trained under one of the most prestigious chefs in France. This year at IPNC, Cheryl created the dessert for the Grand Dinner--a gorgeous looking and tasting confection called Purple Rain (one of the year's more unusual tributes to Prince). When you visit Pix during the day (as I did), it's simply a bakery. But Cheryl's other love is champagne--and when the sun goes down, the bakery turns into a wine bar. A wine bar that has been recognized by World of Fine Wine magazine as having the "World's Best Champagne and Sparkling Wine List" three years in a row. World's best. At any given time, she has ~350 different champagnes on the list! And you don't have to sit in the bakery/wine bar to drink them. She also sells them to go.
Just one example of the treasures available at Pix. Special club champagnes are hard to find. In all of DC, I know of only one shop that I've ever seen have any to sell--Cork Market, the retail outlet associated with Cork Wine Bar. Diane has several there (and I visit to pat them now and then). At Pix, Cheryl has a whole page! One of the best champagnes I've ever had is the 2008 Marc Hébrart Special Club--a wine I first discovered when famous importer Terry Theise served it at a memorable dinner in Boston. Cheryl not only had it, she had it in 1.5L magnums as well as in the normal 750ML bottles (and yes, it was great).
I look forward to the champagnes during my IPNC trips almost as much as the pinots. Portland may be Stumptown to some of its residents. It's Champagnetown to me!