In a city filled with myriad craft breweries, it’s sometimes hard to find a man that loves wine more than beer. But fear not, dear reader, they do exist. Enter David Speer, owner of Ambonnay, a sparkling-wine bar named after a picturesque Grand Cru village in Champagne. An 11-year veteran of the food and beverage industry, Speer only became a bubbly connoisseur a decade ago. Since late 2011, he has operated his Portland, Oregon, Mecca to bubbles—the only bar of its kind in the United States—with the intent on making Champagne accessible to everyone. With this egalitarian attitude and a revolving list of small producers, he’s succeeded. The Manual recently sat down with Speer for a Q & A.
Why did you open a Champagne and sparkling wine bar in Portland of all places?
Portland, unfortunately, isn’t known for its wine and it should be. We have a great wine culture here and the consumers here are open to lots of interesting and esoteric wines, especially if they are a good value. I opened this Champagne bar because I love Champagne and we have a lot of really good importers here with some of the best selections of Champagne in America.
How do you select the wines for your list since you rotate your stock a lot?
One, I work with small producers and worldwide demand for a lot of their wines is high so we only get so much. Beyond those logistics, I want to keep the list fresh. Being a small place focused on only one thing, it can get stagnate. I don’t have a strict set of rules on where it has to be from, I just really want top quality wines, whether it be a grand marc or from a smaller negotiant or cooperative. I just want it to be a great wine with a price that is appropriate.
Not everything is Champagne, however. I have some great Austrian and Italian sparklers and French sparklers that are not from Champagne.
Do you think the average drinker in Portland is hesitant to try wine because they are intimidated by it or because they are beer drinkers? What have you done to get them to try wine?
There are a lot of people who are really into wine and part of that is because of the Willamette Valley [an hour’s drive away]. When I was in New York a few months ago, there were places with great lists and I thought Portland pretty much stood shoulder to shoulder with them. Here, a lot of it is getting people to try Champagne for the first time. A lot of people have had Cooks or another low-grade sparkler and they’ve developed headaches and they say, “that’s Champagne and I hate it. It’s too sweet.” Part of it is getting the Champagne in their mouths. A lot of guests don’t know a lot about Champagne. They know they like it but they don’t know much more about it. Part of it is making it accessible and not being snooty. A lot of places are snooty restaurants or clubs that are trying to be exclusive. I have tried to make it accessible, not just price wise, but by allowing them to have fun and not being snobby.
You were recently named one of the top-10 sommeliers in the country by Food & Wine magazine. How did that come about?
Back in the October 2012 issue, they included Ambonnay as one of the 25 coolest places in America to drink wine. They were putting together a selection of top sommeliers in 2013. I think their focus was on sommeliers who were pushing boundaries and doing new and interesting things and I guess Ambonnay was on their radar. It was a pretty amazing list of people.