Though Randy Goodman could accurately describe himself as a restaurateur, esteemed sommelier, or wine educator, he sees his current station a bit differently: “It’s taken me thirty years to create a dishwasher/barback/janitor position for myself.” He sparkles a little when he says it, clearly pleased to have a place of his own where he can be the bartender’s assistant if he wants to.
Bar Avignon, which opened last October, occupies the space at SE 22nd and Division that housed a Mother’s Cookies factory in the 1930s, the Flying Saucer and, most recently, the Red and Black Cafe. It’s a classy, casual, inclusive place where Goodman hopes his customers feel equally comfortable ordering a “killer” bottle of expensive champagne or a dollar-fifty glass of Miller High Life. Miller might be surprising coming from a guy so serious about wine, but Goodman insists that sometimes, like after a long bike ride, it’s the perfect thirst-quencher. Enjoyment is key and absent, completely, is the feared snobbery often associated with high-end wine bars. He chuckles, “I’m not going to yell at you for holding your wine glass wrong.”
At the bottom of the guest checks, where most restaurants print Thanks! Come again!, the slips at Bar Avignon say Drinking is fun! Randy doesn’t encourage recklessness; he just thinks that having a glass of wine is, above all, a pleasure. And at his place it is, whether you come for a bottle of Oregon Pinot Noir and a slow-roasted pork panino or a beer and a nibble from Chef Chad Brown’s menu of small plates.
After much joking, Goodman tells me that he really does take his job, and the food and wine that he serves, very seriously. He stands behind each of the hundred bottles available at Bar Avignon, and that approval means something. Randy won’t push customers toward an expensive wine. Instead, he says, if someone comes in asking for a good forty-dollar bottle, he tries to find them something great for thirty-five. “All it takes is money to find really good wine,” he says, but the challenge, and one of his goals, is finding really good inexpensive wines that his customers will find value in.
When you enter Goodman’s place, you will see that the front counter is a delicate blue—one of the only painted objects in the bar, which is dominated by wood. The blue, he says, is the color of the sky outside of Avignon in the south of France. Randy and his partner, Nancy Hunt, spent a week there in 1992 and even now use the experience as a reminder of their values about food and community. It is common in that area, Randy says, for family and friends to gather for hours on Sunday afternoons for a large meal of simple, delicious foods and five or six bottles of wine. These afternoons enjoying a meal, good wine, and companionship are, for Goodman, what it’s all about. Creating a similarly comfortable, “nurturing” atmosphere is high among his ambitions for the young Bar Avignon.
The bar top, a thick slab of black walnut, was once a tree in Vancouver, Washington. After it came down on top of a barn in a windstorm, ECOpdx turned it into the beautiful bar in Randy’s place. The redwood railroad ties, poplar tables, and metal foot rails have likewise been recycled and re-purposed. Using reclaimed materials is one of the “small, simple things” Goodman does at Bar Avignon to reduce energy and resource consumption. He also serves filtered Portland water in recycled wine bottles (instead of the fancy European stuff) and makes produce pick-ups by bicycle.
Randy was born in Redwood City, California, and has lived all over the state. He made his way through the restaurant ranks the way every eager young person does, gaining his first sommelier job at The Hobbit in Orange, near Anaheim. “You know,” Randy says of the restaurant, holding his left hand about three feet from the ground, “like the little people.” In his late twenties, Goodman moved to San Francisco, where he worked at Carnelian Room as a sommelier, and Ashbury Market as a retail wine seller. He was mentored by his colleagues during the week and attended oenology and viticulture classes at UC Davis on the weekends. He worked and studied with a group of enthusiastic twenty-somethings, all trying to learn as much about wine as they could. His studies culminated in 1993 with his completion of the UK-based Guild of Master Sommelier’s advanced coursework.
In 1994, Goodman moved to Portland with Cory Schreiber, whom he met while at Cypress Club in San Francisco, and a group of friends to open Wildwood Restaurant. He spent the next decade managing the restaurant’s front end as well as its acclaimed wine list.
Goodman explains that the study of wine includes, well, everything. In order to keep this everything in mind, he recently visited Soter Vineyards in Carleton to help out during a crush. Spending a few days hosing out tanks and doing some heavy lifting helped remind him of what’s kept him passionate throughout his career: his fascination with the entire, complex process. Randy’s pursuit of wine knowledge includes study of the soil and the spacing of the plants in the vineyard. He knows what good, well-made wines are supposed to taste like, and, if you ask, he’ll explain how winemakers create such a brew. Wine study even includes, Randy tells me as he nods toward a shelf displaying half a dozen bottles, knowing how to design an attractive label.
For Randy, wine’s enduring appeal lies in the vastness of the subject and its constant evolution. There will always be an obscure grape to discover, or a new region where wine grapes haven’t been grown before. In Oregon, Goodman says, wines are getting better and more consistent in the fifteen years he’s been here. He’s especially excited by the wines being made in non-traditional areas like The Dalles and Applegate Valley. As winemaking in Oregon improves, he feels confident buying from some vineyards, such as Cristom in the Willamette Valley, every year.
Lately Randy has been focusing his energies on building Bar Avignon with Nancy, Chad, and their seven employees, but he’s still in the mix with the national food and wine scene. In April he’ll spend four days as a sommelier at Pebble Beach Food and Wine, catching up with old friends and pouring wines to accompany dishes from the likes of Jaques Pépin and Thomas Keller. In May, he’ll be a judge at Portland’s Indie Wine Festival in The Pearl.
Goodman gives a lot of credit to his colleagues in California for teaching him about wine. Now he feels it’s his happy duty to pass his knowledge along, both to his staff and to his customers. To this end, Randy hosts wine tastings on Saturday afternoons. Each week he chooses a theme—perhaps wines under twenty-five dollars, Spanish reds, or Pinot Noirs—and selects six from Bar Avignon’s list for the tasting.
The night before the December snowstorm begins, Goodman sets out a galvanized bucket full of ice and champagne bottles, palate-cleansing baguette slices, and a hardcover book opened to a map of the Champagne region in France. Glass tealights and acid jazz contribute to the warm, easygoing atmosphere in the place, as does Randy in his black t-shirt and jeans, his smile an invitation to join him for a sip. When guests come, he’ll talk with them about the soil and weather in the region and how both affect the flavors of these wines; or, if they’d prefer, Randy’s just as happy to simply let them try his selections to see what they like. “Sometimes,” he begins quietly, as if sharing a secret, “you’re just supposed to enjoy it.”
2138 SE Division St