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Inspired stories about artisan wine and taste makers.
by L.M. Archer FWS, Bourgogne ML
by L.M. Archer | FWS, Bourgogne ML
It all started in a home economics class back in upstate New York.
Today Charlie Palmer helms an award-winning array of restaurants and luxury resorts stretching from New York to Napa.
Here the Red Thread™ catches up with the peripatetic restaurateur and unabashed Pinot Noir lover to talk about his acquisition of the historic Harvest Inn in St. Helena, CA.
r/T ™: Your hospitality empire spans two coasts, from New York, Washington, DC and Las Vegas, to San Francisco, Healdsburg, and now Napa. What lured you into adding Harvest Inn to the Charlie Palmer Group portfolio?
CP: I’ve lived in Healdsburg for about twelve years now with my family, and as much as I’m partial to Sonoma County, I share the same feelings for the valley over the hill.
I’ve been looking for restaurant and / or hotel opportunities in Napa for many years and when my partners and I found out about the potential for the Harvest Inn, we jumped on taking over the property.
It’s incredible with it’s eight acres, vineyard fronting land, gardens, and now, of course, our new restaurant, Harvest Table. There isn’t anywhere else like it in wine country.
r/T ™: Talk about Pinot. Though New York born-and-bred, you headed to Healdsburg over a dozen years ago with your family, driven by your passion for Pinot Noir, a varietal some call ‘the diva of grapes,’ thin-skinned, temperamental, and high-maintenance. Any memorable pour that turned your head, and heart towards Pinot? Any remarkable Pinots that still haunt you? Any you still hope to try?
CP: I’ve always been a big fan of Pinots. They’re my favorite red and while they certainly are often described as fickle (or any of the descriptions you mention above), there is something that’s really dynamic about Pinot, but most of all, just so drinkable.
Every glass of Pinot you drink tastes different and is impacted not only by the grapes and winemaking process, but by the environment you’re drinking it in, and by the food you’re potentially pairing it with.
I think my favorite Pinot is Tom Rochioli’s. He and his family have been in the Pinot grape growing and winemaking game for so long and their Pinots just hit all the right notes.
r/T ™: When tackling a new project like the Harvest Inn, what best describes your style of management – maintaining a hand in all aspects of the project from start to finish, handling a specific portion, such as culinary, or do you prefer to lay out your ‘vision’ and hand-off the implementation to a team of experts’?
CP: I’m a hands on guy – always have been. I spend pretty much every weekday and every weeknight in one of our restaurants, whether here in St. Helena, in Healdsburg or in New York or Vegas. But, I also have great teams in place who are very good at their jobs that I can trust to see a project through.
I do work with our chefs, like Levi here at the Harvest, to taste dishes and talk about what works for this property in this particular season, but I let him really take the reins on developing the dishes and the menu.
r/T ™: What about the Bay Area, Sonoma and Napa appeals to you so much that you’ve invested so much of your time and treasure in the region?
CP: I’m from upstate New York and so is my wife. We met in New York City and both lived there for a long time (and still do about 50% of the time).
Sonoma and Napa have the farm town qualities of upstate New York, but with far better weather! It should come as no surprise that I love food and wine, and as we explored the west coast and moving out here with our family, we kept coming back to Healdsburg.
r/T ™: Talk about the design of Harvest Inn. What led you to come up with the unique ‘neighborhood’ layout, add the lofts, include a sculpture garden, and install working culinary gardens? What exactly does your ‘culinary horticulturist’ Laura McNiff do?
CP: When we bought the Harvest Inn in 2014, the possibilities for further developing the property seemed endless. The neighborhoods already existed, but we just renamed one of them (from Rose to The Grove).
The property is pretty big and the neighborhoods are small clusters of little cottages grouped together, but more than anything, they directionally help to guide people around the property. With the Harvest Lofts, we decided to take advantage of in incredibly (and overly) large office space and turn that into new guest rooms right above the new restaurant, hence the name loft.
Regarding the gardens, again, the property is eight acres and one of our main goals was restoring the landscapes here to the great glory they once were. We were interviewing Laura to be our head gardener and she and I came up with the idea of the five culinary gardens. We were all instantly (including Levi) enthralled with the idea and it’s just so fitting for our culinary team to be able to grow so much of what goes on the menu here.
r/T ™: Any defining moment when you knew you wanted to become a chef? Do you consider yourself a chef first, or an entrepreneur who just happened to get into the food and wine business? Any mentors or peers instrumental in helping you on your climb up?
CP: It was in my home economics class in high school. My teacher, Sharon Crane, is really the one that inspired me to thinking about cooking as a real potential career.
I’d say I’m a chef first, but I’ve always been entrepreneurial by nature. As an entrepreneur, I always like to tackle things with a hospitality perspective. My chef mentors are Leon Danon, Jean Jacque Rachout and then of course Buzzy O’Keefe from my time at the River Café.
r/T ™: Among your many accomplishments, you’ve been inducted into the American Academy of Chef’s Culinary Hall of Fame, named a James Beard Foundation ‘Best Chef’ New York Award winner, and earned many a Michelin star for Aureole New York and Las Vegas. Anything you’d still like to accomplish?
CP: I’d like to win a top hotel award! I think I’ve been really lucky and fortunate in my life and I like to say I’m a living proof of the American dream.
I just want to keep building successful restaurants and hotels and developing great chefs and managers. But, my big dreams now are for my four kids and what they’re going to do next.
r/T ™: Since moving to Healdsburg you’ve also expanded your culinary and luxury lodging holdings, contributed to a number of culinary and charitable organizations, and authored your sixth cookbook. How are you able to manage it all, and still have time to ‘smell the vineyard?”
CP: As I mentioned earlier, I am in the restaurants and hotels during the week, but the weekends are for family time and I really try to stick to that, no matter what. It’s important to me and it’s important to them.
I also think priorities have shifted a lot over the years and I try and make time for other things in my day, like a run in the morning and cooking dinner at home for my kids when I can.
r/T ™: Any words of wisdom to the many hospitality industry professionals reading this interview who are just starting out, or conversely, perhaps suffering burn-out?
CP: This industry is ever-evolving. There is no easy way, you’ve just got to keep your head down and continue to keep learning and keep trying new things.
Don’t look backwards and try and fix a mistake from the past, you can only move forward. And don’t ever make the same mistake twice!
r/T ™: Finally, if your experience building a culinary empire has taught you anything, it’s taught you…?
CP: Hospitality is king. We want people to feel at home in our restaurants. We want to identify their wants and needs before they have to ask for them. We want you to open the door to the bar at Harvest Table and have your drink waiting for you.
1 of 3-Part Series on Charlie Palmer
Part 2: Charlie Palmer | Sonoma
Part 3: Charlie Palmer | San Francisco
Chef Charlie Palmer
Christa Weaving | Charlie Palmer Group | Director of PR & Marketing
Shelby Nelson | Harvest Inn | Director of Guest Services
Colby Smith | CANVAS (Concierge Alliance of Napa Valley & Sonoma) | Executive Director, Founder
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