While San Francisco has been synonymous with gastronomy and fine wine for some time, at the end of the last century, back in the heady days of the dot.com boom, a veritable explosion of newly-minted, passionate and dedicated food and wine professionals moved the region to a new level. Of the many sommeliers/gastronomes to have left an indelible mark on the city -by-the-bay is the former wine director of both Boulevard and Farallon – two of San Francisco’s groundbreaking dining destinations. I recently caught up with the inimitable Pete Palmer to ask him about his vinous journey.
(This is the first of a two-part feature)
SlaveToTheGrape: You have been a fixture on the hospitality scene in San Francisco for many years yet you hail from outside of California originally. When did you first land in the Golden State and was your move west motivated by a desire to be a part of the late-eighties wine and food revolution taking root in northern California?
Pete Palmer: Yes, I did in fact land in California in January 1988. I had been in the restaurant biz all my life. I think my first job was bussing tables at the Mark One restaurant in Cleveland Ohio. I was a dishwasher, short order cook, line cook and then got into waiting tables and bartending in Cincinnati. I spent a year traveling around. I was down in St. Thomas for the tourist season, up on Cape Cod…landed back in Cleveland around Christmas. This would have been 1987. While I was traveling, two of my good friends had moved out to San Francisco. I called them one day from Cleveland and they said get your ass out here. So I packed up a bag and flew out to San Francisco. It’s now 25 years later and I still call the bay area home. It was adventure that brought me here. I was already a bartender and a server and I knew that San Francisco was one of the ground zeros for American food and the restaurant industry. I did not catch the wine bug until I moved out here but it happened very quickly.
SlaveToTheGrape: I first met you in the waning years of the twentieth century in your role as wine director for Pat Kuleto’s highly acclaimed restaurant, Farallon. Prior to that you worked in the company of chef Nancy Oakes at her benchmark, San Francisco culinary establishment, Boulevard. Was this where you got your start in the industry?
Pete Palmer: I opened up Boulevard in 1993 as a bartender then got involved in the wine program with Lori Theis who was the operations manager. Richard Miyashiro was the acting general manager at that time. From behind the bar I started to do some stocking, ordering and helped Lori with inventory. She was the one who put the wine list together. When Richard moved onto open up Farallon with Pat, Lori moved into his shoes. They needed someone to take over the wine program, she offered it to me and that’s when I stepped out from behind the bar and became their first, full-time sommelier. From there I immediately took the certificate course for the Court of Master Sommeliers and then an advanced service course at the Sterling School of Service and Hospitality which some of us old folks may remember.
SlaveToTheGrape: When you joined Boulevard what was the profile of the wine program and to what extent did you become involved with that program over time?
Pete Palmer: Little by little Lori taught me everything she knew about the shipping/receiving department that is running a wine program – invoicing, ordering, how to change the wine list, staff education, working the floor. I learned on the job but certainly with her guidance. Over time I took on more responsibilities and then from there jumped ship to open up my own program and design it from the bottom up when Farallon opened in 1997.
SlaveToTheGrape: In what year did you transition to Farallon and were you tasked with developing and overseeing the wine program in the new restaurant from the outset?
Pete Palmer: Lori and I both went over along with the bar manager, Michael Musil. The three of us with the opening management staff developed all the programs for Farallon. The wine program was mine.
SlaveToTheGrape: How did you approach this new role and did you feel that you were constrained in your wine selections in any way given the intensely seafood-focused menu that is at the core of the restaurant’s identity?
Pete Palmer: No, not at all. A couple of factors come into play. It was a very high-profile restaurant. Mark Franz is of course the owner/chef. He goes back to the original Stars days with Jeremiah (Tower) in the early and mid-eighties. So he’s been a name and a force in the restaurant community in San Francisco for thirty years. Then of course there’s Pat Kuleto, the design right on Union Square – a big, fancy, seafood restaurant and then of course the late nineties when you couldn’t spend enough money. All these factors came together. San Francisco was booming with the dotcoms, it was out of control. It was a huge, high profile restaurant opening so I didn’t have any constraints or fears about not being able to design the list I wanted. My biggest concern – and I told Mark and Lori this when I sat down to apply for the job – was that I wanted to create a wine list that spoke to the restaurant; one that you couldn’t just pick up and plop down at any restaurant but something that spoke to Farallon, to coastal cuisine, to the primarily seafood oriented menu and that was at the same time big and splashy. It was going to be expensive but also have some great values and a big wine-by-the-glass program…to be continued
Slave to the grape – worse fates there have been!