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 second of a two-part feature)
SlaveToTheGrape: If you had to sum up the spirit of your program there (at Farallon) how would you encapsulate that?
Pete Palmer: Besides it not being a cookie-cutter list with all the names that were out there I wanted it to be accessible. I knew it was going to be big, with a lot of depth and expensive at the top end but I wanted it to be accessible and fun. The layout was humorous with witty wine sayings as well as caricature/cartoonish fish and seafood images all over. I wanted it to be easy and fun to read but not intimidating. I also knew that we were going to have a page of Cabernet and Bordeaux but that it was going to be one page. I wanted to make sure that lighter-bodied reds were the focus of the list. So, there were two full pages of Pinot Noir, a page and a half of Burgundy, all kinds of lighter reds from Italy, Austria and other places like that. This is what I mean by speaking more to the restaurant and the food.
SlaveToTheGrape: What would you say are the biggest challenges as wine director of a major, North-American dining destination like Farallon?
Pete Palmer: Getting people to feel comfortable with the role of the sommelier. At that time in San Francisco the position was still quite new. These days there are many more opportunities but when Boulevard and Farallon opened not many restaurants had a full-time sommelier. It was important to make the guest comfortable with the sommelier and convey to them that we weren’t just out to sell them the most expensive bottle of wine but that we were going to give them something that they were going to enjoy even if it was something outside their usual realm of drinking. To make myself accessible, to kind of demystify wine and the role of the sommelier, that’s what I think was one of the most important parts of my job and sometimes one of the most challenging.
SlaveToTheGrape: While at Farallon you launched PinotFest, a highly successful, tasting-event (now in its 15th year) that would prove to be one of the most anticipated, annual showcases for Pacific coast Pinot Noir in the US. What inspired you to develop this event and why did you choose to showcase this particular varietal?
Pete Palmer: There is a long history there as well. When I first moved to San Francisco some friends took me out for dinner for my birthday in 1990. My buddy ordered a bottle of 1988 Kent Rasmussen Pinot Noir from Carneros. This is back when Carneros was kind of the “it” place for Pinot Noir before the Sonoma coast, before Santa Barbara county. I stuck my nose in the glass and was hooked. It was unlike anything I had ever smelled and tasted – I freakin’ loved it! That started my infatuation with and love of Pinot Noir. When we opened up Farallon I knew the variety was going to have an important place on the wine list from Oregon and California and worldwide and it did. So I just continued my love affair with the grape and turning people onto the wines through my position.
At Farallon there are three, private, dining rooms upstairs. I was on a hike one day with some friends in Santa Barbara County and started talking about my love of Pinot Noir and wanting to do something outside of just selling it at the restaurant. So, over time, we developed the idea for PinotFest which is a two-day celebration of west coast Pinot Noir. There’s a trade tasting one day followed by a big, industry dinner for all the visiting winemakers and then the next day is the gala blowout for the public. It’s a big walk-around party and tasting. Everyone pours a couple of Pinot Noir. We started with forty-four producers and now we’re up to about fifty-six. There’s a whole lot of Pinot Noir to taste. Farallon serves a bunch of hors d’oeuvres and fancy, passed snacks and it’s a huge party – it’s a blast! It happens the Friday and Saturday before Thanksgiving.
SlaveToTheGrape: After over ten years as wine director at Farallon you decided to take some time off from the industry in 2010. What did you find out about yourself during this “sabbatical” and did it change your perspective on wine, food and your place in the profession?
Pete Palmer: After fourteen years at the helm at Farallon I was ready for a change. I was ready to hand the reins to my successor. I still love working the floor. I love the live theater of restaurant service but I had done the sixty-five hours a week of humping boxes, stocking, punching the holes for thousands and thousands of wine lists. So, I resigned as the wine director of Farallon in August of 2010, took some time off and then came back to the city and am helping out at both Farallon and our sister restaurant, Water Bar as a sommelier on the floor selling wine and working dinner service. I have also been doing work with some private companies around town, i.e., Wines of Portugal, Full Circle Wine Solutions – some creative things outside the restaurant business but still wine and food focused.
SlaveToTheGrape: Finally, on your impressive, vinous journey you have inspired many through your creativity, passion and commitment to seeking out the most true-to-place and expressive examples of the vine. In a few words, tell us what it is about wine that speaks to you.
Pete Palmer: I love how the single subject of wine is made up of so many elements – chemistry, history, art, geology, geography, climate, botany. There’s food, taste, and senses of smell. There’s so much wrapped up in a bottle of wine – I love it! It’s like a little time capsule. There’s artistry, poetry and science and it’s just fascinating to me – not to mention that it’s a delicious drink.
Slave to the grape – worse fates there have been!