Award-Winning Chef, Hotelier and Entrepreneur

By Chef Charlie Palmer

Even as a young chef, I was always as interested in wine as much as food, and spent so much time composing wine lists to compliment my Progressive American cooking, that my staff referred to me as a “sommelier in a chef’s coat.” That passion never left me, and wine continues to plays a pivotal role in all of my restaurants. Over the years, I’ve worked hard to create great wine programs, garnering consistent Wine Spectator Grand Awards and many of the other top wine accolades throughout the industry. I also take enormous pride in the way wine lives in my restaurants, from Aureole Las Vegas, where the entrance staircase wraps around a four-story, temperature and humidity-controlled glass and steel “wine tower” holding over 50,000 bottles, to its counterpart, Aureole New York, where a temperature-controlled enclosed glass wine mezzanine room is cantilevered over the dining room, storing wine on bays of backlit acrylic units, giving the enclosure a unique glow.  So one of the hardest questions I am asked is to pick my favorite wine. The possibilities are endless. But although I was a Burgundy devotee in my early years as a chef, I’ve now developed a special fondness for Pinot Noir, particularly as I now live in Sonoma County, where the pinot noir grape, originally from the Burgundy region of France, makes its most significant American home, due to the cool, foggy growing climate. Pinot Noir is an incredibly versatile and very food friendly wine: rich and velvety, it has a boundless ability to pair with all sorts of food, from soft to spicy. I think that’s what makes it work so well for our evolving food scene, with more and more local products finding their way onto the table, and our melting-pot style of cooking that gives global influence cuisine a distinctive American stamp. Pinots couple well with shellfish, tender steak cuts, and pastas, but my favorite Pinot pairing will always be pork. At Charlie Palmer Steak, order any of our terrific Sonoma County Pinots with Chef Steve Blandino’s signature Caesar Salad, where the romaine hearts are wrapped in prosciutto and served with a dressing that’s slightly accented by white anchovies.

Although Pinot Noir first started showing up on the American table in the mid-sixties and seventies, sales catapulted through the roof after the wine “starred” in the 2004 film, “Sideways”, in which the main character, Miles, (played by Paul Giamatti), an unsuccessful writer and wine-aficionado, takes his soon-to-be-married actor friend on a road trip through California’s wine country. Miles speaks endlessly of his love for Pinot Noir because, “It’s a hard grape to grow. It’s not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and thrive, even when it’s neglected. And, in fact, it can only grow in these really specific, little tucked-away corners of the world. And only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression.”

That’s one of the things that makes this wine so special. Every year I celebrate that fact at my annual Pigs & Pinot® event, held at Dry Creek Kitchen in Hotel Healdsburg, smack dab in the heart of North Sonoma County wine country, a place I like to use as a showcase for regional wines. Tickets go on sale in mid-January and sell out in a heartbeat. To find out more, visit What started out as a small event designed to support Healdsburg’s St. John’s School and Share Our Strength (S.O.S.), an organization committed to ending childhood hunger in the U.S., has become a sold-out happening, in which I invite world-renowned chefs and winemakers to celebrate the flavors of pork and Pinot Noir. It’s a swine and wine festival of demonstrations, seminars and great meals, culminating in our blind tasting from the world’s top wineries and wine regions, with the winner awarded the coveted Pinot Cup. The pairings naturally change from year to year, because Pinot Noir is an extremely temperamental grape. But that’s what makes the wine exciting and interesting to me. As a lifelong wine lover, I tend to stay focused on the idea that wine, no matter how sublime, is a product of agriculture and should have a relationship to the earth that produced it. So who knows what we can expect? I like to take every vintage for what it is, constantly looking forward to the next harvest and a new year in Pinot Noir. —Charlie

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