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Local celebrity chefs lending their brands to wineries

Stop in at Bricoleur Vineyards in Windsor these days and you may see some unexpected celebrities: James Beard Award-winning chefs Charlie Palmer and Nate Appleman, busy in the winery kitchen.

Swing by the new Mill District work site in Healdsburg and you might run into Three Michelin star SingleThread chef Kyle Connaughton, working with SingleThread wine director Rusty Rastello on a wine and food program being formed for the upcoming residential community.

And if you had popped in at Flowers Vineyards & Winery in Healdsburg this past summer, you might have caught a glimpse of celebrity chef Tyler Florence. He was in the house to put together a months-long “Flowers & Florence” picnic package showcasing some of his signature dishes like fried chicken and mac ‘n’ cheese.

No, the chefs haven’t changed their day jobs. These entrepreneurs are top culinary talents lending their names and a bit of their time to upscale projects outside their own restaurants.

High-end chefs working at Napa and Sonoma County wineries is nothing new. In December, E. & J. Gallo Winery hired Michelin-rated chef Aaron Meneghelli for their Louis M. Martini Winery in St. Helena and J Vineyards & Winery in Healdsburg, drawing on his previous careers working with the former acclaimed Redd in Yountville, Angèle in Napa and the former luxury Calistoga Ranch.

Bricoleur, too, started with a similar plan when it debuted in March of 2020, before having to close when COVID-19 kicked in. The winery had lured executive chef Shane McAnelly away from his leadership roles at Chalkboard and Brass Rabbit restaurants in Healdsburg (hampered by on-again, off-again pandemic rules surrounding tastings and wineries, he left a year later for a new job in North Carolina).

Yet what’s different now for chefs like Palmer and Connaughton is that they are working as consultants, loaning out their valuable brands while continuing to operate their own enterprises.

The Charlie Palmer Collective, for example, runs 13 restaurants and rooftop bars across New York, Healdsburg, Napa, Reno, Las Vegas and Washington, D.C.

For winery chefs, whether they are consultants or employees, the work balances a fine line. Technically, by law, only a handful of California wineries are allowed to have full-service restaurants, due to permit restrictions. But local wineries can offer gourmet “bites” with flights of wine for “educational” purposes.

“We are not a restaurant. We are just doing food and wine pairings,” said Bricoleur Vineyards founder Mark Hanson. “So when you come and do a tasting, we have a full culinary and food service license, which took about two-and-a-half years to get. That’s what the county will allow; we are not an ad hoc restaurant.”

Still, for the typical consumer, these meticulously curated meals can feel as elaborate as a wine-paired restaurant experience. In late October, Palmer and Appleman launched a Bricoleur program called Rooted, as a six-course seated feast ($95) that they will change seasonally.

And in December, the winery kicked things up another notch, hiring full-time executive chef Thomas Bellec to help co-direct Rooted, along with a new dinner series called The Seasons, launching suppers celebrating themes like Valentine’s Day, Mid-Summer Night and Harvest. Bellec previously worked with Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts for 18 years.

The Rooted tastings require restaurant-caliber staffing. Bricoleur chef Evan Castro and winemaker Cary Gott work with Palmer, Appleman, Bellec and management such as Hanson and Chris Richard, Bricoleur sales and hospitality manager . The menu is elaborate, emphasizing produce grown on the 39-acre estate. And dishes and accompanying wines are presented in great detail by polished servers plus Castro himself visiting each table.

Guests are greeted with a glass of North Coast Brut sparkling wine, then they settle in on the terrace next to the swan pond to learn that the first course of 2020 Estate rosé of pinot noir comes from a 777 clone and is chosen to “highlight the savory, creamy characteristics” of the paired goat cheese panna cotta studded with pink peppercorns under pistachio crumble and estate olive oil.

To create the menus, Palmer and Appleman swoop in with ideas like marinating short ribs in Estate-grown pinot noir grapes. Gott offers his thoughts, too — Jamaican jerk carrot with grapefruit and chives over the top and carrot puree underneath, for example, is tweaked specifically for its wine pairing.

“Traditionally, you want that jerk recipe spicy with Scotch bonnet chiles and clove and anise,” Castro said. “But we took the Scotch bonnets out and replaced them with tamarind concentrate to make it more acidic and tangy to match with our unoaked Chardonnay.”

Over at the Mill District, SingleThread’s Connaughton is working with the property’s architecture and interior design teams to create branded food, wine and entertainment spaces in the luxury residences, including chef’s kitchens and culinary gardens. For the highest-end penthouses and garden homes, the SingleThread team will consult personally with each homeowner on custom layouts.

“My favorite aspect of any kitchen is the way you can interact with your family and friends and guests while you’re preparing a meal,” Connaughton said. “Making kitchens more intimate, making it so that the person cooking can be part of the group — those are some ideas we’ll be working on.”

SingleThread’s Rastello, meanwhile, will meet with Mill District homeowners to help them build wine collections and determine the best wine storage methods.

At Flowers, Florence isn’t revising his picnic package this year, but winery management is seeking new, well-known chefs for the coming season. This past fall, they brought in Bryant Terry, a James Beard award-winning vegan chef, food justice activist and author, to cook for guests.

“We currently are forming our partnerships for the rest of this year,” said Estate marketing manager Adam Wallace. “We have a few potentials in the works. When we lock them down, we’ll let people know.”

For Palmer, his title as “culinary adviser” suits the Healdsburg resident just fine. After earning 13 Michelin stars and two James Beard awards since opening his inaugural Aureole in Manhattan in 1988, he isn’t looking to take on huge personal projects these days, he said.

“The older I get, I will only do things for people I like,” he said. “There’s lots of young talent at Bricoleur. Just look at the place, too — it’s very special. And I live nearby, so it’s convenient.”

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