Doon with the Ship: A Restauration Adventure
It broke my heart to close the restaurant. Actually, my heart was broken many times over in the course of the life of Restaurant Le Cigare Volant, Cellar Door. We had built the most extraordinary tasting room at the winery facility on Ingallsstrasse—did you see the great airship, fashioned after Jules Verne?—after selling the old, original winery facility and tasting room up in Bonny Doon.I had really thought that a complete decampment from our mountain aerie there would be a clever move. We hadn’t really used the winery building as a proper production facility in years. The old place, and it’s primarily the tasting room I’m talking about, once a biker bar called The Lost Weekend Saloon, was filled with magical charm, and history—our history. But it had its share of structural issues, to be sure: foundation pretty sketchy, septic even sketchier. ((We had famously run afoul of County regs and touchy neighbors when we had once done a series of al fresco acoustic events; that was more than a little traumatic. There was also the instance of an employee failing to properly set a diversion valve that resulted in about 60 gallons of red(!!) grape juice going down the creek; that led to the Dept. of Fish and Game coming out and issuing me a citation. While not wishing to minimize the incident (I am quite warm and fuzzy on the subject of protecting the environment), there was a certain Alice’s Restaurant-like aspect to this whole episode. “Whatcha’ in for, kid?” “Grape juice.”)) It had been a real pain in the neck to operate the winery building as a production facility—we needed to schlep the wastewater offsite for disposal, and after the Piercèd Estate Vineyard was sold, that was proving to be somewhat of a logistic nightmare. ((Our great Estate Vineyard in Bonny Doon was afflicted with Pierce’s Disease in the early 1990s, infected by a less voracious insect vector (blue-green sharpshooter) than the monster, glassy-winged sharpshooter that had been more recently discovered. It seems that I greatly overreacted in selling off this wonderful estate, but the specter of re-infection with Pierce’s was just far too frightening to me at the time. In retrospect, this was an extremely shortsighted move, to put it mildly.))
So, I sold the old place not long after I had sold off the large brands, Big House and Cardinal Zin. My thinking was that we could now get our customers closer to the wine—where we actually made the stuff. ((Obviously, my first choice would be to locate the winery directly proximal to a magnificent Estate vineyard and show our customers the things we did that really differentiated the wine we would be making. Winemaking is itself relatively banal, at least compared to grape-growing, and where’s the real thrill, après tout, if you can’t descend into a cold, dark and musty cave? Nevertheless, it is a great opportunity to taste the wines in barrel, a thrill for many, as well as observe some of the unique aspects of our élevage, most particularly the Great Wall of Bonbonnes.)) The Westside of Santa Cruz where the winery is located is in a slightly funky part of town—industrial chic, I’ve been told. But there had already been some glimmerings of gentrification. Housing prices had gone way up, and these modest abodes had become populated by long-boarders (aka arriviste Old Guys) who worked in start-up companies in Silicon Valley. We saw the welcome arrival of a first-rate bakery, (Kelly’s), and soon thereafter, a great butcher (El Salchichero), and then the sudden proliferation of other little micro-wineries, distilleries, brew pubs and tasting rooms in the area. Was our funky little neighborhood en route to becoming a true gourmet ghetto?
The tasting room was/is astonishingly beautiful. Did I mention that? We located it in what had been the former bottling room when we were once a mega-ginormous winery. Not requiring any longer such a large area for the bottling line, this seemed the perfect space for a tasting room and a more immersive tasting experience. ((In retrospect, maybe it wasn’t such a perfect spot, at least from a feng shui perspective. The area fronted on the rear parking lot and railroad tracks. Apart from the slightly less than inspiring vista, the space was seemingly a bit difficult to find, even for locals. There’s no question that the slightly problematic location did not help matters.)) We brought in a clever design team from Holland and they worked with a local architect, Mark Primack, and our builders and craftspeople; there was the delicious dreamy, magical feeling of a true, authentic collaboration. Note well, the design for the space began with a dream. I had dreamt that the tasting room would be constructed of a series of monk’s cells, much like a chambered nautilus; this, of course, was the Fibonacci Series, phi, or the Golden Ratio, the salient proportionality that governs so many natural processes, from spiral nebulae to the bracts of a plant stem. I loved the idea of customers being able to sit in private chambers or “pods,” and experience the wine in a more intimate setting, ideally paired with some light comestibles. While it had been lovely to observe a crowd of people bellying up to the bar at the old tasting room, I wanted to tell our new story in a quieter more thoughtful voice, ideally one-on-one.
I had recently sold off the Big House and Cardinal Zin brands, and now it was crucial that I do what I could to show that there had been a real change chez Doon; I wanted to tell the world how serious I was, or was soon about to be, about terroir. Could there be anything that signified the structured complexity of a vin de terroir or the majesty of Nature herself, better than the Golden Ratio, arguably, God’s Greatest Hit?
We couldn’t put in quite as many pods as I would have liked, but we did try to incorporate the Fibonacci motif into the spiral tasting bars, as well as in the beautiful sculptural flow-form water feature that we had created. Michael Leeds, mad genius metal sculptor, fashioned a Victorian era spaceship for us virtually entirely out of scrap material he had in his studio.
The cost of the construction ran way over budget; floors and countertops were poured and re-poured so they would be just so. We gave the very skilled craftsmen latitude to build the wonderful “pods,” recycled from antique wooden tanks, and they created beautifully interpretive, organic, sculptural forms. ((I cannot begin to tell you how much I loved the pods, and what an enormous feeling of serenity one felt when one was ensconced there. We talked about it but never got around to equipping them with privacy curtains. I’m not a smoker of any sort, but I honestly could almost become persuaded to take up the water-pipe, had we the wherewithal to equip the pods with hookahs (and privacy curtains).))
The food service aspect started modestly. Sean Baker, a local chef,—yet to be propelled into super-stardom, opened for us. ((He is currently chef at the highly acclaimed Gather restaurant in Berkeley, and has received very serious critical éclat.)) We offered some small plates, proffering an “upscale” tasting experience to our visitors, such as one might find in Napa Valley. Alas, Santa Cruz ain’t Napa, as we learned well, and it was hard to really attract the prosperous customers who would support this sort of enhanced tasting experience. So, what did we do? We doubled doon. ((It seems likely that I have inherited from my mother a certain sort of stubbornness or single-mindedness when it comes to pushing forward my agenda. (She is nothing if not relentless.) This can be both a strength and of course, tragic flaw, as will soon become clear.))
I am fortunate to be friends with the very famous, brilliant chef, David Kinch, of Manresa fame. He lives in Santa Cruz, surfs, and is actually a pretty regular guy, given his outsized fame. He was gracious enough to help me reconfigure the restaurant when we expanded the kitchen, and further fitted out the restaurant. Most significantly, he brought me a young and brilliant chef, Charlie Parker, who had previously worked for him. Charlie was an extremely charismatic figure—a bit volatile in the kitchen, it must be said—but there was real star power and there were a lot of people in Santa Cruz who were really excited about what we were doing.
Alas, we didn’t really have much in the way of a management team at that point. The restaurant really was neither big enough nor was really doing the volume (at reasonably profitable margins) to afford a manager. Properly, this might have been the responsibility of the owner, at least at the scale at which we were operating. Needless to say, this was not really my thing, given the fact that I had no experience at all in the restaurant business, nor possessed a single skill that was appropriate for the position. ((I am preternaturally shy and awkward when it comes to making conversation with strangers (even often with close friends), have very little capability to direct employees in the appropriate direction, and tend to become dizzy and confused when I look at spread sheets.)) (This is also not considering the fact that I already had one full-time job.) The food was truly magnificent—vibrant and inventive, and the food costs were staggeringly out of control. And, there was another very real problem.
Maybe this is the dangerously quixotic aspect of my personality, but there had always been one feature I wanted to see in the restaurant of my dreams, and that was true communal dining. In my imagination guests would sit together and platters of food would be passed and shared. I had seen this once before at Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room, a beloved restaurant in Savannah, Georgia, and was just in awe of the extraordinary quality of fellowship and amity it seemed to engender. ((The food at Mrs. Wilkes’ was of course a lot more rustic than what I aspired to present. They are open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, don’t serve any alcohol (it’s the Baptist South, remember). But they are an institution in Savannah and the place is always packed. My conclusion is that the only real way that you can get people to eat with one another voluntarily is not to offer them any real choice in the matter. The value proposition of the restaurant must be so compelling that the customers consent to do something that they would not under ordinary circumstances agree to do (but thank you later).)) Customers would line up outside the restaurant and were seated more or less in the order in which they showed up. ((One obvious problem we had at Cellar Door was that we didn’t have an enormous population lined up outside our restaurant, awaiting service.)) You observed all social strata—black and white, rich and pour, sharing food and conversation. It seemed obvious to me then as it does now, that our society is terribly fractured and there is very little occasion for people living in a community to actually converse with one another. ((Apart from the demise of social clubs, church and community service organizations, we are all now terribly wired in to electronic media. The phenomenon of two people sitting at table, not conversing with one another, but instead, texting into the ether, is well documented.))
I told David that this was the kind of restaurant I wanted. He thought I was completely crazy, and told me, if memory serves, something like, “That’s fine, but it’s your funeral.” I do remember him telling me, “When I go to a restaurant, the last thing I want to do is talk to strangers. I want to be just left (the heck) alone. People go to restaurants to spend time with the people they want to be with, not with strangers…” And, “Y’know, Randall, we have a fair share of some pretty funky people in Santa Cruz. Do you really want to sit down with some of these characters, or worse, have them touch the food you’re about to eat?” He dilated further, “Aren’t you going to have some people just go hog wild and eat a disproportionate share of the food on the platters?” These were all very good points that David brought up, but I truly believed that if we were to have this kind of community dining experience, it would not, in fact, devolve into the Lord of the Flies scenario he imagined. The gentle guiding hand of peer pressure and societal expectation exerted by adult human beings (there were still a few in Santa Cruz) would insure that the customers would be relatively civilized and temperate in their behavior. This was a tenet of my belief system.
So, the food costs were out of control—we’d get around to fixing that at some point—but the restaurant was pretty busy, and there was definitely some buzz in the town. I got a call from a stringer who was doing a story for the New York Times. This seemed pretty fortuitous. I was unfortunately out of town when she visited the restaurant, but I chatted to her on the phone, and she seemed pleasant enough. Granted, I should have known better, but really had no glimmering whatsoever that her angle for the story would be the supposed feud between Charlie, David and myself. Charlie was pretty chagrined to see a somewhat intemperate quote of his in print.
It was not very long thereafter, Charlie left the restaurant to seek real stardom. I knew that it would be unrealistic to imagine him staying indefinitely, but we were now on to the next phase.
(Read the New York Times article)
Jarod, Charlie’s sous, became the next chef, and he certainly had his share of followers. Gone were some of the emotional outbursts in the kitchen under the slightly volatile Chef Parker. I really enjoyed Jarod’s cooking, but the restaurant was still foundering, and if anything, we were continuing to lose traction on the idea of communal dining. At my insistence, we had originally installed a number of large tables, and really encouraged our customers to share a common meal at these tables with other guests. But, how were we to present this idea to people as something positive? Guests who came to the restaurant generally just did not want to eat with strangers. So, we had the rather dysfunctional outcome of big tables with two groups of people sitting on either end, with an imaginary cone of silence separating them. Things were not really moving in the right direction.
The winery itself was also under a lot of financial strain. We had not done a very good job in recruiting new club members to replace those who were lost through natural attrition. I hired a new general manager for the winery, someone who had a strong restaurant and tasting room background. He and I did not really see eye to eye on a number of philosophical issues, but I figured, hey, he’s the maven, at least in this domain. I was a bit surprised when on one of my sales trips he reported to me that he had hired a new chef. ((I really hoped that I could try the food of any new chef that we brought in before we hired him, if only to see if we had palates and aesthetic visions that were more or less in synch with one another.)) “You’re going to love this guy,” he promised. “He’ll bring the quality of the food to a whole new level. We’ll get some very serious customers and we’ll sign them up for the wine club.” This appeared to be a reasonable plan; we already had a reasonably loyal local following, but it seemed that anyone who was amenable to club membership, we had already signed up. What we really needed was some fresh blood. ((There is a most interesting paradox at work in the evolution of our business. Bonny Doon Vineyard wines have incontrovertibly improved greatly over the last six years since the sale of Big House. And yet, unexpectedly, we seem to have lost some of the stickiness of the loyalty of our truest blue Doonies. Yes, our prices have gone up a bit—they’re still ridiculously fair, and this has led to some attrition—but there may well be another dynamic or two at work. Many of our early customers loved the goofy, cartoonish labels, the irreverence, the theater and the schtick. Our wines are in some sense less entertaining than they were. They are now more serious. It’s a bit like one party in a relationship changing in a way that the other party can’t follow. Whether I have been successful in educating our customers or we are now attracting more sophisticated customers, the reality is that truly sophisticated customers understand very well that it’s a great big wine world out there. While they may well love what we do, they are equally, intrigued by, say, a crazy Rotgipfler or exotic Cornalin from the Valais. In short, they are a lot like me—not exactly fickle, but essentially just curious about everything that they great world of wine might offer.))
We gave the restaurant a new name, Le Cigare Volant, and it appeared that we were off to a new start. The new chef, Ryan, was an extremely nice man, indeed, and came with an impeccable pedigree from a Bay Area two-star Michelin restaurant. But the question was: Was the Westside of Santa Cruz really ready for fine dining? As a chef Ryan was not lacking in ego (this seems to go with the territory), but he was no prima doona, and that was a welcome relief. This might actually work out, I imagined. The general manager was, like Kinch, no great fan of community dining and complained bitterly that the “community table” was just a losing proposition. At his insistence, the big tables were replaced with smaller tables. On another one of my sales trips I returned home to learn that the Wednesday night “Community Table,” the last relic of my quixotic vision, had been summarily discontinued.
We did some very cool things at the restaurant at various times. I loved our very brief fling with bringing in guest chefs and introducing their food to our customers. Ari Weinzweig, nice Jewish boy from Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, presented a porcine love-fest that was so popular that it ran two days. I myself had the idea of presenting a special wine list, featuring vins de terroir, organized according to soil type. This attracted quite a bit of national attention, and piqued the attention of our guests, at least for a little while. But in the end, there were just too many obstacles to success: the location of the restaurant—at the back end of the building (very, very feng shui-challenged); the challenge of what was perceived as an exotic (at least for Santa Cruz) menu. Or, maybe it was just the ordeal of navigating Highway One at rush hour that discouraged the prosperous customers from South County from visiting. Whatever the issues ultimately were, it was just a Sisyphean labor to fix them all.
I enjoyed Ryan very much and felt he had real talent, as I said, but he and I had a very different vision of what the restaurant should be. ((It is utterly pointless and destructive to ask a chef to change his style, his aesthetic. One is far better served in finding a chef whose aesthetic and vision is more or less congruent with one’s own, (and who also has the administrative capacity to manage food costs).)) He had trained as a pastry chef and had a keen interest in molecular gastronomy. Now, I’ve been to Alinea in Chicago and enjoyed it immensely—was greatly entertained by the playfulness and theatricality of the dishes, but it was not a place that I wanted to dine at on a regular basis; it satisfied the intellect very well, but was not something that satisfied the soul, at least as a constant diet. The winery itself was now—as long as I could continue to propel it in a coherent direction—about putting aside winemaking legerdemain—no flash and no flash-détènte ((Flash-détènte is a special high-tech machine that extracts a deeper color from grapes, and is quite the rage in some parts. For me, it turns the wine into a goopy mess))—and pursuing a sort of simplicity or purity in our product. The proposition was, at least aspirationally, about terroir, the eloquence of unadorned nature. I wanted any chef I had at the restaurant to love the ingredients more than the technique, however brilliant it might be. Step away from the nitrogen canisters.
Watching a restaurant die a slow death is a bit like watching a living creature die. You feel as if you are in a dream, watching a story unfold, the outcome of which you are powerless to change. You hope irrationally that things will turn around, that you can, in the case of the restaurant at least, with some brilliant marketing insight, or by the great fortune of a big review unexpectedly bestowed, somehow breathe a vital infusion of spirit into a moribund creature. ((I cannot discount the possibility that my insistence on the community table format might well have set the restaurant back in terms of gaining acceptance in the community. There is still a (somewhat irrational) part of me that clings to the notion that perhaps I should have insisted more stridently that the format be exclusively communal or family-style dining. Withal, I still believe that this idea is an extremely powerful one, and one that has enormous potential to be a benign presence for a community. The restauration bug is a little bit like malaria; you never quite get it out of your system. I do hope that someday if circumstances permit, I can revisit this idea again, maybe even at Popelouchum, our garden paradise in San Juan Bautista.)) In the last few months of the restaurant’s life, I was spending a lot of time focused on the core wine business (we had some challenges there as well), and in a certain sense, the restaurant was the least of my worries. I can’t really say that the decision to close the restaurant was a relief; it was more like the realization that I had but a finite amount of life-force to spend, and that I would really need to apply it to the parts of the business that were absolutely mission-critical. The village of Chateauneuf-du-Pape had sixty years ago worried about flying saucers and “flying cigars” crash landing in their vineyards. This flying cigar was just looking for a proper home.