Charlie Palmer, 46, is the chef and owner of eight restaurants in New York, Las Vegas, Washington, D.C., and Healdsburg, Calif. He opened his flagship, Aureole, when he was just 28 years old; 18 years later, he's gearing up to open the Charlie Palmer Hotel in Las Vegas. Each restaurant boasts an innovative wine program, from Grand Award-winning Aureole in Las Vegas, with its dramatic wine tower and graceful wine angels, to Kitchen 22, where the brief prix-fixe menu is complemented by bottles costing no more than $35. Palmer called Wine Spectator from his Dry Creek Kitchen, where he still enjoys stepping behind the line on a Saturday night.
Wine Spectator: How did you become interested in wine?
Charlie Palmer: It was when I really got seriously involved in cooking. At the CIA [Culinary Institute of America] they have introductory wine courses that really piqued my interest. When I first became a cook, I was always buying wines and tasting wines and even attending staff wine tastings if I could get there. I started out studying Burgundy and Bordeaux, learned a lot about the Rhône. My taste has evolved from big, big tannic Cabernets and Bordeaux. Now I love all kinds of wine, but I tend to find myself drinking more Pinot Noir than anything else, whether it's from California or Burgundy.
WS: Why is that?
CP: I like the accessibility and that up-front kind of fruit. That and the fact that we tend to drink Bordeaux and Cabernet a lot younger than we should. I really appreciate a good Cabernet, but you've got to wait for it. I just recently drank a '92 Dominus and it was fantastic, but that's 14 years old now. [In my restaurants] I think the big, bold flavors that we like work well with Pinot Noir. Personally, I've made a commitment to drinking less wine and better wine. I drink a lot of Rochioli, because they're good friends of ours, but it's not easy because you can only get so much of it. I find myself drinking seasonally. In summertime I drink a lot of Sauvignon Blanc, and in wintertime I'd never touch it.
WS: I understand that Dry Creek Kitchen has an all-Sonoma wine list?
CP: Yes. When we opened the restaurant, we really made a conscious effort to be all about northern Sonoma County. The list is a nod to our neighbors. Our goal was to have the most extensive and comprehensive Sonoma list in existence. We have verticals of older-vintage Cabernets, for instance, and I think we own and offer more Rochioli Pinot Noir than anyone else in the world. We have Williams Selyem, Dehlinger, all the great names.
WS: What's unique about the wine programs in your other restaurants?
CP: I want each one to have its own distinct features. Aureole in New York, being my first restaurant, I wanted the list to be well-balanced, to represent all wine regions of the world. Aureole Steak in D.C. is a totally American list, and we have wines from all 50 states. … I just love it when a senator walks into the restaurant and there's a wine from his home state. Surprisingly, there are some decent wines from every state. We have a pineapple wine from Hawaii. It sounds disgusting, but it's not sweet, it's vinified and it's an interesting wine.
At Aureole Steak in Las Vegas, we concentrate on California Cabernet, and because of the sommelier, we're starting to lean toward more Spanish wines. I think Tempranillo is a great meat wine that can handle a little spice. I drink it quite often myself with a grilled steak or braised short ribs, something with a deep, meaty flavor. At Aureole Las Vegas, we're probably among the top five largest lists in the U.S. I think we have the largest Austrian list outside of Austria. [laughing] Or maybe including Austria. Austrian white wines, like Grüner Veltliner, are maybe the best food wines in the world. They're big, good acid wines that hold up well with a lot of different things. Of course, we have a lot of California wines, and we're very strong with French and Italian selections.
WS: Tell us about your house sparkling wine, the Iron Horse Aureole Cuvée from Sonoma.
CP: We've done six vintages, and we're getting ready to start work on the seventh. I take a group of four sommeliers out to Iron Horse, and we blend the wine ourselves. The last one was about 40 percent Pinot Noir, 60 percent Chardonnay. We also created the dosage for this last one from a 1990 Chardonnay that was almost overoaked if you drank it by itself, but it gave a really complex characteristic to the sparkling wine once it was finished. It's a lot of fun, and a really meaningful process, because the sommeliers are creating something that they'll eventually sell.
WS: What are some of the trends in California wine-country dining right now?
CP: Probably the biggest trend across the board is the quest for better ingredients. We're very deep into using only antibiotic-free, hormone-free beef. I think we have to be very proactive about the quality of the food we cook and serve. There's no doubt in my mind that the better ingredients that we can get, the better cooks we are.
WS: What would you like to see more or less of in restaurants?
CP: We have, in all of our restaurants, a rule that you can't have more than one dish on the menu with foam. I'd like to go back to more real, substantial food. Creativity is very important, but at end of the day, what I like to ask my chefs is: Does the diner walk away saying, "That was just a great meal, I can't wait to have it again," and not, "That was an interesting experience"? I want them to come back for dinner.