Ron Zimmerman, 1948-2023

The founder of The Herbfarm, Ron Zimmerman, has passed away. The tribute below appeared in the 2016 edition of Forking Seattle.

Dazzling Pleasures

At most restaurants you’d be asked to choose: pasta or fish, chicken or beef. Not at The Herbfarm. No choices, first of all. One seating, four nights a week, nine courses, six wines. On a recent evening, the first course was spot prawns, the second a rich pasta with savory onions. The Columbia River king salmon was seasoned with lemon thyme from the garden; the chicken was no ordinary broiler but one of the Poulet Bleu birds from Lummi Island you’ve been hearing about. The T-Bone of lamb was beautifully grilled. Still to come: an intermezzo of noble fir ice, a cheese course, and a dessert of strawberries and wild elderblossom, followed by coffee, tea, and tiny dessert treats from the pastry kitchen. No wonder dinner takes almost five hours.

The cellar holds over 25,000 bottles, the most extensive collection of Oregon and Washington wines anywhere, period. Yes, there’s a formal wine list, but each dish is accompanied by a nigh-perfect glass that you might never discover on your own (a 2013 Walter Scott chardonnay from the Amity Hills of the Willamette Valley to accompany the salmon); over a year’s worth of dinners, Zimmerman opens some 8,000 bottles. Was there a pinot noir among the dozen wines served? No. Did I miss it? Nope.

Ron Zimmerman, left, with his wife Carrie Van Dyck and chef Chris Weber. (Herbfarm photo.)

It began a generation ago, when Bill and Lola Zimmerman bought a farm in Fall City. Lola would sell her surplus chives and other herb plants to passers-by, and soon had a thriving business. When Bill retired from Boeing, he built a shed so people would have a place to picnic. Their son, Ron, was an outdoorsy type who co-founded Early Winters and wrote their catalogs. In 1986, he and his wife, Carrie Van Dyck, turned the shed and part of the farm house into a restaurant. It was Seattle’s first farm-to-table restaurant, Ron in the kitchen and Carrie as hostess, and for years there was never an empty seat. Disaster struck in early 1997, when a fire destroyed the premises. The Herbfarm moved into temporary quarters until, four years later, it reopened in Woodinville.

The model for this concept was the Auberge of the Flowering Hearth, a self-sufficient country inn romanticized by the food writer Roy Andries de Groot. For much of the year, the Herbfarm’s own kitchen gardens and a nearby, five-acre farm supply the restaurant with produce. As the culinary director, Ron writes 20 or so themed menus a year (“June’s Silver Song,” “Nine Songs of Summer”) featuring wild mushrooms, handmade cheeses, artisinal caviars, heritage fruits.

The Herbfarm’s first “outside” chef was Jerry Traunfeld, an alum of Jeremiah Tower’s Stars in San Francisco who was working at the Alexis Hotel in Seattle when he was recruited in 1990. After he left in 2007, Keith Luce took over for a couple of years; the current incumbent, moving up from sous-chef, is Chris Weber, who, at 29, is now the youngest chef at a Four-Diamond property in the country.

There’s a theatrical element to the Herbfarm dinners that some guests don’t understand. The rationale is that you can feed your face in hundreds of places; you can eat good food and drink fine wines in more places than ever, and maybe even spend the $200 to $250 it’s going to cost, wine included. But the Herbfarm is as much a temple as a table, where you are not just a pampered guest but also a participant in a what can sometimes seem like a sacred ritual to honor the earth itself. The social construct of “dinner” unfolds like a vaguely decadent religious ceremony, officiants bearing trays and goblets for your delight, yet, mixed with the dazzling pleasures and bright tastes, there’s an (unspoken but solemn) reminder that we enjoy this bounty only because our planet is so generous.

The Power of the Pig in Monghidoro

BOLOGNA–This good-size town in the north of Italy rewards its visitors with understated charms. both architectural and culinary. Head south, toward Florence, and in less than half an hour you’ll be in the commune of Monghidoro, some 3,500 souls with a fondness for swine. Pigs. Oinkers. So much that the first weekend in March is dedicated to the Festival of the Pig.

Pity the pig, reviled as a filthy glutton in our language and our literature. Fortunately, cooks, farmers and sausage-makers know better; they praise the pig, revere it as the embodiment of everything delicious. There are even entire operas dedicated to swine. Which ones? Pigliacci. Pigoletto.

Sadly, fresh pork spoils fast. It needs to be cooked and eaten before it decomposes, breaks down under the assualt of micro-enzymes…or else preserved somehow. Refrigeration slows decay, freezing kills unwanted bacteria. But man has long preserved his food in other ways as well: smoking, sweetening, salting, air drying. Simply put, the harmful bacteria cannot live in a dry, salty environment. But the process of salting has many variables and success takes both a scientist and an artisan.

Anyway, this weekend is the festival. If they can clear the snow in time.

The Weeping Willows of Lummi Island

Willows Chef Blaine Wetzel in April, 2017.

To get to Lummi, a little island tucked under the Canadian border off the coast of Bellingham, you take an ancient, 20-car ferry, the Whatcom Chief, which sails from Gooseberry Point; the trip takes six minutes. (The Lummi Reservation, 12,000 square miles, population 5,400, and home to the Silver Reef casino, is back on the mainland.) The island itself, 9,500 square miles, at the northeastern tip of the San Juan archipelago, is home to maybe 800 year-rounders, including Riley Starks, a commercial fisherman with a convivial manner.

Fishing may be its own reward for some, but Starks branched out; some two decades ago he took over a rustic lodge on the island’s western shore, the original Willows Inn. He hired a dazzling 24-year-old chef named Blaine Wetzel (Northwest native, staff cook at Noma in Copenhagen) to run the kitchen, and then, just as the resort was on the cusp of becoming world-famous, Starks sold the property to a group of local investors.

The new owners quickly remodeled the accommodations, reconfigured the dining rooms, and rebranded Willows Inn as a luxury resort with a world-class chef who used only ingredients foraged or grown on the island. Dinner for two with wine pairings and overnight accommodation could easily come to $1,000.

One of those “too good to be true” stories. Turned out, ingredients might also come from mainland supermarkets, including Costco and Target. Turned out, young stagiaires weren’t always paid. Turned out, female staff members were regularly harassed and abused. Turned out, Wetzel and Willows kept settling complaints from federal agencies, some $2 million worth.

This week, it all came crashing down.

The Willows closed down for the season before Thanksgiving. Wetzel’s wife, a chef named Daniela Soto-Innes, told reporters at an out-of-state culinary conference that the couple planned to open a new restaurant near Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The local family that owned Willows signed the $2 million property over to a non-profit in Bellingham. The Willows had ceased to exist.

As for Starks, the original owner, he moved back to his five-acre B&B farmhouse inn, which had a good year. He no longer puts out to sea, preferring instead to operate a reef-fishing business closer to shore; a seaweed farm is on the horizon. Having recruited Wetzel over a decade ago, Starks is appalled at how quickly the good burghers of Lummi turned on the man who had brought fame to the island. Appalled as well by a national newspaper ‘s hit job, written by its go-to reporter for stories about workplace sexual harassment.

Is it really the end? The non-profit could sell or lease the property to a new restaurant operator, of course. But the great undiscovered gem of the Pacific Northwest, the beacon of geoduck, locally foraged mushrooms and odd combinations (broth of roasted madrona bark, anyone?) is g-gone for good.

Allen Shoup, 1943-2022

When Allen Shoup was recruited to run a newly organized wine company outside Seattle called Chateau Ste. Michelle, the state’s most widely planted grapes were Concord for the juice market and a noble German variety, riesling, for table wine, popular primarily because the wine was sweet. You can’t blame the customers, they didn’t know any better, but Shoup would help consumers make the transition to drier wines from varieties like chardonnay, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon,

Shoup had been a brand manager for Gallo (remember Sangria? That was his.) and worked in luxury marketing for Max Factor. He was running a company in Idaho when the headhunters called. He took one look at the faux-French “chateau” that had just been inaugurated on the bucolic Stimson Estate northeast of Seattle, with a few token vines planted across from the parking lot. “At first I hated it,” he confided to me recently, “but now I see it was absolute genius.”

For the better part of a decade, the Chateau stood as a challenge to the nascent Washington wine industry: the biggest dog in the yard Today, there are over 100 winemaking facilities and tasting rooms within a five-mile radius of the front gate. What made it work for Shoup was the company’s unexpected sugar daddy, an outfit in Stamford, Connecticut, called UST, manufacturer of Skoal and Copenhagen smokeless tobacco. “We built the Washington wine industry with UST cash,” Shoup acknowledges.

Not just the biggest dog, but the richest as well. He could have ridden roughshod over the competition but quickly realized that the region’s strongest suit was going to be quality. From the start, Ste. Michelle’s commitment to quality would mean that they had to help their competitors, not obliterate them. Any bad bottle, didn’t matter whose, would reflect poorly on the entire region, and Ste. Michelle’s name was on most of the bottles.

When he left Ste. Michelle in 2000, Shoup set out to build his own brand, which he called Long Shadows. The concept: to unite, under that one brand, half a dozen ultra-premium Columbia Valley wines that would showcase not just the viticultural excellence of the growing region, but a handful of internationally acclaimed winemakers as well. So what you have, since 2003, is a collection overseen by Gilles Nicault (a brilliant French wine maker who moved over from Woodward Canyon and who guides day to day operations at the Long Shadows winery in Walla Walla); Randy Dunn (the reclusive genius behind Caymus); the Australian wine maker John Duval, formerly of Penfolds; Michel Rolland, the legendary consultant from Pomerol, outside Bordeaux; and Philippe Melka, French-born protégé of Agustin Huneeus, Sr., the globe-trotting eminence grise of California wine. Together they are responsible for seven remarkable wines; a German wine maker, Armin Diehl, and a father-son duo from Chianti, the Folonaris, have come and gone. But there’s a spinoff, Nine Hats, based in Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood, that originally bottled the “declassified” wines from Long Shadows. Now it’s a freestanding brand, and even has its own pizza parlor.

Allen Shoup passed away this week at the age of 79. Without him, one could argue, there would be no Washington wine industry today, certainly not as we know it.

Foie Gras Crisis Looms

Ce n’est pas possible! Yes, France is facing a shortage of its iconic foie gras.

Foie gras on the hoof in southwestern France.

How’d that happen? No, the pleasure police haven’t been up to anything underhanded; foie gras is still perfectly legal. But for foie gras, you need foie, duck livers or goose livers, and for livers you need ducks or geese. Ducks especially.

Turns out, the shortage of foie gras is easily traced back to a shortage of ducks. Only half as many this year as in 2020. Blame two winters of avian flu, which literally flattened the flock. Good grief.

Oops, she did it again!

Okay, enough already! We get it. Whoever’s running things at 9 West 57th Street in Manhattan obviously has no interest in running a winery. That’s where Sycamore Partners has its offices; they’re the private equity outfit that bought Ste. Michelle Wine Estates (SMWE) from Altria a year ago for $1.2 billion and has managed to confuse everyone ever since.

First, this guy is now out. David Dearie, the Australian wine exec brought in to manage the beast less than two years ago, finds himself kicked to the curb, unable to hang on against an onslaught of constantly changing mandates from Manhattan. Buy this, sell that, move this, leave that. Oregon? Hey, we like Oregon, right? There’s a big if motley company down there called A to Z Vineyards; we should buy them. Woodinville? Too many acres, too many wine barrels. Move the barrels back to eastern Washington where they belong, and sell the land around the Chateau for residential development. Selling the wine? Hey, that’s someone else’s job; Southern Wine & Spirits can do that, right?

Okay, now it’s time to blow it all up. Traditional management out; geographical management in.

California gets its own top guy, David Bowman, the CEO of Stag’s Leap. Oregon? Hey, Amy Prosenjak put the A to Z package together; she could run Oregon. And this guy Toby Whitmoyer, SMWE’s so-called Chief Growth Officer, let’s give him the reins for Washington. After all, he’s got plenty of experience pushing cases of Bacardi through the pipeline.

The closest any of these peeps has come to actual agriculture is probably Mike Lee, a consumer products guy bought in at the start of the year from Canada, where he was running numbers for a cannabis outfit. Let’s put him in charge of everything else, like finance and nitty-gritty supply chain stuff.

Four new presidents reporting directly to the “SMWE Board of Directors.” Two of the three directors, you guessed it, are partners at Sycamore; the third is Brian Vos, who spent two decades with The Wine Group (Franzia and other low-end brands). So here we have the nation’s third-biggest wine company, and not a single executive who’s ever made wine, or trained as an enologist, or even grown a grape. Does not look promising.

The ABC’s of SMWE

The latest maneuver from Ste. Michelle Wine Estates resembles a deke (a hockey move to fake out your opponent). You think the guy’s going to go right but he goes left.

Well, everybody’s watching SMWE: where will they go next? The industry thinks they’re going to sell off pieces of the mothership (vineyards, production facilities, headquarters real estate). Instead, this week, they announced they’re buying. Buying A to Z Wineworks, based in Dundee, Oregon. (That’s a stylized view of their vineyards above, taken from the A to Z website.)

Per the press release, “Amy Prosenjak, President and CEO of A to Z, will join Ste. Michelle as President of Oregon Brands, overseeing the company’s combined operations in the state.”

Those Oregon brands, in addition to the A to Z label, are Erath and Rex Hill. Very solid, old-school wineries.  A to Z and Rex Hill produce about 400,000 cases annually, while Erath is around 300,000 cases annually, so SMWE’s combined Oregon portfolio starts at roughly 700,000 cases annually. (For comparison, SMWE sells ten times that much Washington-grown Riesling alone.)

But that’s not the point. The existing Oregon portfolio should be seen as a seed, which may expand quickly, if indeed that’s the plan. Says Ryan Pennington, SMWE’s vice-president for communications, “We intend to grow from there.”

So perhaps SMWE’s private-equity owners in Manhattan are plotting twin tracks: selling off existing excess and adjusting the sails of the Washington operation while simultaneously exploring some of the more obvious opportunities for expansion. Using its muscle in the industry (it’s the third-biggest wine company in the country), it could easily glide into Oregon, whose (aging) wine industry founders have long been seen as rugged individualists and stubborn artisans.

In France, where the wine business has roots in ancient traditions, Bordeaux is the region of grand estates, while Burgundy is noted for its fragmented vineyards. So far, there’s been no attempt by the aristocratic families of Bordeaux to become owners in Burgundy as well.

But no such tradition exists in the New World. SMWE’s tentative hop across the state line may not be a deke after all but the first step in a whole new order.

The Saint’s Deal With The Devil

David Dearie. Photo courtesy SMWE.

They say you shouldn’t gulp your wine, but, gulp, this is a bit of a surprise.

Ste. Michelle won’t say what’s going to happen with its iconic Chateau (visitor center and amphitheater), let alone its extensive Woodinville wine-making facilities or even the wooded acreage behind the winery, all of it zoned for residential development. None of that stuff is no longer central to its brand.

And just what is that brand, anyway? In addition to Ste. Michelle, SMWE includes 14 Hands, Columbia Crest, Erath, H3, Intrinsic, Liquid Light, Patz & Hall, Northstar, and Spring Valley Vineyard, in addition to partnerships with Marchesi Antinori (Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Col Solare), Ernst Loosen (Eroica), and Michel Gassier (Tenet). SMWE is also the exclusive importer for Antinori wines and Nicolas Feuillatte Champagnes.

Ah, but what about sales, you ask. Aren’t sales essential to a brand? It was, after all, by opening a dedicated sales office in every state 50 years ago that Ste. Michelle became such a powerhouse.

Well, standby, here comes the “gulp.” Ste. Michelle’s parent company, SMWE (now owned by a private equity firm in Manhattan) has decided to outsource its sales operations to its longtime distributor, Southern Glazer. (The official announcement is here.)

SMWE’s CEO, an affable Australian gent named David Dearie, told me yesterday, in a conversation on the Chateau grounds, that Ste. Michelle’s sales force will remain intact (for now). But it’s pretty clear that the “national strategic alignment” is eyewash.

The new parent, Sycamore Partners, is obviously hard at work dismantling its new toy.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the company put the Woodinville headquarters acreage on the market and announced they were moving the wine-making operations “back” to eastern Washington. (Not a bad idea, actually.) But what about the visitor center? What about the amphitheater and summer concert series? And what about the Woodinville headquarters itself? More efficient wine making at Canoe Ridge pales in comparison to the value of nearly 100 acres of prime real estate. What developer wouldn’t smack their lips at the wooded hillside on the west side of the former Stimson estate?

You just know the bean-counters in Manhattan, who have no expertise in agriculture, wine production, or wine marketing (Sycamore’s investments to date have all been in retail merchandising), are sending each other memos like, “Why is the wine business so complicated?” The answer is too long for a blog post, but yes, it’s incredibly complicated. No sooner do they have a good idea than they run it up the flagpole and wait for our mate David Dearie to salute.

So, indeed, why should an outsider (who earns a commission on every case sold) not be in charge of selling your product? Because the distributor doesn’t care about the wine itself; the distributor’s metric is “How many bottles did you move?” It’s the winery job to be concerned with what’s in those bottles, and that’s what’s getting lost. Gulp.

Ste. Michelle says she’s leaving town

Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville. Photo Richard Duval.

After nearly half a century in Woodinville, SMWE is making a run for greener pastures.

That’s Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, the latest corporate umbrella for the Northwest’s largest wine company. ‘Twas in February, 1973, that Wally Opdycke (a business analyst for Safeco) and Joel Klein (winemaker from California) flew to Connecticut and convinced Louis Bantle (chairman of US Tobacco) that he should invest $150 million in an unproven venture: a winery in Washington State. But Bantle wrote the check, and, in the ensuing decades, Ste. Michelle was able to launch an entire industry.

Also during that time UST was acquired by Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris and Marlboro, and the inevitable shakeout took place last year: Altria sold SMWE to a private equity group named Sycamore Partners for the bargain price of $1.2 billion.

Now [drumroll], Sycamore is making its first big move, putting the 180-acre Woodinville property (the Chateau itself, the tasting room, the banquet facility, the barrel rooms, the gardens, and the amphitheater) up for sale. White wine production will be transferred back to eastern Washington.

No price mentioned in the announcement, but you have to wonder who might be interested. No other winery is big enough to make use of the property … unless it’s a developer smacking their lips over the prime piece of real estate.

Two Girls from Amsterdam

On this #HolocaustRemembranceDay, let us honor two little girls from Amsterdam. Anne Frank (whose name is now known worldwide) lived on the Merwedepleen; Ali Isaac lived around the corner in the Jekerstraat. As it happens, both had older sisters named Margot.

To avoid the Nazi occupiers of Holland, Anne went into hiding for two years (and kept a diary that would become famous); Ali evaded capture as well. Both were ultimately discovered, and both ended up at Bergen Belsen during the freezing Hongerwinter of 1944-45. Along with thousands of others, Anne perished (typhus). But Ali somehow survived, and 18 months after the war ended she was able to rejoin her sister (my mother) in the USA.

Statue of Anne Frank on the Merwedepleen in Amsterdam.
The original Dutch version of Anne Frank’s diary
Alice Elisabeth Isaac in 1943, photographed by Annemie Wolff. Copyright held by her granddaughter, Monica Kaltenschnee.