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Oregon’s Steamboat Inn expands celebrity chef, winemaker dinner series
IDLEYLD PARK, Ore. — Two decades ago, Patricia Lee developed a delicious way to lure wine lovers to the Oregon’s historic Steamboat Inn, and she’s set the table for this year’s Guest Chef and Winemaker Dinner Series along the North Umpqua River.
The series begins with the first weekend that the inn reopens from its winter hibernation, kicking off March 1 with Stephen and Gloria Reustle of Reustle Prayer Rock Vineyards in nearby Roseburg.
“Pairing our wines with dishes created by the top chefs in Oregon has been eye-opening,” Stephen Reustle told Great Northwest Wine. “For most of my winemaking career it was all about wine and only the wine, but Pat and the chefs she selected convinced me that enjoying wine to the fullest happens when it is surrounded and complemented by great food.”
The success of the series and Steamboat Inn’s reputation makes it difficult to imagine any winemaker or chef not wanting to return, which begins to explain why Lee booked a record 26 dinners.
“We usually do 21 or 22, but this year, every weekend is a double weekend — both Friday and Saturday nights,” she said.
And even though Lee has added a handful of dinners for 2014, anyone interested will need to act quickly.
“The series will be 70 percent booked within three weeks,” she said.
Each dinner begins with appetizers served in the library, followed by three savory courses and capped by a dessert. Wines are included in the cost of the meal, which is a $90 — a bargain for a dinner featuring one of the Pacific Northwest’s top chefs paired with a renowned winemaker.
Her job of lining up Portland-area chefs got easier not long after she connected with the renowned David Machado, who arrived from the Bay Area in 1991 and opened up Pazzo Ristorante in Hotel Vintage Plaza for the Kimpton Group.
“When I started the guest chef series, it was done by cold-calling,” Lee said. “Thanks to the support I got from David, it went from me talking people into coming into people calling me.”
One example of the dinner series success is Naomi Pomeroy of Beast, whose fame extends to Alton Brown’s Iron Chef America series on The Food Network. Pomeroy will make her Steamboat debut April 12 and work with Mike Willison of Rex Hill.
“When I called her, Naomi told me, ‘I was hoping that I’d be invited,’ ” Lee said with a chuckle.
Dinner series transcends boundaries, generations
One of the many dinners to sell out quickly this year will be the evening featuring Michael Etzel of the cult Beaux Frères, who will share the stage with the winemakers of Coattails — his sons Mike and Jared Etzel.
“They came as little kids, so it will be really fun to have them here with their father,” Lee said.
Steamboat’s chef series is not just about Pinot Noir and Portland chefs. Walla Walla has been represented for many years by Abeja’s John and Molly Abbott as well as Woodward Canyon founders Rick Small and Darcey Fugman-Small. Lee now has participation from three Eugene restaurants as well as Mark Dommen of One Market Restaurant in San Francisco.
“We always look forward to those dinners,” Fugman-Small said. “It is so beautiful and peaceful there, and Pat and everyone take such good care of us. It is just a very nice, different experience spending the weekend there with the chefs and other winemakers as well as the regular dinner guests that we have gotten to know over the years.”
There are a few changes, despite the return of Yamhill Valley Vineyards winemaker Stephen Cary, who helped create the first Steamboat Pinot Noir Conference more than 30 years ago.
“This will be the first year that Nick Peirano has not cooked with them,” Lee said of the founder of famed Nick’s Italian Cafe in McMinnville. “The timing just didn’t work out this year.”
Several of Portland’s top chefs — including Greg Higgins and Vitaly Paley — have been a part of Lee’s series nearly from the start. And then there’s the remarkable tradition created by Caprial and John Pence.
“When we were first talking dates, and I told them, ‘You know that’s Mother’s Day weekend,’ and they said, ‘We can do Mother’s Day!’ so they’ve been here every Mother’s Day weekend for probably as long as anyone we’ve had involved the series,” Lee said.
While this year’s list features many Northwest icons, it also spotlights some of Oregon’s rising stars, such as the May 17 dinner pairing Maggie Harrison of Antica Terra with chef Courtney Sproule of Portland’s Din Din Supper Club.
“We feel honored to have been invited to participate for six of the last seven years,” Reustle said. “Each year has been a sellout with very little promotion. Our wine club members look forward to it every year, and Gloria and our children look forward to it every year.”
Anyone who schedules events for a living can empathize with the work involved in syncing the schedules of wine-country winemakers and city chefs, especially if the destination is much beyond Portland or Seattle.
“You have no idea,” Lee chuckled. “I sent four final drafts to my webmaster this year because of changes. Over the years, I have figured out when James Beard Awards are and when Taste of Oregon is, but I also have to remind people of when Mother’s Day is. It takes me 2 1/2 months to put this together, and you can’t put too many phone calls out there at once because that makes it more difficult.”
And because the Portland culinary community has developed such a following, it’s harder for the chefs than the winemakers,” Lee added. “There are more demands on them now than 20 years ago when I started this, especially for those who have multiple restaurants.”
Oregon Pinot Noir pioneers help raise profile of Steamboat
The river retreat is best known among winemakers as the longtime home of the annual Steamboat Pinot Noir Conference, a gathering for Pinot Noir producers along the West Coast and beyond.
During the 1930s, acclaimed author and sportsman Zane Grey was one of the region’s early supporters. The Steamboat Inn came to life in 1957, but the embracing of Oregon wine began soon after Jim and Sharon Van Loan purchased the lodge in 1975.
Few folks seem as well-suited for their business and careers as Lee, who grew up in Roseburg and left home for seven years before landing at Steamboat Inn. She came on-board in 1978, and her duties of managing partner and chef extend to “jack of all trades” — especially when the resort reopens in March after two months of being closed.
“I was a fly-fishing guide for 15 years,” she said. “When I started, women seldom fly-fished and women didn’t steelhead fish. That was a man’s game. It’s not that way anymore, but when fishermen would come and ask for ‘Pat’, and I’d stick my hand across the counter, it was like, ‘Oh.’ So I earned my chops.”
Outside of the summer months, Lee serves as the inn’s primary chef, but she and Sharon Van Loan collaborated on a pair of cookbooks using recipes they’ve developed and served at the inn over the years. Both books are available at Amazon and the inn.
“That woman has an incredible work ethic, but then that’s Sharon,” Lee said.
The atmosphere Lee and the Van Loans have developed at the resort during the decades has allowed Steamboat Inn to become a part of the fabric of the Oregon wine industry. The property has even helped build families.
“We’ve reached a point to where we have the second generation of winemakers, but Luisa Ponzi and Eric Hamacher also met each other at a Steamboat Conference,” Lee said.
The concept for the guest chef and winemaker dinners started organically with a focus of enticing the nearby residents to get out of their cabins each spring and visit the Steamboat Inn.
“In the olden days, every weekend during the quiet time, Sharon and I would hold what we would call, ‘ethnic dinners.’ We would let the locals know ahead of time what the theme of the cuisine was going be, and it grew from that.
“It’s been about 20 years now,” Lee continued. “At first we’d alternate with each other as chefs, then we went to just guest chefs. I just love it because I’m always seeing contemporary methods, learning about new purveyors and these chefs all have so much knowledge to share. Yeah, it’s pretty fun.”
Many of these winemakers also help Lee fill the cellar of the Steamboat Inn by making personal deliveries.
“We are 40 miles from I-5, so it’s tough,” Lee said. “I’ve not been able to get a wine salesman in the door here for the past five years, so to have the winemakers supplement my wine list is really, really wonderful. Either they make the delivery for me or they are very good about working with their distributors to figure out a way to get the wines to me. I really appreciate the friendships that have been formed over the years through these dinners.”
Steamboat Pinot Noir Conference first set sail in 1982
And a decade before these spring dinners was the Steamboat Pinot Noir Conference.
“It started with Stephen Cary of Yamhill Valley Vineyard, Myron Redford and few folks from California,” Lee recalled. “There eight or 10 people at the first conference just talking about Pinot Noir and it grew from there.
“We completely close the inn and do nothing but take care of the winemakers for breakfast, lunch and dinner for three days,” she continued. “They are really intensive tastings, and when they are done each day, they’ll go fishing or swimming or just sit and watch the river go by.”
Each year, Lee schedules her conference for the week just before the International Pinot Noir Conference to help accommodate producers beyond the Northwest who want to attend both Oregon events.
“There was a time when the invitations to were done on a lottery system, but now it’s on a first-come, first-served basis,” she said.
The sweet spot for the Steamboat conference attendance seems to be about 70 winemakers. For a time, Lee and her team tried to accommodate as many folks as possible while making it comfortable for everyone.
“We’ve had years where we served more than 100 meals a day with 129 adults and about 20 kids, but that was a bit too much,” she said. “So we now average about 85 for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Every year, the menus are different, and what’s great about cooking for a household of winemakers is they will eat and appreciate everything we put in front of them.”
Not all of the newcomers embrace the rustic feel of Steamboat Inn when they first arrive.
“It’s really fun to see how the new folks on the block makes the adjustment,” she said. “They will go from ‘What do you mean you don’t have a phone in the room!’ and by the end of Day Three they will tell us, ‘What a great experience!’ ”
Indeed, Reustle said the retreat that is Steamboat Inn provides a unique treat.
“Steamboat’s setting is incredible, offering cottages right on the Umpqua River,” he said. “I’ve had friends from the New York metropolitan area, who I might add are accustomed to lodging at the best resorts in the world, stay at Steamboat and they were blown away by its beauty and the staff’s service, as well as the food.”
Steamboat team looks for new energy to take over
While Lee would love for her hometown of Roseburg to emerge as Southern Oregon’s version of Dundee, Carlton or Walla Walla, the economic outlook isn’t rosy with Douglas County plagued by the state’s high rate of unemployment.
Reustle, who established his winery in 2001, quickly learned of Lee’s work, which goes beyond Steamboat.
“Pat is a community leader and devotes a great deal of time to charitable causes within our community,” he said. “I might also add that she has a very good palate and unrivaled ability to match food and wine. She is a great chef.”
And while she stages culinary events beyond Steamboat and at wineries such as Abacela, it’s amazing to note this will mark Lee’s 36th year at Steamboat. Next year could be the Van Loans’ 40th anniversary of owning Steamboat.
“I think I can speak for all three of us that it’s time for the next generation to come in with lots of youth and energy to take Steamboat to the next level,” Lee said. “We’re ready. It’s just a matter of seeing the right people come through the door.”
For more information contact Lee at 800-840-8825 or [email protected]