My wife is a little unsteady as she smokes the Nat Sherman 85th Anniversary, a cigar significantly larger and stronger than the ones she usually enjoys. Of course, she's already thoroughly savored the Nat Sherman Sterling with a glass of cabernet. We're at an event dubbed "Gathering of Cigar Enthusiasts." It's a cigar dinner. You remember those, don't you?
I was surprised and pleased to learn that in Northern California, where cigar smoking seems to be frowned upon more than in the southern part of the state, there is an oasis for cigar lovers who gather for dinner once a month, save for December. The dinners take place at the Harvest Inn by Charlie Palmer, a St. Helena, Napa County, hotel owned by him and his partners. Earlier in the year, a dinner was held commemorating the 50th anniversary of Cohiba, and next year there will be another to celebrate Montecristo's 80th.
I recently interviewed Chef Palmer for a feature in the December issue of Cigar Aficionado and he mentioned the dinners and the partnership with Nat Sherman Cigars, then invited me to attend. Well, yeah!
My wife and I arrive at the hotel late in the afternoon. The property is located just off the main road into St. Helena, among vineyards. We get a tour of all three gardens, the pools and the koi pond with some large carp that come in many colors. We see two very popular sites where weddings are held; one looks out onto the Whitehall Lane Vineyards, and the other is the patio of the Fountain View Room where this night's dinner will take place. Inside, because autumn and colder weather have finally arrived.
Our hotel room also looks out on the vines, and out the back door, on the small deck, are two chairs, a small table and an ashtray. There's also a hot tub. We opt to light the logs in the rustic brick fireplace and enjoy the sparkling wine that Chef Palmer has, in a handwritten note, suggested we use to toast our arrival. We are polite guests.
A little after six, we make our way to the Fountain View Room's patio. The night air is brisk and heat lamps warm the area around the tables. We're chatting with Rick Kaufman, one of the owners and Chef Palmer's partner in this and other ventures. Kaufman is explaining that many of the same guests show up for each of these dinners. For $100, everything included, you get a couple of great Nat Sherman cigars, provided by Napa Cigars, and a three-course dinner prepared by Chef Levi Mezick of the hotel's restaurant, Harvest Table.
Servers come around offering appetizers. Arancini (rice balls) with a truffle aioli, smoked salmon and salmon caviar on brioche, and seared beef with caper aioli all stand up well to the Nat Sherman Sterling. The wine partner this night is St. Supery, located just down the road. We're favoring the silky Dollarhide Estate Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. Dinner is announced.
We all move inside to a long table and I sit beside Andrew Garay, who is also an owner and partner in the hotel and other Palmer properties. There are about 40 guests in total. We are tucking into a family-style dinner that begins with a salad of shaved vegetables, Humboldt Fog goat cheese, pomegranate and Champagne vinaigrette.
This is followed by slow-baked black cod served over jasmine rice with a soy kombu emulsion and bok choy. But we need red meat! It's a cigar dinner! Then out comes the grilled New York of beef atop smoked potato puree and Hen of the Woods mushrooms with a sauce forestiere that fills the bill. I would not necessarily call this an "all-you-can-eat" affair, but the plates keep coming. (The next day, Chef Mezick tells me that the kitchen ran out of the cod and had to substitute red snapper. "That's the first time we've run out of any dish," he said.)
I also run into Chef Palmer and tell him how impressed I am with his partners' love of cigars. He laughs and expresses with some astonishment that one of them smokes six to eight cigars a day.
That would be Garay, the partner I was sitting next to all night. He and Rick Kaufman, a real estate entrepreneur, had just returned from London and were full of tales about how they landed at Heathrow, went to get coffee and then immediately to a La Casa del Habano in Teddington. There, they smoked for many hours straight, bringing in lunch and dinner.
Raconteurs both, Garay and Kaufman regale the remaining handful of diners with tales from visits to Havana hunting down specific smokes and enjoying them in the hotel they essentially take over during their stay. Each time they visit, they take a French press coffeemaker and leave it. There are four there now. This is the stuff.
Garay opens two special bottles for the remaining guests. One is a Havana Club 15 year old rum, and the other is a Hine Cigar Reserve Cognac. Garay is extraordinarily generous with these beverages as he has been in handing out Cuban cigars to some of the regulars.
"They look forward to these nights and sometimes bring friends," Garay says of the guests in attendance at the dinner. "Sometimes they come alone."
There are guests from nearby Napa County, from the Bay area and one from Denver who attends each dinner. This cigar event began as a great promotional tool for the hotel, but it's more than that now. It's a way for the hosts and guests to get to know each other and reconnect with like-minded people who truly look forward to the experience of getting together and enjoying something they all love.
Toward the end of the night, much later than the scheduled 8:30 p.m. finish, Kaufman points to another guest, saying, "I've known him since I was five years old."