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Among the Vines

Author: Jane Hodges Young
December, 2014 Issue

Welcome back, Cyrus! Or maybe not.

 
Douglas Keane is no stranger to fame—or controversy.
 
Widely heralded as one of the nation’s top chefs during the eight-year reign of his flagship Healdsburg restaurant, Cyrus, the Alexander Valley resident has amassed coveted honors and awards and is the reigning winner of Bravo TV’s “Top Chef Masters” (season 5).
 
But for all his acclaim, Keane has often found himself embroiled in controversy as well. Three years ago, he sued the Healdsburg Animal Shelter to save the life of Cash, a dog destined for euthanasia, and, in turn, created a media firestorm that led to the dog’s release to a rescue organization instead. Keane, who eventually adopted Cash, promptly said “thank you” and dropped his lawsuit—but not before delivering a black eye to the Healdsburg shelter operation, which is now under new management through the Sonoma County Humane Society.
 
Late last summer, Keane announced he wanted to build a new Cyrus restaurant, affectionately dubbed “Cyrus 2.0,” in a vineyard in Alexander Valley. Fans of the old Cyrus—who remembered Keane’s promise to return after “differing visions” between the chef and his landlord, Bill Foley, led to another high-profile media dispute and the closure of the original Cyrus in October 2012—were delighted to hear the news of his new venture. But several locals, who call Alexander Valley home, weren’t so thrilled.
 
So, once again, Keane—no shrinking violet—finds fame mixed with fury, making him the unwitting poster boy for a classic discussion of growth vs. no growth.
 
“For me, it’s never easy,” he says.
 

Keeping it local

Since closing the original Cyrus, Keane has been scouring Sonoma County to find the perfect location for its reboot. He admits to being partial to Alexander Valley because the restaurant is named after Cyrus Alexander, who arrived in the valley on horseback in 1840 and became its first homesteader. Keane also wants to locate the restaurant in Alexander Valley because he’s lived there for 15 years, first on Geysers Road and, for the last 10 years, on West Soda Rock Lane.
 
For many years, Keane has been friends with the Jackson-Banke family, founders/owners of Jackson Family Wines. One of the family’s premier winery holdings is Stonestreet Winery, located on the hairpin turn just past (or before, depending on the direction you’re traveling) the Jimtown community on Highway 128.
 
Jackson Family Wines has owned the property for many years, producing stellar, high-end wines from the vineyard’s grapes. A little more than a year ago, an adjacent parcel of less than one acre, which had a small house and two old barns, went up for sale and was purchased by Jackson Family Wines.
 
When Keane closed the original Cyrus, he says, Barbara Banke reached out to him, offering her help if Keane decided to keep Cyrus in Sonoma County. According to Keane, the newly purchased parcel exactly fit his vision for the new Cyrus. So he negotiated a lease arrangement with the Jackson-Banke family.
 
“They don’t want to be a part of the restaurant,” Keane says. “They’ll have no control at all. Barbara wants to keep Cyrus in Sonoma County but she doesn’t want to be a partner, just the landlord. They’re very forward-thinking people and I’ve had a long relationship with them that’s just been great. I think very highly of the family and admire what they’ve done for Sonoma [County].”
 
Jackson Family Wines refused to be interviewed for this story, saying “the focus should be on Douglas. This is his story.” A little prodding did elicit a written statement from Jason Hunke, senior vice president of communications, who said “The Jackson-Banke family is leasing land to Chef Douglas Keane so he can build a destination restaurant off Highway 128 in Alexander Valley. The family support for Doug Keane’s vision reflects a shared passion for inspired and distinctive culinary experiences and love for this place they call home. Both the family and Keane have deep roots in Alexander Valley’s agrarian traditions and close-knit community. Keane’s immense contributions to the culinary landscape have helped make Sonoma County a world-class food destination, and the family believes it’s in all our interests, as a community, to ensure such a tremendous talent stays in Sonoma. The new restaurant concept will be designed and managed independently by Keane and his team.”
 

The natives are restless

Despite the fact that the parcel the Jackson-Banke family is offering up is “perfect” for Keane’s plan, there are two snags. First, it will require an amendment to Sonoma County’s General Plan.
 
Second, it will also require that the land be rezoned. To do this “will take several years,” predicts Tennis Wick, director of Sonoma County’s Permit Resource Management Department (PMRD).
 
“It’s not something we do often,” Wick explains. “The General Plan has the land use designated for agriculture, and this is commercial. We have specific policies that strongly discourage conversion of agricultural land to commercial use.”
 
While Keane has yet to submit a formal application to the county—which limits what Wick and others in PRMD know about the project—Wick already says it will be a major policy request. “We’ll have to measure the impact it will have in the community, the precedent it sets and what community benefit is derived from it. We’re also required under state law to do an environmental review, which means an Environmental Impact Report will need to be conducted—and they’re expensive.”
 
The initial application will be reviewed by PRMD staff, which will make a recommendation. Then it will go to the Sonoma County Board of Zoning Adjustments and eventually will have to be voted on by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.
 
To his credit, Keane realized that exceptions to the General Plan and rezoning are sensitive issues with his neighbors, so he decided to reach out to them directly through local community organizations, like the Alexander Valley Association (AVA), and to individual community leaders to tell them of his plans before submitting an application to the county.
 
“I have every right to submit [an application] quietly, without notice. But being a good neighbor and resident of Alexander Valley, I wanted to reach out personally and hear the concerns of my neighbors to see if they could be alleviated before I submitted,” Keane explains.
 
The admirable approach, unfortunately, led to a front page story in ThePress Democrat, which quoted several valley residents who were opposed and none who endorsed the idea, “which pissed me off,” Keane says. “Actually, I’ve received tons of support as well.”
 
The first person Keane approached was Carrie Brown, owner of the iconic Jimtown Store and one of the community’s most admired residents. “Carrie is a big part of Jimtown, and I didn’t want her to think I was doing something against her,” Keane says.
 
“Everybody is buzzing, everybody is buzzing,” says Brown. “With Jimtown [Store] being the hub of the neighborhood, there’s been a lot of discussion. I’ve spoken to many of my neighbors about it, and there seems to be a lot of concern about the amendment to the General Plan. Would it open [the area] up for others to come in? The second concern is what would happen to the restaurant if Douglas were no longer operating it as Cyrus. Would it be turned into something like an Outback Steakhouse?”
 
Keane hears what Brown hears. “Basically, what I’m told is they don’t want 20 restaurants out there, and they want to know what happens to it if I die or if I’m not successful. They’re concerned about succession.”
 
One neighbor told Keane to not take it personally, “but he isn’t so sure he wants a restaurant out here. He likes me—thinks I’m a great guy—and if there’s a restaurant out there, he wants me to run it. But he just isn’t sure he wants a restaurant.”
 
Most of the people we talked with were not willing to go on the record as being opposed to the new Cyrus. Stu Harrison, an Alexander Valley resident in favor of the new Cyrus, says this is because “we naturally avoid conflict when it involves one of our neighbors. When there's an issue that divides, people tend to direct their comments toward the appropriate forum [versus the media]. Harmony is an important value here.”
 
Daisy Damskey, a long-time Alexander Valley resident and a partner in Palmeri Wines (with her husband, Kerry), was an exception.
 
“I never mind sharing my opinion,” she laughs. “First of all, I’m sure it would be beautiful and that he’d do a lovely job and the food would be excellent. But I’m concerned about zoning. Living in Alexander Valley, we’ve all experienced repercussions from [River Rock] casino that were further and broader than ever anticipated. I fear that, unless he can align the restaurant with an established winery—a project that’s already part of the valley—it could have a negative impact in terms of zoning.”
 
Wineries, she explains, have to meet certain regulations regarding branding and traffic patterns. There are permits that limit the number of cars and people, as well as types of events allowed, which provides for more control.
 
Damskey feels an alignment with Stonestreet Winery, Silver Oak or another Alexander Valley winery would “have a lot less impact” than a stand-alone restaurant. “Being a small valley, we share lots of cups of coffee and lots of glasses of wine. I can tell you that seems to be the general sentiment of my peers as well.”
 
Another idea she shares is to “do it in Geyserville. Geyserville has highly acclaimed restaurants and a preexisting market. You know, rock stars are only as good as their last concert. I think [Keane] would be better off launching it in Geyserville. If he decided to bring his new incarnation of Cyrus to Geyserville, he’d be embraced. That may not be the case in Alexander Valley.”
 
Harrison, however, strongly disagrees. The retired Silicon Valley executive, who’s been a member of the AVA since he moved to the valley 20 years ago (and even served as a board member for two years), believes Keane’s choice of location for the new Cyrus is “a wonderful opportunity for Alexander Valley.
 
“I share my fellow residents’ concern about growth in the valley, but in this case, I feel their fears are misplaced,” Harrison says, noting that restaurants have coexisted in wine growing regions all over the world and haven’t stimulated growth in those areas.
 
In a letter of support that he sent to the AVA, Harrison said a Cyrus-like restaurant would support local agriculture by showcasing Sonoma County produce and livestock, as well as specialty food products made locally.
 
“A rising tide lifts all boats,” Harrison says. “The improved visibility and greater recognition of the Alexander Valley appellation that will accompany Cyrus 2.0 will grow the demand for our agricultural products. Increased demand will support higher wine prices. Average grape prices will increase. Alexander Valley farmers, vintners and vineyard management companies will all benefit from greater sales,” he says.
 
“Put simply, a Cyrus-like restaurant on the proposed property will bring far greater economic benefits to local agriculture than could ever be achieved from a few more acres of grapes on the same site, which, even if practical, would only increase supply,” Harrison points out.
 

The vision

So exactly what are Keane’s plans?
 
Right now, the parcel can be identified from Highway 128 because of a blue barn that sits on the roadside edge of the property. Keane plans to have his restaurant “disappear as much as possible from the 128 side.” Access would be from the Stonestreet property using its existing entrance. A short lane would be constructed to reach the restaurant.
 
“I’ve always wanted to bring people in through the vines, because it makes you realize you’re in Wine Country,” Keane says. “Ideally, I’d like them to get a little dust on their cars, whether they be Jeeps or Lamborghinis.”
 
Once guests arrive at the restaurant, they’ll begin a journey. Keane spent time in Japan and, in Kyoto, was introduced to kaiseki restaurants, which are in old homes, many of which have been around for centuries. “Guests would go into the homes and, while they were eating, they’d hear about all the other rooms in the house—but they’d never get to see them,” Keane explains. “So I want to move people through a few rooms so they can see the whole place, all the time being reminded that they’re in the vines. My vision is for the restaurant to be perched 10 feet off the ground to give the feeling of floating in the vines.”
 
Keane plans to serve 12 people at a time in three seatings, meaning only 36 people would be served each evening. The first stop would be a caviar and sparkling wine greeting.
 
“For the first 30 to 35 minutes, we’ll get them acclimated, let them talk with the sommeliers about the wine they want with their dinner and offer them small bites.”
 
The old Cyrus was known for the maître d’s greeting, which involved picking up a telephone and announcing the guests’ arrival to the kitchen so the chef could individually prepare an appetizer to welcome them. The phone has been chucked at Cyrus 2.0 because “it was so misunderstood,” Keane says, explaining that many patrons found the gesture pretentious—and some even thought it was fake.
 
The next part of the journey would be a chef’s table. “It would be like a sushi counter, with 12 seats. We’d have tanks of shellfish and raw presentations with the best fish and shellfish and the very best produce from Sonoma County,” Keane says.
 
Then it’s on to the main dining room, where guests will be divided into their private parties. Keane pictures a glass-enclosed dining room, overlooking the vines, where guests would be served their last five to six courses (again, smaller servings than more traditional restaurants). The last stop before departure would be a visit to a very special room Keane prefers to keep a secret right now, only saying it would be based on chocolate, “and kinda like a place you’d get if the Michelin Man and Willy Wonka had a child.”
 
Reservations would be made through an online service, with everything paid in advance.
 
“That means they’re committed, which stops no-shows,” Keane says. “At Cyrus, we’d frequently have a six-top not show up—and that’s your profit for the night. The only thing they will pay for when they get here is what they drink.”
 
This system, Keane says, “also promotes hotel and other restaurant bookings in the area, as people plan their trips in advance. It also eliminates any drop-in traffic. We’ll know exactly who we’re cooking for, weeks in advance.”
 
The reservations would be like tickets: nonrefundable, but transferrable to someone else. He anticipates being open five nights per week.
 
The original Cyrus served 85 guests (“covers”) each night and had a staff of 50. The new Cyrus will be pared down significantly, serving 36 covers per night with a staff of 15.
 
“There isn’t a restaurant like this anywhere in the world,” Keane concludes. “Part of my reason for creating a ‘journey’ is that everyone has shortened attention spans these days, thanks to the age of the Internet, where something new is just a click away. So to blend fine dining with the changing times, Cyrus will pick people up, transport them through their dining experience and keep them vested throughout the journey.”
 

Nothing ventured, nothing gained

Jimtown is a special place and a unique community-within-a-community. Keane’s plans would take it to a new level, and it’s understandable why some residents are muttering, “There goes the neighborhood.”
 
“I’ve seen the plan,” says Brown. “Because it’s Douglas, because it’s Cyrus for Cyrus Alexander, and because it’s a beautiful expression of fine dining reflecting what’s around us—the seasons and our geography—I think it could be an incredible gift to the valley, because it would raise global awareness of the valley and its wines. It would only enhance what we have. It would be complementary to what I have [Jimtown Store] and what we do. There will be very few seats, and it would be a very minimal footprint in terms of what would be seen from Highway 128. I know the architecture will be tasteful and world class. For those reasons, I think it’s very special and could be absolutely wonderful.”
 
In short, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
 
 

Who is Douglas Keane?

When Douglas Keane arrived in Sonoma County in 2002 and opened Cyrus restaurant in Healdsburg three years later,with his business partner, Nick Peyton, the duo officially put Sonoma County on the fine dining map. Finally, Sonoma County had an answer to Napa Valley’s world famous The French Laundry.
 
But who is Douglas Keane? And how did he end up here?
 
Keane was born and raised in Dearborn, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, and still has lots of family back there. His father was Noel Keane, an attorney who was a pioneer in arranging surrogate motherhoods, including the famous “Baby M” case in 1986. According to his obituary in the New York Times, Noel Keane was “the focus of deep affection and bitter debate”—and it’s safe to say his son inherited a bit of his father’s propensity to dabble in controversy. The younger Keane doesn’t shy from confrontation.
 
When he was a kid, he “fell in love with cooking,” he says. “I learned how to cook from a Catholic nun. And my mother [Kathryn Douglas] is a great cook, too.” But it was an influential family friend, Stan Bromley, who was in the hotel business in Michigan, who became Keane’s mentor and encouraged the budding chef to attend hotel school at Cornell University.
 
“I idolized Stan, so I went to Cornell. I immediately wanted to cook, so every summer, I’d get out of school and go somewhere to cook. One summer, I ended up cooking for Red Sage Grill in Washington, D.C., for free,” Keane says. (Red Sage Grill was one of Chef Mark Miller’s highly regarded restaurants. It’s now closed.)
 
Halfway through college, Keane knew he wanted to pursue a career as a chef and considered dropping out, but everyone encouraged him to stick with it, so he finished his coursework and eventually graduated.
 
“Then I moved to New York City. The advice I got was to ‘Go get the shit kicked out of you in great restaurants.’ It’s the best way to learn. So I got pushed harder and harder, got yelled at, and loved every second of it,” Keane remembers.
 
Keane’s father, however, developed melanoma. So in the mid-1990s, the budding chef moved back to Michigan to take care of him during his final year, along with his brother, Chris, who worked at the senior Keane’s law firm. “Mom and dad had split up by this time, and Mom had moved to California,” Keane explains.
 
After his father’s death at the young age of 58, Chris inherited the law firm and Douglas moved back to Manhattan, where he found a job at Lespinasse, when the restaurant, located in the St. Regis Hotel, “was at the top of its game,” Keane says. “I’d eaten there a few years before. I had black sea bass with a kefir lime sauce, and I said to myself then, ‘I either need to quit cooking or I should work for this guy [Gray Kunz].’”
 
The problem was, Keane hated the weather in New York, especially winters. With Mom in California, he headed west, landed in San Francisco and started looking for a good fit with a top chef.  (His brother also moved his law practice from Detroit to The City.)
 
“Lespinasse was immaculate and run like a brigade. It was spotless. We even wrapped the stoves in saran wrap before we mopped the floor because we didn’t want to get spots on them. So I was spoiled, and a lot of the places I looked at in San Francisco didn’t meet my standards. They had to be clean and pay attention to detail,” Keane reflects.
 
He met his match at Jardiniere and quickly joined Traci Des Jardins, one of the Bay Area’s most celebrated chefs.
 
“Jardiniere was pushing the envelope, and the kitchen was clean! And Traci’s demeanor and confidence in herself let me be exposed to the press. She had no problem with saying, ‘This is the guy who’s running my kitchen.’ We still have a great relationship to this day,” Keane says.
 
After two years, Keane left to help Gary Danko open his eponymous restaurant. There, he met Nick Peyton, master of the front house. He noted that Peyton, who was Danko’s business partner as well, probably wouldn’t last long with Danko, given their differing philosophies on the way things should be done. Six months later, Keane returned to Jardiniere, but he had an itch to open up his own place in Wine Country and convinced Peyton, “a city boy,” says Keane, to join him in the venture. They selected a location inside Les Mars Hotel, which was being built in Healdsburg.
 
“We knew it was going to take some time to build the hotel, so we decided to open up Market (a restaurant in St. Helena) because we needed jobs,” Keane says. That was in 2003.
 
On March 4, 2005, Cyrus finally opened—to rave reviews. Keane and Peyton enjoyed seven-plus magnificent and heralded years, but finally had to close in October 2012 after a dispute with landlord Bill Foley, who’d purchased Les Mars in 2010.
 
Keane and Peyton are the current management team for Healdsburg Bar and Grill and, for a brief time, Keane had a chicken wings café at Graton Casino, which he closed after a few months. “It was a bad fit,” he says simply.
 
Since the closing of Cyrus, Keane has been looking for a new location for Cyrus 2.0. He’s also become a certified dog trainer and was a driving force behind the founding of Green Dog Rescue in Windsor, which to-date has saved more than 300 dogs on death row and placed them in good homes. He earned $120,000 for Green Dog by winning Season 5 of Bravo TV’s “Top Chef Masters.”
 
Keane married Lael Newman, who grew up on Newman Ranch in Knights Valley. Her parents are Peter and Judy Newman. The Keanes live with their three dogs —Piglet, Finnegan and Cash—on West Soda Rock Lane in Alexander Valley.
 
 

Jimtown Store

It’s been 25 years since Carrie Brown and her late husband, John Werner, were on vacation in California and came upon a rundown, beat-up, old general store in Alexander Valley. It was the old Jimtown Store, opened in 1892 by Jim Patrick, an Alexander Valley pioneer who wanted to provide a general store, post office and meeting place for local residents.
 
“We were visiting from New York in 1988, and there it was. It had two outhouses and a sink that drained to the ground,” Carrie remembers. And it was for sale.
 
“When we found it, it had been vacant for five years. But it spoke to us and we felt it was such a beautiful setting,” Brown says, so the couple bought the ramshackle property and set out on a two-year restoration project, finally opening on Memorial Day, 1991.
 
While Brown and Werner were “outsiders” coming into the close-knit Alexander Valley community, Brown says they were welcomed with open arms, although a few expressed concern about growth issues.
 
“For the most part, we were really welcomed, because people realized we were going to restore their community meeting place. The Jordans, Wetzels, Hafners [and other prominent families] understood we wanted to bring something special to our beautiful valley,” Brown says.
 
Over time, the Jimtown Store has become an icon in Alexander Valley. The store serves breakfast and lunch every day except Tuesday (when it’s closed) and brunch on Sunday.
 
It also offers a few antiques, old fashioned candy, toys, books, housewares and locally made food products. While it’s not a grocery store, per se, neighbors often stop in if they need flour, butter, eggs, cream or milk, because “our kitchen has a lot of staples” and Brown sells it to them as they need it. “We’re not Safeway. We try to feature special local products because that’s what people want to buy. We have housemade brownies, cookies, homemade tortilla chips, Jimtown spreads (olive tapenade, for example) and local cheeses and honey—things from this area,” Brown says.
 
“A lot of locals gather here and we know most by first name. Everyone from our neighbors to winemakers, winegrowers and vineyard and winery owners comes in. We get the whole strata. We love our neighbors,” she says.
 
Brown says about half of Jimtown Store’s business comes from locals and the other half “are visitors from all over the world.” When interviewed for this story during harvest in September, Brown mentioned customers from New Zealand, Turkey, Japan and South America who stopped in for food and sustenance in just one week’s time. That’s not to mention visitors from the rest of the United States.
 
While Brown is the face of the Jimtown Store and her name is synonymous with the Jimtown community, it’s truly a family affair. Her father, Charles Brown, and her sister, Julie Brown, are also “contributing members of the Jimtown world,” she says. And she doesn’t know how she’d operate without her manager, Haley Callahan, or the assistance of new chef, Ron Osbourn, and her long-time chef, Peter Brown (no relation) who now runs Jimtown’s special events.

 

 

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