2000s Archive

Second Act

Originally Published October 2003
California’s New Boonville Hotel was the stuff of legend. But can Vernon and Charlene Rollins resurrect the dream in small-town Oregon?

Getting to the bucolic college town of Ashland, Oregon, 15 miles north of the California border, can be a little hair-raising. Highway 5 rises from the Central Valley up past Mount Shasta and a formidable phalanx of rock formations known as Castle Crags. The drive is a slow climb, and the descent into the valley is downright precipitous, marked by perilous turns and special ramps for runaway trucks. No wonder so many wayfarers who make it to picturesque Ashland, home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, never want to leave.

When Vernon and Charlene Rollins—proprietors of New Sammy’s Cowboy Bistro, a restaurant just outside of town that has been called “one of the best-kept secrets in the Pacific Northwest fine-dining frenzy”—first came here, nearly 15 years ago, they had no thoughts of staying. They were fugitive chefs at that point, fleeing from the spectacular failure of their world-renowned Northern California restaurant, the New Boonville Hotel, and headed for France. Charlene was eight months pregnant, and they were traveling north in an old Valiant convertible with a top that wouldn’t close.

“There was a nice feeling about the town,” Vernon recalls. A tall, bespectacled man with a great cloud of white hair, he would look like a displaced academic were it not for his Hawaiian shirt, one of a closetful. “We thought, ‘Gee, if we ever come back to the States maybe this would be a place to try.’ ”

Within a year, the couple’s French sojourn was over; they couldn’t get visas to stay on. Charlene’s mother, who had recently moved to Ashland, was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, and the Rollinses wanted her to meet her grandson. They also thought they could find work there. Thanks to the annual influx of a hundred thousand or so theatergoers, there are more than 200 places to eat in Ashland, everything from stuffy faux French to Burger King. It’s not the first place your average person would think of opening a restaurant. But Vernon Rollins—who went to UC Hastings and passed the California bar only to discover he didn’t want to practice law, and who ran an ill-fated wine importing business before opening the New Boonville—is not your average person. Former friends and business associates describe him variously as a genius and a fool, a visionary and a conniver. And Charlene, a lean and intense woman who has shared his life and his dream through two restaurants (she cooks while he runs the dining room), has been called both his soul mate and his fellow schemer.

But 14 years after opening New Sammy’s, their restaurant is an unqualified, albeit quiet, triumph, a manageable success in contrast to the New Boonville’s meteoric rise and fall. To persevere in the wake of that food mecca’s flameout, which made headlines from Los Angeles to Rome, is something most people couldn’t imagine. The Rollinses, however, could have imagined little else.

“It’s not that we couldn’t do anything else,” says Charlene, sharpening her knives in preparation for the evening’s service. “It’s just what we do. It’s what we are. And during the times we didn’t have a restaurant, we were always looking for one.”

Like so many California food stories from the ’80s, the saga of Vernon and Charlene Rollins begins at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse. Charlene—who studied philosophy in graduate school but says a critical part of her education came from dining in France—was working in the kitchen under the famously temperamental Jeremiah Tower. Vernon, a close friend of both Tower and owner Alice Waters, was supplying the restaurant with fine French wines, enlightening his customers and their clientele in the bargain. Describing his role in the creation of the nascent California Cuisine movement, Vernon says, “My only contribution was to keep people focused on wine. In that, I was pretty influential.”

The two met at Chez Panisse’s seventh anniversary bash, in 1978, and it was love at first sight. “We spent the afternoon, right in the middle of the party, talking and drinking wine, comparing ideas,” recalls Vernon. (“He gave me a lot of wine, let’s put it that way,” says Charlene.) “She wanted to do a restaurant in the country, and that’s what I wanted to do.”

Vernon wasn’t troubled by his lack of experience. It was the age of self-invention: Waters started as a Montessori teacher, Tower had been an architect. Within six months of meeting, Vernon and Charlene were married, and within a year they were in Boonville, about two hours north of San Francisco, and being bankrolled in their experiment by a host of eager investors.

Ask anyone who knew Vernon Rollins in those days, and they will tell you that his great skill was getting people to share his enthusiasm for good food and wine. As co-owner of the M.V. Wine Company, he had persuaded gourmet groupies in Berkeley—­doctors, lawyers, and professional people drawn to the burgeoning food scene—to invest in the Bordeaux and Burgundies he imported. (One of Vernon’s favorite gambits was buying the wine cellars of failing French restaurants such as Paris’s Chez Denis, the site of Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey’s notorious 31-course, $4,000 dinner, in 1975.) At least one of those investors claims the returns never materialized. Don Stanford, a Berkeley psychiatrist, estimates that he ended up with several cases of wine that, although of excellent quality, were worth only about 20 percent of his original investment. “I got what I paid for, though,” says Stanford. “It enriched my life to be involved with him and with what he was doing.”

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