Thursday, November 3, 2011

A Tragedy in Wine Country


Yesterday as I was sitting on the bus headed home from work, I popped open Facebook to catch up on the happenings of the day. While skimming the news feed, a shared link on Wine Press Northwest's site caught my eye. Award-winning wine country restaurant closes. Without even clicking on the link, I knew. I knew in a "heart drops into your stomach" or "just got kicked in the nuts" kind of way. It was Picazo. It had to be Picazo. A world-class chef...the site of one of my best culinary experiences ever...setting up shop in the Tri-Cities, my homeland? The place I had to spend family holidays?  It was too good to be true.

I clicked on the link, and read the first sentence:

KENNEWICK, Wash. Just five months after it moved to Kennewick from Prosser, Picazo 717 has closed its doors.

My fear was confirmed. Chef Frank Magana, proprietor of Picazo, was shutting the doors after four years, multiple awards from the Washington Wine Commission, and a recent move to Kennewick from the original downtown Prosser location. With an awesome Washington wine list, a love for the wine country environment, and a focus on fresh, local ingredients, Picazo held a special place in my heart. In 2009 a group of cockeyed optimists from The Oregon Wine Blog, this journalist included, spent an evening in Prosser with the Picazo crew as described in Part 1 and Part 2 of our feature.

I remember the discussion in the car ride back to Yakima like it was yesterday.  The conversation went something like, "damn, this place is special", and, "holy shit that was the best dinner I've ever had".  There may have been a "can you stop at that gas station so I can pee because I had too much wine" thrown in as well.  The place was really *that* good.

So What Happened?

As quoted in Northwest Wine Press,

"One of the things that brought down Picazo was Chef Magana wasn't at Chef Magana's restaurant," he said. "That was my mistake. I was out catering. I was doing what I love. I was trying to have the best of both worlds, but I couldn't."

A victim of his own success. A split focus from a chef in demand for every wine related event up and down the Columbia Valley. Too many irons in the fire can dilute focus, and in this case, it hurt.

A community that wasn't quite ready. Prosser worked because it was a small, intimate community. The location was smaller, the rent was cheaper, and pretty much everybody who goes out to eat in Prosser was either involved in the wine/agriculture industry with direct ties to the restaurant, or, were wine-related tourists. All folks who are more than happy to support a world-class restaurant in their local community. 

Kennewick, on the other hand, isn't quite there yet. The community at large isn't as gourmet. When Picazo announced the move from Prosser, I recall thinking "finally, a great non-chain restaurant for when I visit my family!" While I wasn't the only one who thought that, there are plenty of Tri-Citians who are very happy with your mediocre national chain and when you tack on more seats to fill with higher rent and a bigger staff, it makes the equation a little harder to pencil out.

A location that's still up and coming.  The Southridge area of Kennewick has all the promised to become a cultured a few years.  It's still relatively fringe and doesn't receive the kind of walk-in traffic that a downtown location would.  Next to a sports bar and a freeway, the Kennewick location had it's work cut out for it from the start.

What Does This Mean?

Support your local wine country restaurant.  Seriously.  If the recipient of the "Winemaker's Choice Award" in the Washington Wine Restaurant Awards can't make a go at it in the heart of wine country, we're not doing enough as consumers to spread the gospel.

Sure, the restaurant business is a tough road, but if a phenomenal establishment like Picazo can't turn a profit while the Applebee's down the street is doing gangbusters business, this writer isn't sure he wants to show his face in that town again.

Frank, Tricia, Trina...we'll miss you, however, I have a sneaking suspicion we haven't seen the last of your culinary excellence.


  1. It’s sad when any local business has to close its doors, but “tragedy” is going a little far. Blaming the unrefined tastes of Tri-Citians and big chain restaurants for Picazo’s failure? Scapegoat much? This may come as a shock, but not all Tri-Citians are unsophisticated hillbillies who consider Olive Garden upscale dining. My husband and I go out to dinner often and it’s almost always at a local, independently-owned restaurant. I’m not sure if you’ve looked, but there are a number of restaurants here that aren’t Applebees. We never went to Picazo in Kennewick because it was out of the way and, from what I heard from people who love food but weren’t Chef Magana fan-boys, it was overpriced and overrated. It was way out of the way on the outskirts of Southern Kennewick (good luck Southridge Village at being the next up-and-coming area – no one wants to drive all the way out there). It’s a tough area for anyone to be located in and I didn’t see any advertising. It was like “Chef Magana” expected people to come to “Chef Magana’s” restaurant for “Chef Magana.” Ego probably didn’t help his business much either.

  2. abj2233, while I think you're taking my writing a bit more seriously and literal than I intended, I respect your comment and point of view.

    The point of the post wasn't to slam the Tri-Cities, rather, examine the multitude of issues that led to the demise of Picazo -- one factor being the culture of the area, but also, as noted, the chosen location in Kennewick and the absence of the chef.

    If there were more people in the area like you and your husband, I think we'd see more success from a place like Picazo.

    And...if all Tri-Citians are unsophisticated hillbillies, count me as one who was a resident for 20 years.