House of Treasures

Mushrooms and wine are serious business

Chef Chris Czarnecki at the Joel Palmer House, standing in his restaurant’s wine cellar. ##Photo Provided
Mushrooms are the primary focus at the restaurant. ##Photo Provided
Dine within a historic Dayton home. ##Photo Provided

By Gail Oberst

If you’re curious who has the largest collection of Oregon wines in the Northwest, and probably the world, wonder no longer. Not surprisingly, it’s chef Chris Czarnecki of the Joel Palmer House restaurant. He’s been collecting since taking over his parents’ restaurant in 2008.

His collection contains more than 600 varieties of Oregon wines– about 2,100 bottles– is also the largest assembly of Oregon Pinot Noirs.

“Stashing bottles has become my thing,” says the fourth-generation restaurateur. While his father Jack’s passions focused on wild mushrooms, a delicacy still front and center at the Dayton restaurant, son Chris retrofitted the 19th-century basement cellar to accommodate his own passion– wine. Carefully curated bottles– the finest Oregon wineries have to offer– are available for sale to diners and other collectors.

Most wines in his collection were chosen to enhance the mycological character of the dishes for which Joel Palmer House is famous. And, for the most part, the 604 varieties exclude “closet queens,” dusty bottles of famous wines that may or may not stand the test of time. Czarnecki’s oldest bottle is from 1994– a still delicious Stag Hollow. The chef admits he frequently raids his wine cellar “… to be sure everything still tastes good.”

Until Levi Seed, a certified and experienced sommelier, came along, the wines were collected entirely according to Czarnecki’s taste. Now, Seed, who leads the sommelier staff, helps add to the collection.

Seed has paid his dues to the winery gods, moving directly from high school to Portland’s former Oregon Culinary Institute. While there he discovered wine tasting. After working as a cook and sous chef in Oregon, he studied and passed sommelier exams. For the next several years, he worked for Argyle, Domaine Serene, Ponzi and a hotel or two. One fateful evening, he had dinner at Joel Palmer.

“Right away, I wanted to work here,” Seed said.

“His presence.” Czarnecki states, answering the question of why Seed was hired. “Levi has freed me.”

In addition to Seed’s more recent wine choices, Czarnecki has planted his family flag at the top of an unparalleled Oregon wine collection, adding his personal touch to the trade established by four generations of restaurateurs before him.

Great-grandfather Joseph began the Czarnecki legacy in 1906 with his tavern in Reading, Pa. Joe’s Tavern morphed into a restaurant under second-generation Joseph Jr., who first brought wild mushrooms into the family tree. Third-generation Jack also worked for the family business, eventually taking over in 1975. Later, when he settled in Yamhill County, Jack kept his family’s wild mushroom tradition alive when he and wife Heidi opened the Joel Palmer House in 1997. Son Chris spent his early youth living above the restaurant in Pennsylvania where he was filling water glasses by the time he was in fourth grade. These days, his own boys, Jonathan, 9, and Emmett,11, can be found some nights pouring water for guests.

Unlike his father, wine, not mushroom foraging, became chef Czarnecki’s passion. Instead, he prefers to manage the “mushroom mafia,” his tongue-in-cheek term for the locals who provide the wild fare that makes the Joel Palmer House famous. Czarnecki favors cooking with the mushrooms and selecting wines matching the earthy flavors of his dishes.

Was it inevitable he would become a chef?

Czarnecki notes his parents, who retired in 2008, never pressured him to join the business. Instead, he joined the Army and headed for Iraq, Germany and France, where– you guessed it– he worked as a cook.

But when his father’s health prompted retirement, his parents asked if he would assume the family business. Czarnecki, then married to Mary, agreed.
Awards for the restaurant continue to accumulate under his family’s management.

During the pandemic, Czarnecki updated the restaurant’s interior and outbuildings, originally constructed in 1857. He also expanded the cellar to accommodate his growing selection of wines.


So, there you are, sitting down to an exquisitely mushroom-centric dinner at the Joel Palmer House, usually served in five courses prix-fix, although you have many choices within each course. Your server hands you the hefty 20-page wine list and asks which wines you might like to pair with your meal.

“Oh, a nice Oregon Pinot Noir,” you say, before noticing there are at least 500 on the list. That’s right, 500 bottles of Oregon Pinot Noir. Your head feels light, your eyes blur, you reach for your water, hoping to stall, and then … Seed comes to your rescue. Dear Sommelier: Where do we start when we’re presented with 604 choices?

First, relax, Seed and Czarnecki recommend. Most of the wines are curated to be paired with the restaurant’s wild mushroom dishes. “You’re not likely to find a mushroom dish that doesn’t go well with Pinot Noir.”

Then, place yourself into Seed’s trustworthy hands. He will first ask you some questions.

Are you a novice wine drinker? “Ask about price and don’t feel bad about it,” said Seed. Your price point will help your sommelier narrow choices.

Next, ask about regions represented on the list. If you’re unfamiliar with a specific Oregon growing area, ask your sommelier to suggest a quintessential wine from there.

A tip from Seed: If you don’t know, ask. Some guests misunderstand terms such as sweet, dry, full-bodied, tannins or even terroir. If Seed inquires what you like using terms you don’t comprehend, ask for an explanation in simple language. Seed likes analogies to suss out preferences, such as: do you like your coffee with cream? Black?

“A brief conversation can result in a better understanding of what a guest might enjoy,” Seed said. It might also help narrow the list to a handful of choices.

“We encourage questions. We don’t want anyone to feel patronized,” Seed said.

The Joel Palmer House
600 Ferry Street
Dayton, OR 97114

Gail Oberst has been a Northwest writer, editor and publisher for decades. Among her favorite gigs was business editor for the News-Register, and editor pro temp for three months for the Oregon Wine Press. Inspired by the OWP, she founded the Oregon Beer Growler with her family, later selling it to Oregon Lithoprint. She continues to edit and write a wide range of articles for magazines, and weekly and regional newspapers. Recently, she published her first fiction novel, Valkyrie Dance, available on Amazon, and is working on her second, San Souci. She lives with her husband, Michael Cairns, a retired ecologist, in Independence, Oregon. They have four grown children and seven grandchildren.

Web Design and Web Development by Buildable