White Tail’s rebirth – it takes two (women), baby
Leslie Bahr and Helena Gustavsson are two dynamic and creative women who have decided to collaborate by joining together in a project which has all the earmarks of a huge success story.
Bahr, born in Sitka, Alaska, and currently owner of Guerneville’s White Tail Wine Bar and a San Francisco-based award-winning architect, “grew up in the woods” in (among other places) Staten Island, where both of her sisters were born.
Her family moved quite a bit and although she spent time in the Midwest. Her post-age 25 years were spent chiefly in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City, where she received a Masters degree from New York’s Parsons School of Design.
While residing in San Francisco, she visited and fell in love with Guerneville’s friendly, small-town atmosphere, eventually buying an Airstream trailer in which she lived in Rein’s Beach Trailer Park, some two miles west of Monte Rio, which has a picturesque and rarely crowded beach.
Bahr, giving in to one of her passions, swam in the river daily, which she says is comparable to swimming in lakes she swam in as a child, and in her heart and mind ”things connected.”
She was enthralled with the area’s natural beauty “and the large number of family-style winemakers,” in the Guerneville area and “was surprised that there was no wine bar located along the river to represent these important people in our community.”
Bahr was ready to open a business and purchased property on which she dreamed of living a sustainable, energy-efficient, water-conserving lifestyle in a house she intended to build from the ground up.
Walking around Guerneville, she was struck by all the empty storefronts and the town’s run-down appearance and decided, as a “gesture of building infrastructure for the town,” that she wanted to “create a backbone of revitalization.”
“I wasn’t anti-development,” she says, “just anti BIG development.”
Although the town looked like it “was about to go under,” there were a few fine eateries that had opened, and because she “didn’t want to have to drive up to Healdsburg for a nice glass of wine,” she employed her interior architectural skills and created White Tail Wine Bar.
Her dream was to “put Guerneville on the map” as having “the greenest original architecture” of any town for miles around.
At that time there were numerous vacant storefronts lining Guerneville’s Main Street and, wanting a way to employ her architectural and design expertise, she yearned to become involved with community development and utilize her skills to convert a venue on Main Street that was unlike any other establishment in the area.
Recycled materials, exposed beams, redwood tables, an industrial-quality zinc bar and cork floor tiles were reminiscent of elegant, yet people-friendly, yet intimate bars in Berlin, Chicago and Paris. A brass chandelier was installed, and cushy sofas with overstuffed pillows with a view of Guerneville’s eclectic street scene made it a solid choice of those who loved the river’s bucolic, laid-back atmosphere but missed the big-city vibrance and self-confident panache.
Says Bahr, “The redwood gives the bar just the right amount of warmth while the rest of the space remains modern and crisp.”
Local winemakers were thrilled to have the enterprising Bahr among them and a place where they could showcase their wares.
Special events, private parties, themed specials and exclusive pouring found a venue that felt just right, and visitors as well as locals embraced White Tail with a passion.
The unique establishment attracted the curious and the “cosmopolitan,” but the food Bahr served seemed to her less than exciting. The idea of serving tasty and uncommon cuisine appealed to her, which gave birth to the idea of forming a “new business model” with two people who ran complementary businesses.
Bahr was familiar with Chef Helena Gustavsson’s skills and her excellent track record on the river, and the idea of a collaboration and special pairings became very appealing.
Meanwhile, Swedish-born future Chef Helena was passionately focused on becoming one of the world’s great chefs – a goal rooted in a childhood spent, with her brother, in her mother’s kitchen as well as her family’s extensive organic garden
Local farmers provided fresh eggs, raw milk and vegetables, but because of the short growing season, much of it was canned, dehydrated or frozen. Eggs, raw milk and vegetables came from neighbor’s’ gardens, and in autumn her father shot a moose that was butchered and tucked away in the family freezer. They prepared it as needed for the winter table with wild mushrooms gathered in the nearby forests.
Chef Helena’s healthy and nutritional diet prompted her to become a competitor in Sweden’s Miss Fitness competition, and in 1999 she took eighth place. There were two fitness competitions, she explains, one that emphasized athleticism and another that was more widespread and prestigious. Helena’s love of sports and her conditioning earned her a 1997 fourth place finish in the more athletic contest.
While on vacation in San Francisco, Chef Helena met and fell in love with her future husband, a Marin County native, and decided to stay in California and pursue her dream. In order to stay in the U.S.A., she had to be a student, so she chose to attend culinary school.
As a graduate of the San Francisco City College culinary school, Chef Helena interned in Garde Manger and Pastry at San Francisco’s prestigious Fleur de Lys restaurant. Her Front of the House experience extends to former Cyrus Restaurant in Healdsburg and the Farmhouse Inn and Restaurant in Forestville, followed by owning her own restaurant in Guerneville, the former Charizma Wine Lounge. Chef Helena’s endeavors also include baking pastries at Della Fattoria in Petaluma and preparing seafood and natural cuisine as chef and manager at the seasonal Jenner Bistro.
Her husband’s family had a vacation home on the river, and the temptation to relocate to the Guerneville area became irresistible.
Gustavsson focused mainly on working events such as Winemaker Dinners and (this year) the Fort Ross celebration, and that led to her sterling reputation as a premier chef.
“I love the combination of flavors,” she said, and she gains much satisfaction from pairings wines and foods. “I love to taste a wine and think about what I can make which will go well with this.”
Bahr and Gustavsson-Gisea have been working together for a month now, and they are being discovered and rediscovered daily.
Bahr is extremely picky about the wines she has in house, and some come from small, family wineries. The beers include Moylan’s Kilt Lifter and North Coast Scrimshaw Pilsner.
The new menu is an amalgam of tastes, textures and epiphanies that are unique, fulfilling and international and unlike anything else on the river. To achieve greatness in some areas, “it takes a village,” but to turn Whitetail Wine Bar into an unparalleled success, it just takes two women, well paired to work just right.
Below are a few of Gustavsson gastronomical specialties:
Three tender Duck Tacos with strawberry-watermelon salsa and sesame coleslaw. Pair with Lunch Money Reisling. $9
Beef and Rice Noodle Salad with cabbage, carrot and peanut dressing. Pair with Joseph Henry Chardonnay. cup $7 bowl $14
Baked Mushroom Piroshki served with a creamy apple and beat potato salad. Pair with Chateau Adore Pinot Noir. cup $7 bowl $14
Curry Wild West Rice with grilled chicken and seasonal veggie skewer. Pair with Leo Steen Calpella. cup $7 bowl $14
Meatballs on a Stick with Helena’s potato casserole temptation. Pair with Ca;Star “Alta” Zinfandel. cup $7 bowl $14
Desserts feature Chocolate Truffles Duo+ one odd one (a cookie), Pot de Creme with a crunch cookie and ice cream flavors you likely have never heard of.
Vegetarian versions of some dishes are available. White Tail also sells family platters that serve 3-4 for $40.
Executive Chef: Helena Gustavsson-Giesea
Sous Chef: Alan Bedient
Where: White Tail Wine Bar, 16230 Main St., Guerneville, 604-7449.