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JOHN DECHERNEY, CHEF, OENOPHILE, ALASKAN

John Decherney of Specialty Imports in Alaska knows good wine

by Greg Klupar

3 months ago


John DeCherney knows food and wine.

He’s worked in restaurants in Manhattan, and he’s been chef to Alaska governors.

Yet one of his favorite wines is the sweet strawberry rhubarb wine from Bear Creek Winery made in Homer, Alaska.

“The people at Bear Creek are absolutely delightful,” said DeCherney, who is a Juneau-based sales and regional manager for Specialty Imports, of Anchorage. “Strawberry rhubarb wine tastes like spring. Nobody in any marketing department could come up with anything better than that. It tastes like spring, and I’m delighted to represent Bear Creek’s wines.”

Specialty Imports is a “niche market” supplier and Alaska’s premier importer and distributor of fine wines from all over the world, as well as beer and spirits, since 1979. It has offices in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and Kenai and sells to local establishments such as the Skagway Inn in Skagway and Annabelle's and Dwyer's in Ketchikan, to name just a few in Southeast Alaska.

DeCherney is well-traveled, but he has settled into the Alaskan lifestyle. He grew up north of Wilmington, Delaware, and he has lived in Manhattan and Seattle as an adult but now spends much of his time traveling Alaska for Specialty Imports. He arrived in Alaska in 1982 and has worked for Specialty Imports since 1993.

A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, DeCherney started his career at the Helmsley Palace Hotel in Manhattan. He and his wife, Nancy, got married in 1981 but the two decided they didn’t want to live on the East Coast, so they settled in Seattle.

But staying in Seattle didn’t last long. They soon heard the call of Alaska. Since Nancy was from Haines, they decided to move there before landing in Juneau.

“At the time Seattle was, and this is before Microsoft and Amazon, it was a boring, one-company town, Boeing,” he said. “At the time it was the middle of the Reagan recession and Alaska was at the end of the pipeline boom, and we decided to move there.”

“I went from working in a very urban environment to a rural one. I went from living in Manhattan to living in Haines. It took a little while, but while I love New York City, I’ve never regretted moving here. It’s been great for my career and something my wife and I really wanted to do.”

It was at the Culinary Institute that DeCherney met Nancy.

“She was working in the kitchen and I was working in the store room,” he said. “She was returning some bad shrimp, and I decided to ask her out to the movies. I took her to see ‘Grapes of Wrath.’ Pretty romantic.”

It was romantic enough, apparently, and the two married in 1981.

They ran a popular Juneau restaurant for a time, “Fiddlehead Restaurant and Bakery”, and they co-authored “The Fiddlehead Cookbook: Recipes from Alaska’s Most Celebrated Restaurant and Bakery,” although Fiddlehead is no longer in business.

DeCherney also was chef to three governors of Alaska, Governor Bill Sheffield, who was governor from 1982 to 1986, Governor Steve Cowper, who served from 1986 to 1990, and Governor Walter Hickel, a former U.S. Secretary of the Interior under President Richard Nixon, who served from 1990 to 1994.

“They were all easy customers,” he said. “They were all fine. The chef job has since been eliminated, but it was tremendous while it lasted.”

John DeCherney, wine specialist, in Juneau, Alaska

John Decherney

DeCherney said working with Cowper was more of “a blend between friendship and employer” because the Cowpers had a child that was of a similar age to their own. But when the Hickels arrived, it was time to leave the Governor’s mansion.

“We left because the Hickels were on a much more restrictive diet and the food wasn’t as much fun to cook, but I enjoyed the Hickels quite a bit,” DeCherney said.

DeCherney has come to love life in Alaska even though he’s not an outdoorsy person.

When he’s not working, DeCherney enjoys the performing arts scene in Juneau. “Nancy is currently the president of the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council so we do a lot of arts stuff, the symphony, the Juneau Lyric Opera, but I also travel a lot for my job,” he said. “When we’re here I host wine-tasting fundraisers for local nonprofits and invite friends over for dinner. Being the “wine guy” is a fun job.”

Still, although they are entrenched in Juneau they may not stay forever. As they get closer to retirement, he said, they may look for a warmer, dryer climate, “not Seattle, but maybe someplace near it.”

Meanwhile, as an oenophile and a chef, DeCherney said he has several favorite wines — apart from the strawberry rhubarb wine of Bear Creek. “But if money was not an object I’d drink a lot more Barbera,” he said, referring to a red Italian wine.

DeCherney said that when he was in the restaurant business back in the 1970s, the common wine pairing was white with fish or chicken, red with meat. But he recommends only one thing when it comes to drinking wine of any kind.

“The most important thing is to drink what you like,” he said.