Renowned restaurateur and wine expert finds her niche at historic mansion
Wrigley Mansion CEO Paola Embry has been a fixture on the Phoenix restaurant and wine scene for two decades. And while it won’t surprise anyone to learn that she gained restaurant experience early in life, how and where she first learned about the business isn’t standard “here’s how I got my start” fare. Embry grew up in Viña Del Mar, Chile. The fourth largest city in the country, it’s located on Chile’s Pacific coast and its name translates to “Vineyard of the Sea.” Her roots are about as picture-perfect as can be for someone who grew up to be a wine connoisseur and certified wine expert.
In a nearby village, her grandparents owned a tiny eatery called Emilia’s. The space could only hold four tables, and the menu featured four daily specials and a dessert. But, the food attracted a faithful following.
“The style was simple home cooking that included empanadas, ceviche, pastel de choclo (Chilean beef and corn casserole), and lots of simple fresh-grilled fish with olive oil and herbs,” Embry says. “The specials depended on what my grandmother found at the market. She also boasted an impressive wine list of one white wine and one house red. I remember helping out by chatting with the guests and trying to charm them into buying me treats.”
When she turned 12, Embry’s family left Chile and moved to the U.S. But that early exposure to restaurant operations left an indelible impression on her, as have restaurants in the 73 countries she’s visited over the years.
In 1998, Embry became co-owner and operator of Christopher’s Fermier & Paola’s Wine Bar in Phoenix with her then-husband, Chef Christopher Gross. In 2008, they moved their business to Biltmore Fashion Park and simplified the name to Christopher’s and Crush Lounge. That establishment became a favorite among Phoenix fine-food lovers.
In 2010, Embry was asked to work with the existing management team at the Wrigley Mansion in Phoenix to help improve operations. A few months later, she formally assumed the titles of CEO and Wine Director, while still co-owner and operator of Christopher’s.
For the past several months, Embry may have felt like she’s almost relaxing, compared to when she was juggling two jobs for eight years. Earlier this year, Christopher’s lease ended. At the time, Embry, Gross and Wrigley Mansion owner Jamie Hormel decided that because they all work so well together, they would add Gross’s team to the Wrigley Mansion “and focus all of our efforts full time on making the Wrigley Mansion the best dining experience in Phoenix,” Embry explains.
The Wrigley Mansion was built between 1929 and 1931 by William Wrigley Jr., the chewing-gum mogul. Situated on top of a 100-foot hill close to the Arizona Biltmore Resort (a property Wrigley owned at the time), the mansion has 24 rooms, 12 bathrooms and more than 16,000 square feet of space. It cost $1.2 million in 1931 (more than $19.6 million today).
Under two different owners for 13 years, the mansion operated as a private club. In 1992, Geordie Hormel, heir to the Hormel Foods empire, bought the mansion and opened it to the public for meetings, conferences and other events. Hormel passed away in 2006, and his widow, Jamie, continues to own the property.
Embry is not only passionate about running restaurants and famous landmarks. She’s a devoted healthy foodie and a certified sommelier, recognized for her extensive knowledge of wines by multiple French wine associations. “I’m very hands-on with all of our wine programs,” she says, “from Jamie’s Wine Bar to Geordie’s Restaurant to the new location of Christopher’s.”
This fall, Embry resumes a hectic schedule when Christopher’s opens a new location at Sky Harbor Airport, where she will oversee the wine menu. “I don’t think of it as having to ‘find time’ to put together the wine list. I think of it more as this great passion that I’ve been fortunate enough to turn into a career.”
The mansion’s wine selections have caught the attention of nationally known wine lovers and magazines, including Wine Enthusiast, which declared Geordie’s Restaurant & Jamie’s Wine Bar among the 100
Best Wine Restaurants in America; and by Wine Spectator, which recently presented Geordie’s Restaurant with its fifth consecutive “Best of Award of Excellence.”
Embry feels grateful to work in such a supportive environment. “I find the restaurant industry to be a fairly inclusive industry for women, especially in the wine world. At the Wrigley Mansion, we have a strong team of women in leadership roles, including myself and owner Jamie Hormel.”
Identifying unforgettable varietals remains her first professional love. “Being an effective sommelier is not just about tasting wines,” she says. “It’s about managing and optimizing the value of a key asset of the company. For an organization like Wrigley Mansion, investment in our wine cellar represents a significant asset class on our balance sheet. Being a sommelier gives me a unique understanding of how to maximize the financial performance of an asset class that I believe is a key skill in being an effective CEO.”