When restaurateurs think of wine events, they usually approach them as ways to make extra money on slow nights. But that could be counting your Jeroboams before they’re poured.
The true benefits offered by well-run wine events are much broader than slightly more robust sales figures and wine sales on a weeknight. If doneproperly, wine events dinners and tastings both present an opportunity to expand your business, continually educate your wait staff and develop your menu. Unfortunately, it seems, few restaurateurs understand the right way to orchestrate these sorts of events.
Wine dinners in some cases can be promoted as easily as posting a menu with matching wines at a special price on a set night. That sort of planning might bring in a few extra people, but that can’t properly be called a wine dinner; it’s more like a one-night stand.
Restaurateurs who commit to making wine events part of their business must do so with passion. If the events turn out to be ad hoc, once every quarter sort of thing, then little of the benefits will flow from it.
Making it Real
To start with, a succesful wine event series starts with the building of a list of patrons who can be marketed to. Among the best methods are inserting mailing list cards in every check presenter and collecting business cards from regular lunch and dinner patrons. In the days of internet connectivity and e-mail, the cost of notifying patrons about events is greatly reduced from only a few years ago when the only reliable way to contact guests was the prinitng and mailing of notices.
Planning ahead is critical. Allow yourself at least two months for developing themes and scheduling speakers. When I was hosting events at my restaurants, I found it most successful to market three events over a five-week period with a mix of topics. For example, a fall program would begin with a dinner of red wines from Tuscany or Piedmont in the first week of October, followed 12 days later by a tasting class of eight to 10 wines, divided equally between red and white, from Oregon, and conclude at the end of the month with an Australian wine dinner.
This type of program, announced in advance, offers customers a variety of formats and wines to select. Patrons who are serious about wine might attend all three, while others might bring friends or clients with a particular interest in one wine region. Either way, you’ve offered a menu of wine events for your customers to choose from.
To me, any good wine event requires a speaker. The speaker can be the wine-knowledgeable restaurant owner or wine manager but in my experience, they are few and have limited knowledge and the public speaking ability needed to make the event worthwhile; or you might invite a representative from your wine distributor, but they usually arrive with their own merchandising point of view. The best bet is a representative from the winery, especially the winemaker or owner who can give an historical perspective as well as technical information about the wines.
Mise en place
Setting up the room will play a big role in how this information is conveyed. You can prepare individual tables just as you would for your ala carte dinners, or group people on tables that seat from eight to 10 guests comfortably. On the surface, individual tables seems like the better idea because it’s rather unusual for restaurants to seat strangers together. However, my experience has taught me that group tables offer greater benefits to both hosts and guests.
For instance, individual tables make it difficult for the speaker to convey information, and often turn him or her into little more than a table-hopping sommelier. For the guests, it’s much like just another night out together, although in this case slightly enhanced with someone stopping at the table to pour wine and speak to them for a few minutes.
Group tables, on the other hand, offer an entirely different dimension to the evening. First of all, it only takes a few minutes for everyone at the table to introduce themselves since they already presume to share a common interest: wine and food. By the end of the evening, each table is likely to become a group of relaxed new acquaintances. The speaker can address groups of this size more easily and can convey information just as it is done in many business meetings.
The wait staff also benefits as they have the opportunity to meet the speaker and hear the presentation while pouring the wines with each course. Over the years, I’ve watched members of my staffs so routinely gain wine knowledge from these events that they would regularly request to work them. Partially as a result, they became my best wine servers and sales people.
The kitchen plays a very important role in wine dinners. In cases such as wine events, they are called on to do more than cooking the evening’s food; now, they must decide which food to cook for a one-time event. It’s not as easy as it sounds.
The idea that most chefs posses a sophisticated wine palate is a fiction created mostly by the media. While some chefs are highly knowledgable, the truth is, in my experience, that most chefs are content to drink beer and have little, if any, understanding of wine. This, understandably, is a food/wine pairing recipe many winemakers fear.
It’s critical to the success of any wine dinner that the food support the wine, and not clash with or over run it with bizarre combinations, exotic spices or powerful chiles. I recall one famous celebrity chef in New York City who ruined a luncheon for a California winery by loading up each dish with jalape