Dinners designed to showcase wine and winemakers have long been a part of the American dining scene but it wasn’t until the 1980s, when consumers started to look beyond jug wines, that dinners were widely adopted as an effective way to market wine. The popularity of these haute cuisine events peaked in the 1990s when consumption of wine was fueled by the discovery of the “French Paradox,” and chefs and winemakers became celebrities in their own right. Today, winemaker-hosted wine pairing dinners are still popular but are also evolving to keep pace with lifestyle, as well as economic and culinary trends.
Keep It Small
Restaurateurs have reinvented the lengthy, foramal winemaker dinner in an effort to capture younger audiences, make pricing more affordable and to keep the dining experience under two hours. Traditionally most multicourse wine pairing dinners have hovered around the $100 to $150 a head price range, one that may be too expensive for the current economy.
While truly indulgent dinners approaching $300 per person are still selling, restaurateurs are including a wider range of price points, from as low as $45 inclusive for three wine-paired courses, and service styles in an effort to appeal to a younger and more casual audience of wine enthusiasts. Across the nation, more dinners are being marketed for under $100 with $75 per person being a common threshold across several types of operations.
Campton Place, a contemporary California cuisine restaurant in the 110-room Campton Place Hotel on San Francisco’s Union Square owned by Raj Hotels, has been offering its popular “Wine Scene” winemaker dinner series for the last two years. Dinners that range in price from $140 to $250 feature small production wines and their producers with no more than 40 guests. The twice-monthly dinners typically feature Napa and Sonoma county winemakers though French and New Zealand wine dinners are also being offered. The series has also included an all-sparkling wine dinner with Eileen Crane of Sonoma’s Domaine Carneros priced at $160.
Winemakers begin the evening by leading guests through a standing tasting of three or four of their wines before dinner. Guests are then free to socialize while they taste another four to six wines paired with the meal. “Having the presentations before guests are seated helps keep things moving and creates a more interactive experience,” says Campton Place food and beverage director Rahul Nair. “Keeping the group small also ensures that everyone has an opportunity to talk with the winemaker, representatives from the winery and our sommelier Richard Dean, MS.”
The Patina Restaurant Group which operates approximately 60 different restaurants on the East and West Coasts offers winemaker-hosted and wine-paired, prix-fixe dinners at different locations year-round. At its Café Pinot location in downtown Los Angeles, a Champagne-themed dinner presented by Charles Curtis, MW, who is the the head of North American wine sales for Christie’s auction house in New York City began with an aperitif and an introduction of the wines that were being paired with the six-course meal.
“Champagne dinners always sell out,” remarked Curtis, “they transcend the economy because they attract people who are celebrating in addition to a core audience of wine lovers.”Curtis has no doubt that Champagne dinners also work well both on a culinary and a marketing level. “Champagne is ideal for food and as a category; it offers lots of diversity and a wide variety of styles. People are often pleasantly surprised by how well rich rosés pair with lamb; it gets them thinking outside the box.”
The holidays always provide an occasion to celebrate and at Silks restaurant in San Francisco’s 158-room Mandarin Oriental Hotel, wine director Nicole Kosta offers a popular Champagne-themed dinner every December. This year she will pour Champagne Gosset paired with six courses for $140, without tax and gratuity, to a sold-out house.
Farm-to-table is a culinary mantra that is gaining steam in cities across the nation and many restaurants that emphasize seasonal, regional cuisine are offering wine-paired, prix-fixe menus on a monthly or even weekly basis. On the second Tuesday of every month, sommelier Matthew Turner collaborates with chef Gabriel Fenton to offer a four-course, wine-paired menu for $75 (valet included) at Bourbon Steak, a Michael Mina restaurant at the almost 400-room The Fairmont Turnberry Isle Resort & Club in Miami, Florida.
He started the dinners at a price point of $75 to attract more locals who tend to become repeat customers, and he says that it’s working. Turner’s goal is to make wine-paired dining less intimidating for his clientele with an emphasis on personal service; he pours all of the wines at the table and explains what inspired the various pairings while sharing as much information about the wines as guests want to hear. At some point during the evening, Fenton talks with each of the tables as well. “We chose this format as a way to promote our passion; we want guests to be as excited about their experience at Bourbon Steak as we are about creating it,” Turner says.
Given the shift towards a more relaxed, social approach to wine-paired dinners, it’s no surprise that winemaker-hosted meals are being served family-style at communal tables. At Seattle’s Volunteer Park Café, a casual neighborhood bistro, co-owners Ericka Burke and Heather Earnhardt keep service low key with monthly family-style winemaker dinners for $95 excluding tax and gratuity. While the winemaker is on hand to discuss their wines, the restaurateurs have dispensed with all of the formality associated with winemaker dinners.
Just east of Sacramento in Placerville, California, chef-owner John Evans offers a series of communal table winemaker dinners at his French Country restaurant Zachary Jacques for $45 inclusive of tax and gratuity. Evans was inspired by the chef’s tables he saw in San Francisco’s top restaurants, “bringing local Sierra Foothills winemakers and customers together in a relaxed environment has been a very successful format for us.”
Winemaker as sommelier
Cooper Mills, general manager at El Gaucho, one of seven upscale restaurants in the Seattle and Portland area operated by the Mackay Restaurant Group, supports local winemakers and builds repeat business with an innovative, valued-added spin for his guests. Each week, Mills invites a local winemaker to serve as a guest sommelier. “We have 14 certified sommeliers on the floor but winemakers have a passion that comes through,” says Mills “not only are they the best authority on their own wines, they’ve got soul.” As a guest sommelier at El Gaucho, a steak restaurant that is part of the group, winemakers get one-on-one time with customers and have a chance to educate the staff as well. Mills’ guest sommelier program has grown wine sales for his operation and built a fan club among El Gaucho’s diverse clientele which is one that supports local winemakers as well.
In order to promote these dinners restaurants are also using their own mailing lists as well as those of their guest producers for digital and paper mailings, newsletters, local event listings and social media like Facebook, Twitter and their websites. For the most part they are seeing repeat clientele.
Although the style and pricing of the wine pairing dinner is an ever evolving affair, the format seems as popular as ever. It remains a great way for restaurants to promote their lists and feature unusual and lesser-known wines.