If anyone knows how to put it all together, it would seem to be Levent Bozkurt and his team at Stonehedge Inn & Spa in Tyngsborough. They’ve had plenty of practice. Wine dinners have been a regular monthly event here for more than 20 years. A key asset is the property’s 60,000-plus-bottle wine cellar built into a hill. Having a serious wine program in place gives any restaurant a leg up in attracting winemakers of note, since they’re typically eager to support restaurants that are already good customers. Bozkurt says the arrangement is usually advantageous for the restaurant’s wine-dinner customers, too. “We don’t try to make the same margins as when someone orders a la carte in the dining room.” (Prices range from $95 to $125.)
The impulse to reward regulars is something restaurants take seriously, and it means that scoring a seat at the table isn’t always as easy as picking up the phone or sending an e-mail. At Legal Sea Foods, which like Stonehedge has a vast library of wines, any diner can reserve for wine events online, but the company’s wine czar and beverage VP, Sandy Block, typically makes targeted pitches to individuals he has reason to think will be interested.
At Boston Harbor Hotel, executive chef Daniel Bruce gave the wine-dinners movement a jump-start when he initiated the Boston Wine Festival at the landmark waterfront hotel 23 years ago. This January, February, and March, when the 2013 festival will be held, more than 40 dinners are scheduled — which should be enough to keep you busy. Bruce is widely thought of as a master of the art of creating dishes that make wine sing, and his swank, beautifully organized soirees attract top winemakers from around the world.
NATURALLY, winemakers are there to flog their wines — that’s why they leave home, remember? — but since Massachusetts liquor statutes ban restaurants and wineries from retail activities, attendees eager to purchase wine then and there will be disappointed. The work-around is for a retailer who stocks the wine to participate in the event. Guests can check off the wines they wish to order on an offer sheet circulated at the table, taking delivery later. The exception is Blantyre, where no hint of commerce is allowed to break the Masterpiece Theatre spell. “The wines we serve are going to be sold out anyway,” says sommelier Christelle Cotar.
How much fun you have may depend on whether the event takes on the feel of a seminar, larded with esoteric detail, or just a roaring good time with a train of interesting dishes emanating from a motivated chef and a string of entertaining anecdotes from a chatty speaker. The best experience is likely to be one that presents a bit of both.
And it’s not just winemakers who present at dinners. New York-based importer (and wine writer) Terry Theise does one or two events a year when he knows the chef is someone he can work with “to craft a really lovely event, in which it’s worth everyone’s time and the diners are in some way both enlightened and delighted,” he writes in an e-mail. His ideal event is one “where the kitchen ‘gets’ the wine and marries the food sensitively . . . The room’s acoustics make it possible for the speaker not to have to shout. The pacing is genial; not too slow, not too brisk. The wines have stories to tell. There aren’t too many wines, and the wine guy avoids being self-indulgent. The spirit of conviviality trumps the need to spiel at all costs.”
If at this point you’re making a note to get yourself on someone’s mailing list with a view to being a guest at one these events, Christopher Howell of Cain Vineyard and Winery, a winemaker who’s in high dinner demand around the country, has a word of caution: Choose a wine dinner at a restaurant you are interested in, where wine you really want to try will be served. That may sound obvious, but “it’s like a blind date,” he says, “Getting the right guests is what makes a successful event.
“I may be a little jaded about wine dinners, but one thing I know about them is that just as important as the food and the wine are the guests. Just thinking about what interesting people I’m going to meet makes me enthusiastic about an event. It’s when you add wonderful people to the right wine and cuisine that magic can happen.”
WHERE TO BOOK A WINE DINNER
Finding out what’s happening when involves checking websites and, most important, letting restaurant managers and wine retailers know you would like to be on their mailing lists. Restaurants with a commitment to hosting wine-themed dinners include the following (already-scheduled upcoming events are listed):Continued...