Wine dinners: Where the good times flow
Part lecture and part party, restaurant-hosted wine dinners are a deal for lovers of good food and conversation--and the wine’s not bad, either. Here’s how to get a seat at one and what to expect.
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IT MAY ONCE HAVE BEEN enough for a winemaker to tend to his vines and barrels, to prune, plow, and keep an eye out for downy mildew. But today few winemakers have the luxury of sticking to their knitting or their properties — they’ve got to press the flesh as well as the grapes.
So, like congressmen who know all politics is local, winemakers all over the world have accustomed themselves to a yearly round of off-season travel, one that brings them face to face not only with distributors, retailers, and other wine trade insiders, but with the consumers who actually buy their wine and drink it. The most likely venue for such meet-ups: the restaurant-hosted wine dinner.
The season for these events runs roughly from late fall through early spring, when the work in Northern Hemisphere vineyards has wound down. With the vintage safely in the cellar, vintners can turn to the all-important business of talking up their properties.
A wine dinner gives them a forum to do just that, while guests get to taste along with the people who make the wine they love. Both get to savor a menu prepared for the occasion by chefs who are generally thrilled to step outside the nightly grind and test their improv skills. It’s all rather jolly.
A typical event is scheduled for a night early in the week (when the dining room is likely to be less populated) and priced from around $85 to $125. Restaurants with the space may begin with a 30-minute reception where guests can mill about before being ushered to their seats, often at a single, communal table.
Retailer Howie Rubin, general mananger of Newbury Street’s Bauer Wine & Spirits, takes pleasure in a quirk common to wine dinners. “You start out sitting with strangers, but by the end of the night, you’ve made a few friends, learned something about wine, and had a good time,” he says. “The night may start off slowly, but eventually the wine does its work: People relax, start talking, get to know each other.”
Multiple courses are presented with selected wines. Intent on bringing the varied elements into synch, chef and winemaker will have collaborated on the menu, and both will be present to chat with guests and explain their approach.
Chef-owner Jeffrey Fournier of Newton’s 51 Lincoln calls this his favorite way to cook for diners. “They put themselves completely in my hands, and it leaves me free to be more adventurous, play a bit more freely with the ingredients,” he says.
If the chefs just want to have a good time, you can bet they want their guests to feel the same way. Flutes of bubbly may be offered as diners arrive, and trays of passed hors d’oeuvres aren’t unusual. This is the moment when couples and groups who have reserved with the intent of sitting together should plan their strategy. If you’ve come on your own, now is the time to size up the congregation and see who else might be looking for a tablemate.
There’s no reason to think that a restaurant you love for its unbuttoned attitude is likely to morph into a nest of snobbery just because there’s a winemaker coming in; by the same token, don’t expect an establishment known for elegance and formality to kick off its brogues and show you its tattoos. This is one area where past performance is a reliable indicator of future results. Serious places tend to host serious events, and more casual spots go easy on the gravitas.
Blantyre, a posh resort hotel in Lenox, does no more than three wine dinners a year, but each, in keeping with its Gilded Age affect, is strictly gold standard. Guests recently ponied up $500 per seat at a single 25-foot-long table and savored a sequence of bijoux courses paired with wines from creme de la creme Bordeaux property Chateau Margaux. They also enjoyed a rare personal appearance by its celebrity winemaker, Paul Pontallier.
Sure, $500 a head plus tax and gratuity makes a pricey night, but consider that single bottles of Chateau Margaux may sell for upward of $1,000 upon release (more at auction) and that the fizz in your flute at the reception is the princely Krug, and the price looks more reasonable, even if it is a stretch for most people. A Blantyre event is sure to be a memorable one, and not just because of the wine. With guests bejeweled and dressed to the nines, hotel manager Simon Dewar’s suggestion to “think Downton Abbey” seems spot on.
Meanwhile, at Cambridge’s UpStairs on the Square, where wine director Matt Reiser keeps up a busy schedule of two events per month, December excepted, there’s seriousness but no museum sensibility on offer. Prices are a more typical $70 to $125 per event, depending on what wines are being poured. As for familiarity, “about half our guests know each other well enough for a kiss on the cheek,” says Reiser. “They’re wine-dinner regulars. The other half are newbies. We won’t have seen them before.” The room most often used for UpStairs events is a cozy one with multiple tables rather than a single communal one and its own Lilliput-scale corner bar.Continued...