Beyond the Wine Dinner

Jeffery Lindenmuth - December 2005

To lure an increasingly wine-savvy market, sommeliers and restaurateurs are revamping the universally standardized food pairing promo.

Thirty years ago, the wine dinner was introduced as a means by which American winemakers could proselytize about their art and cultivate an appreciation of their wines applying the same personal touch they exercised in their vineyards. Somewhere along the line, though, the wine dinner was derailed--hijacked by sales representatives, exploited for profit, made formulaic.

That's not to say that dynamic five course affairs staged by charismatic and talented wine producers are no longer to be found. But, just as our definition of dinner has changed, with the proliferation of small plates and tasting menus, so must the wine dinner. In-house sommeliers are reclaiming the wine event, devising occasions to suit every level of expertise, any budget.

At Chicago's X/O, leisurely Sunday evenings have been dubbed Sommelier Sundays, hosted by Amy Lewis from 5 to 8 p.m. Although Lewis presides, she is rarely the only sommelier in the house; the time slot was picked specifically to draw hospitality industry insiders along with the general public. A $35 tab includes tastes of five wines thoughtfully paired with chef Bob Zrenner's "global tapas."

Lewis is always sure to pour at least one pricey or elusive wine; she counts Fred Loimer oaked Grüner Veltliner and Orin Swift Cellars "The Prisoner" from Napa Valley among recent gems. Because X/O's wine list is composed mostly of boutique and smaller producers, Lewis says that such an affordable introduction to the wines and the restaurant cultivates the trust of patrons.

At Napa Valley Grille in Westwood, California, it's not Sunday but Wednesday that draws wine lovers like so many fruit flies to a sticky glass. Flight Night fills every table and has people standing several deep at the bar, according to Paul Tilson, general manager and wine buyer. The wine list is all Californian, primarily from Napa, but Tilson never lacks creativity in assembling clever flights. "Summertime…and the Sippin' Is Easy" includes Quivira Vineyards Mourvèdre Rosé, Bonny Doon Vineyards Ca' del Solo Malvasia Bianca, and Di Bruno Pinot Grigio from Santa Rita Hills. He offers two California Pinot Noirs and one Merlot in "Delightfully Smooth Reds," and "The French Connection" parades California-grown Sémillon, white Meritage, and Sauvignon Blanc.

As part of the flight training, chef Anne Conness sets up a cooking station in the bar, providing tasting trios like "Pinch Me, Pull Me"--toasted burrata with grilled baby artichokes, marinated bocconcini with oven roasted tomatoes, and fried mozzarella. "It's an ongoing promotion that gets people talking about wine and separates us a bit from the crowd," says Tilson, who says the wine flights are increasingly popular in the main dining room as well as the bar and credits the program with boosting both by-the-glass and overall wine sales.

At New York City's Fleur de Sel, sommelier Janine Lettieri decided early on that traditional wine dinners were a poor fit for the 45 seat space. Fleur de Sel's answer to the thirst for wine knowledge comes in the form of wines paired with the chef's six course tasting menu. The menu is $82, with wine handpicked for the table an additional $48. But Fleur de Sel earns the most buzz with its Monday Night Wine Series, when Lettieri offers wines from a selected region for half the list price. September featured all Bordeaux wines, October all Champagne; and in December, even Burgundy is not spared.

"Monday night is a very strong night, usually totally booked, which it would not be without the wine series," says Lettieri, estimating that 95 percent of patrons take advantage of the half price for the wines of a given region. Even rare and allocated wines are included, so many Monday night wine sales are admittedly a break-even proposition. "It gets people to explore. It's education, but at the same time the guests enjoy their meal and have some privacy." She also says check averages remain solid, as patrons who might normally buy a $100 bottle seize the opportunity to splurge on a $200 offering.

At Sterling Steakhouse in Hollywood, sommelier Jonathan Mitchell packs the outdoor patio on Wine Wednesdays, serving six to 10 different tastes of wine and an assortment of hors d'oeuvres by chef Andrew Pastore for just $20. "I welcome them with a glass and the first wine, and when they come up for each successive wine there is a little engagement," says Mitchell, who conceives the week's theme in collaboration with winemakers and distributors, who are often present.

Attendance has grown to 30 to 40 persons through word-of-mouth promotion and an e-mail announcement sent each Monday. The program is especially popular with young women, and, having sampled the menu, many patio guests stay for dinner. "It's about getting people in the door. And, it's very attractive to drop $20. That's what you pay for one Martini," observes Mitchell.

Nolita House, a casual restaurant bearing the name of its New York City neighborhood, is roping them in with its Wine and Cheese Labs ($40 to $60), a scientific approach to pairing artisanal cheeses and wine led by Max McCalman, maître fromager for Picholine and Artisanal restaurants. "It's an interactive type of tasting, where the audience speaks their mind," says owner Marc Matyas. "Max is an author, and so it also functions as research for his cheese book" (e.g., Cheese: A Connoisseur's Guide to the World's Best). Also well received is a daily happy-hour special consisting of a glass of wine and two cheese selections for just $12. Matyas has even conducted wine and music labs, confirming that white Zinfandel indeed tastes better with the Beach Boys than it does with the Doors, for instance.

Not all wine events have gone casual. Some restaurants target sophisticated consumers, raising their stakes by adding ever more value to the old standby. Hawthorne Lane in San Francisco harnesses the combined talents of the chef, the pastry chef, and local winemakers for its Saturday morning cooking classes ($80 to $100). David Gingrass, the owner, has no difficulty persuading prominent California winemakers from the likes of Iron Horse, Gloria Ferrer, Bennett Lane, and Newton to participate in the four hour class. "You have 20 people who think it's a great idea to get up on a Saturday morning and eat and drink, so it's definitely their crowd," says Gingrass, who instructs alongside chef Bridget Batson.

The cooking lesson culminates in a multicourse lunch paired with several wines. Gingrass says that while the "horsepower" involved means it's not a real profit center, every session is a surefire sellout, by contrast with his past experience with traditional wine dinners. "I get to know the students, and the winemakers are encouraged to do the same. Guests come and meet someone like Joyce Sterling from Iron Horse, and there is a personal connection," says Gingrass. Not to mention an ongoing payoff.

Brill Williams, chef/owner of The Inn at Sawmill Farm in West Dover, Vermont, tapped into his remarkable cellar to create overnight packages aptly named "A Wine Lover's Dream Come True" and "More Than Your Basic Bordeaux." The Wine Lover's package included two nights for two, plus breakfast and dinner. On the first evening each couple sipped a half bottle of Pommery Champagne, a bottle of 1978 Château Lafite-Rothschild, and a glass of Muscat Beaumes de Venise; on the second, a half bottle of Puligny Montrachet, a bottle of 1978 Château Margaux, and a glass of Château Raymond Lafron Sauternes.

"I was trying to create some room sales. I had all these 1978s that were drinking great, and I decided it was a good way to start thinning them out," says Williams, who sold the package for $1,700, well below the $2,110 à la carte price. He continues to build his collection of half bottles to accompany the Dinner by Design program, which, with Williams' assistance, invites guests to create a custom menu and pair wines with each course.

At Montage Resort in Laguna Beach, California, wine director Christopher Coon took a cue from the successful Chef for a Day program led by executive chef James Boyce to establish Sommelier for a Day, immersing guests in his world from the dining room to the cellar. "Our tasting menu works really well, and this takes it to the next level, with access to the winemakers and suppliers. I think people are jealous of the fact that we drink wine for a living, and they want to see what wows us and to have our access," says Coon, who usually enlists a guest winemaker like California's Alan Phillips from Foley Estates and Lincourt Vineyards.

For a price of $500 for the first person and $150 for each additional person, one to six guests join Coon for a morning tasting, a multicourse lunch, and an afternoon tasting. Dinner the same evening at Studio restaurant, customized by Boyce and paired with wines in collaboration with Coon, is a popular supplement. The program has proved especially successful as an inspired gift for everything from wedding anniversaries to the closing of a real-estate deal.

"The typical wine dinner no longer offers intimacy; it's 200 people in a ballroom," says Coon. "When you bring back one-on-one interaction, there's the potential for it to be magical, really just magical."