Tai Power Seeff
A considered calling: Master sommelier Richard Dean contemplates a glass of red poured from one of his prized decanter
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The Turnaround Somm

Lauren Ladoceour / November 2012

While a curated list, organized tastings, and winemaker dinners may be commonplace publicity tools for today’s restaurants, this master sommelier has leveraged their appeal and his own passion for pairing to increase profitability and star earning power.

Inside San Francisco’s Campton Place restaurant, master sommelier Richard Dean dusts off his prized decanters. Every night, he carefully washes, polishes, and takes inventory of the swan-like glass creatures, each worth more than $500. He uses them to pour from his list of 1,200 labels at nightly tastings and at his nearly monthly winemaker dinners—intimate affairs hosted by prestigious producers that draw a full dining room and fill hotel rooms on otherwise slow Monday and Tuesday nights. The dinners, along with a license to sell wine to-go from his collection of more than 10,000 bottles, have caught the attention of vineyard owners, producers, and enophiles, bringing in new business that benefits both the hotel and winemakers. “Campton Place has been known for food and beverage for years,” says food and beverage director Rahul Nair of the 60 seat dining room that launched the careers of some of the Bay Area’s best chefs, including Lark Creek Restaurant Group’s Bradley Ogden and Eleven Madison Park’s Daniel Humm. “Of course, a lot of it comes down to the kind of rapport Richard has built with winemakers over time.”

Dean, an affable man with a fragile, frequent laugh, says he spends about $400,000 annually to stock Campton Place’s temperature-controlled wine room and does about $1 million in sales every year. But it’s the Riedel decanters he’s proud of. “I get real crazy about these things,” says Dean. “I have to make sure they’re handled right. If you don’t show any effort in that, no one else will.” Think of the decanters as the dramatic finishing touches he’s made to help elevate Taj Campton Place hotel and its Michelin-starred restaurant’s wine program since he joined in 2007.

Back then, when Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces bought Campton Place and transferred Dean—at that point, wine consultant to all of Taj’s Indian properties—Campton was at a fluxion point. It had come under new ownership twice in two years, during which time media darling Humm, the restaurant’s executive chef, had left for New York City and taken with him his reputation and mastery of contemporary European cuisine. The restaurant suffered, dropping under the radar for the first time since the hotel opened the dining room in 1983, just six steps down from the hotel’s marble reception area. From the beginning, Campton Place enjoyed a place among San Francisco’s best fine dining experiences, inside or out of a hotel. In the 1980s, it received full favor from critics and travel writers who praised opening chef Ogden’s upscale American comfort food. Later, after Todd Humphries’ five year stint at the helm, Laurent Manrique brought his take on Gascon cuisine before he left to be the chef of Aqua and then later Fifth Floor inside the Hotel Palomar a few blocks away. (Also passing through: Sherry Yard, now of Spago in Beverly Hills; Christopher Kostow, who is now executive chef of The Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena; and Jan Birnbaum of Epic Roasthouse.)

Meanwhile, Dean had been making a name for himself at New York City’s now-defunct Tavern on the Green and later at The Mark hotel on the Upper East Side. It was at The Mark that Dean launched what he called the “Wine Scene with Richard Dean,” a regular winemaker dinner aimed at drawing diners and hotel guests on traditionally slower nights. The format—a short reception and then pre-dinner formal tasting of often winery-only bottles, followed by a group seated dinner with another six or more tastings from the winemaker—not to mention the special room rate at the hotel and sheer access to the likes of winemakers Maria Ponzi of Ponzi Vineyards and Luciano Castiello of Castello Banfi every week, made The Mark a destination for wine lovers and industry folks.

“He’s professional and thoughtful about what he does,” says Eileen Crane, founding winemaker and CEO at Domaine Carneros in Napa, who has been leading a dinner with Dean once a year since his days at The Mark. “Putting these dinners together takes a lot of time, and he wants to make them top-notch and special. You actually sit down and do a private tasting of the wine, so people really get an education and insight. You know, over dinner, everyone’s eating and obviously drinking, and you only get a couple of good tidbits and have a good time. But the way Richard has it set up, you do a tasting in a quiet space and have the opportunity for people to ask questions. That’s a great draw.” In 2007, when Taj picked up Dean, they gave him his working orders: Take the wine scene with Richard Dean, rinse, and repeat the success at Campton Place. Dean contacted producers he knew already or those who were based in nearby Napa and Sonoma and often stayed at the hotel—Cakebread Cellars, Hartford Court, and Jordan (who recently did a component tasting at Campton) among them.

Crane naturally followed. “People who visit San Francisco are going to be interested in wine,” says Crane, who’s done retrospectives on her sparklings and shared winery-only releases of Domaine Carneros’ The Famous Gate Pinot Noir. “Their first stop is San Francisco, but they’ll continue their vacation or at least make a day trip up to Wine Country. They’re very interested in the wines north of San Francisco. Also, we have a large wine club in San Francisco, so it’s a good way for us to offer a different tasting in a different venue that may be closer to home or a new wonderful place to stay and dine.”

“When you’re this close to Napa, most people are drinking California wine,” Dean reiterates. “So you have to find your best California wines and get them listed. A lot of these wineries have room left in their budget and want to entertain their club members, so it’s a good excuse,” says Dean. “The winemaker tells us what they want to present, and then we talk with the chef and put the two together.” Dinners run from about $110 to $300 per person, and a “Take the Elevator Home” room rate of $150 is available to attendees.

By keeping the meal to four courses, “we’re able to create a perfect tasting menu that showcases the wine and food, given the fact that most people want to leave early, since it’s in the middle of the week,” says Nair. Though the dinners were created more as a PR tool for the restaurant, he explains, “we’re able to work out deals with the winemakers, which help us in maintaining our costs.”

It’s cross-marketing that’s working, according to Nair: “Repeat guests and increased attendance are usually two key factors. Word of mouth is the best marketing available, and this is exactly what the wine dinners do for us.” It also doesn’t hurt that for the past two years, the restaurant has earned a Michelin star, with Dean pairing chef Srijith Gopinathan’s food with a hint of Indian spice. “A lot of his dishes go well with Riesling. And Riesling goes especially well with a lot of these foods that are a little sweet in texture,” says Dean. “I’ve done lots of menus with just white wine. Sometimes some heat and acidity go very well with the warmer spices.” For example, this summer Dean matched Gopinathan’s sardines and shrimp in spiced yogurt with early peas and asparagus with a Chardonnay from Cartford Court—and later, Brentwood corn and summer squash salad with smoked cuttlefish and red pepper coulis with a 2009 Chardonnay from Papapletro Perry Winery. Often, it’s Dean’s job to help the winemaker and chef collaborate and make sure the wines bring out the best of Gopinathan’s seasonal ingredients. “Being an old goat, I have to be flexible with younger people and newer ideas,” says Dean.

Nair says wine sales are a huge revenue driver. “The wine dinners help us in getting more customers and increasing customer awareness, which result in higher wine sales. Wine sales usually have been going up between 5 to 8 percent from year to year.” Today, Dean continues his almost 10 year tradition of winemaker dinners, which draw wine lovers from the hosting vintner’s wine club membership and his own email list—a massive file of more than 18,000 industry folks, customers, and enophiles he’s met over the years. (He also has flown back to India to train Taj employees and has created a core list of 500 wines he’s bought in great quantities at deep discounts for Taj properties.) His latest discovery? Riesling Kabinett Karthäuserhof Eitelsbacher Feinherb Mosel 2001. “I discovered this wine a few months ago,” says Dean. “I use it by the glass and with any dish that has a little heat to it, like a mild curry-type sauce. A beautiful wine.”