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SO HAPPY TOGETHER: creating successful wine and food dinners

Maximizing Profits
Event Table Setup

At white-tablecloth restaurants everywhere, spontaneous wine and food pairings happen regularly as part of the individual service for each diner. Without much fuss, the sommelier, or another knowledgeable server, often can direct the felicitous marriage of a particular wine with a certain dish. Achieving this culinary romance on a larger scale, however, with multiple bottles and foods on parade, plus a sea of expectant guests and the winemaker (or his or her representative) in attendance, is quite another matter. Fussing is essential.


A well-choreographed dance of food and beverage involves careful planning, a close collaboration between winemaker, chef, and restaurant owner, and a leap of faith that all the pieces will work together seamlessly. Timing of the courses, proper temperature of the wines, and a congenial atmosphere must prevail in the front of the house, regardless of how heated the back of the house may become. De rigueur elements include a forest of pristine stemware standing like sentinels at each place setting, a well-oiled brigade of kitchen staff primed to cook and plate up a multitude of courses in record time, and a crackerjack team of waitstaff cradling the appropriate wines to pour into the right glasses and placing the plates just so in front of each diner. Proper pacing of the meal, a logical sequencing of dishes and wines building to a satisfying crescendo, plus spot-on timing of courses are all critical. How well your operation can accomplish these goals is what makes, rather than breaks, an event, so that customers feel that their time and money were well spent. It’s these factors that differentiate an event that is merely a ho-hum dinner with wine from one that is revelatory, fully satisfying and memorable enough to build repeat reservations.


To help bring wine dinner details into focus, three professionals from three different restaurant operations share some of their hard-won wisdom and experience here. Each of these managers has navigated the tricky shoals of timing and talent to helm successful winemaker dinners. They include Eric Landt of the Wauwinet Inn, Nantucket, Massachusetts, a Relais and Chateau property with its estimable Topper’s restaurant; Gerhard Tratter, proprietor of the Saddle Peak Lodge, Calabasas, California; and Richard Dean, Master Sommelier presiding over an ambitious wine program at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group’s Mark Hotel in Manhattan. All of these experts have built a loyal following among the dining cognoscenti and hotel guests for their multiple monthly events.


From the outset, Landt stresses, “it’s first an event to showcase the wine. We allow the food to speak for itself, preparing our food to fit the style of the wine. We feel privileged that winemakers want to represent their wine at our property but realize that not all of them are comfortable extolling the virtues of their wines in front of a crowd.” Wauwinet’s Executive Chef Chris Freeman echoes these sentiments: “My food is about clean, simple, true flavors. It’s not complicated food, so it allows the character of the wine to shine through. I write the menus for winemaker’s dinners around the wines so the foods complement, not overwhelm, the wine.”

Presiding over a 10,000-bottle wine collection, Dean loves to push the envelope a bit when planning winemaker dinners. “With Executive Chef Andrew Chase, we have a brainstorming session to throw some challenging and even controversial ideas around. We have come up with some successful, if a bit unconventional, events like the all-chocolate [savory] menu where each course had some form of chocolate in it. We had lots of fun pairing wines with that one. Our spring asparagus wine dinner made some waves too.” With an average attendance of around 65 guests, The Mark events are held as often as two times per month. The price per head for a five- course, five-wine meal hovers around $85.00. But Dean admits, “Our food and beverage costs run to about 50 percent when we feature French Burgundies with the dinner. Therefore, it’s not a true moneymaker, but there are other considerations that still make it worthwhile.” He points to the fact that these kinds of events create new opportunities for the crew, keeping the staff fresh and energized. Dean adds, “By scheduling our wine dinners on Mondays, typically the slowest night of the week, we are keeping the waitstaff happy.” The dinners also enliven the dining room during slower summer months. “If we get 50 percent of the turnout we had hoped for, we still consider that a winning situation, because it’s an image and goodwill builder for the restaurant,” states Dean. “Within the hotel chain, we stand by offering a full schedule of such events.”


Others agree with Dean that the benefits of wine dinners are less tangible than what they bring to the till. Saddle Peak’s Tratter comments, “I don’t look at these evenings as tremendous money-makers. Instead, they are good marketing and public relations vehicles to showcase what we are able to do within the confines of the restaurant. They are challenging but rewarding, giving us the opportunity to step out of the box.” In addition, Tratter points out, “These events become fun for the staff, giving them something that they can be proud of.”


For the first Malibu winemakers’ dinner, Saddle Peak remained open for regular diners. On the strength of that event, though, Tratter decided the second time around to close the restaurant to the general public, serving only those who had pre-reserved for the sold-out Malibu winemakers’ dinner. “This proved to be the best way to go and set the standard for similar future events. I like to keep the numbers down to 140 maximum. Beyond that, you risk being unable to provide good service. . . . That’s unacceptable and runs counter to our day-to-day operating philosophy.”


Setting the tone for the evening is another detail to consider. As Chef Chase asserts, “We’re not too deadly serious. We want the events to be strong on entertainment value with a bit of education snuck in.” In that regard, Chase and Dean look for winemakers who are colorful personalities and good communicators, capable of speaking engagingly about the winemaking process during the informative session that usually precedes the dinner. Like others who have been putting on these special events for a while, they agree with Eric Landt, who says, “It’s not hard to find winemakers who are passionate about their craft, but sometimes this may not translate into being able to communicate that passion to an audience.”


Are there any horror stories? Dean remembers a presentation before dinner when a bottle exploded just missing some members of the media sitting in the front row. On his own mishaps, Landt reports, “No matter how many tastings we have done, there are cases where the wines don’t show as well on the big night as they did in our preliminary brainstorming and menu-development sessions. But even these slight missteps can be illuminating and win repeat customers wishing to taste the wines again at a future point.” He also stays mindful of the fact that not every combination will interest all customers. “You can’t please everybody. We make sure clients are aware that serving a certain wine with such and such dish is only our interpretation. We want to stimulate a reaction. That is ultimately what we are striving for.”

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