What IS a Wine Dinner?
I spent over 15 years organizing and attending wine dinners at TasteDC – it is definitely my favorite part of being in a unique business! Weird as it may seem, a “wine dinner” is conceptually as confusing as a wine tasting to most people – it’s a very foreign concept to many Americans – literally! A wine dinner is in essence a multi-course dinner served with several different wines – this is the simple explanation. A GOOD/GREAT wine dinner is when the various elements come together in a wonderful symphony of an event: wine, food, timing, pairing, educational component (this usually means a speaker), and impeccable service. It sounds very snooty, but that’s primarily because it’s based on the fine dining traditions of the Old World – particularly France and Italy. So what IS a wine dinner?
“A Wine Dinner Is a Meal Divided by Courses”
Most wine dinners include a menu of dishes served in three or more courses. For example, when you go out to eat at a fine dining restaurant, the menu is often broken down into Appetizers, Main Dishes, and Desserts. A Wine Dinner is a smart way for a restaurant to showcase both great wine and delicious dishes that showcase their chef’s talents. And yes, there is a formula: according to the traditional European format for a dinner (actually, any serious meal!) is begin with the lightest dishes, move on to richer dishes and finish with dessert – and yes, often there is a cheese course before dessert. A very simple multi-course dinner (with or without wine, but in the European tradition, food is pretty much always served with wine) would begin with some hors d’oeuvres, a seafood or pasta dish, a light meat dish (chicken or pork), a rich meat dish (beef or lamb) and dessert. Each course would be served with a different wine in a wine dinner and possibly even more than one wine per course. This would be called a 4-course dinner because hors d’oeuvres are usually not considered a dish, so don’t count in the number.
“Each Dish Should Be Paired with the Appropriate Wines”
I’ve been to wine dinners where there is only one wine paired with each dish, and that can be very satisfying! But I’ve also been to wine dinners where there are two, three, even four wines paired per dish (that’s a single dish!) and those can be very fun – albeit confusing at times. I want to touch upon the concept of pairing: pairing wine and food means there’s a synergy of flavor that is 1 + 1 is GREATER than 2. There are some classic examples of pairings: Sauvignon Blanc and goat cheese, Pinot Noir and salmon, and Cabernet Sauvignon and steak, etc. that work but I’ve had pairings that stretch the limits. The original old school formula for pairings was “white wine with fish and red wine with meat” but this is extremely outdated – creative chefs today don’t serve simply prepared dishes that are formulaic, they often prefer to add unique flavors and cooking techniques to their dishes that can be difficult to pair. To keep it simple (I wrote a whole chapter on pairing in “I Drink on the Job” entitled “A Meal Without Wine is Breakfast”). Just like with food, most wine dinners begin with lighter-style wines (like Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling) and move to heavier-bodied wines later in the meal – this makes sense – you wouldn’t want a Big Cab with your shrimp dish/course at the beginning of the meal, that would be way too heavy early in the meal (and a poor pairing!). Also, later in the meal, your palate needs richer and bolder flavors or you won’t notice a dish, so big wines and red meat (or dishes that are braised/slow cooked to increase the rich flavors of a meal) make sense.
A quick note on pairing/wine dinners – most have a theme like “Italian Wines” or “California Boutique Wines” that create the expectation of a special celebration of a wine region or theme. This is important because a wine dinner is a “showcase” event – a chance for a wine maker to show his/her best efforts in the vineyard or a display of a chef’s talents to create gourmet offerings. The point is that usually either the wine or the food is the main center of the wine dinner, one almost always overshadows the other. For example, I attended a wine dinner a few years ago with MacArthur/Addy Bassin’s Liquor where there were over 20 boutique California wines served – yes, the food was excellent at the Mandarin Oriental in Washington, D.C. (I think it was 7-Courses, but I forget!), but every wine was introduced before each course by either the wine maker or a representative who intimately knew the wines – educational and exhilarating!
“A Speaker Needs to Introduce the Wines at the Wine Dinner”
Not particularly profound, but someone needs to talk about the wines at a wine dinner and the more knowledgeable, the better. Normally, the wine maker or a representative from the wine community talks about the wines with each dish. Some speaker’s introduce the wines before each course, but this can be detrimental: it can add too much time to a dinner and it can get tedious for attendees! Most people don’t want to sit for more than three hours or so at a wine dinner (including breaks – hey, with all that wine, you may need to visit the bathroom!) so the length of an event is important. I always suggest that the wine professional speaker introduce their wines at the event, maybe speak once in the middle of the meal and then at the end of the meal. Most people at these events would rather talk privately to the speaker, so walking around and “schmoozing” with dinner attendees is a smart move.
Things I haven’t covered in this wine dinner discussion include the importance of speedy service, event duration, popular themes for wine dinners, and the myriad of service issues with this type of event. Staffing is VERY important – experience really makes a difference. One of the most impressive wine dinners I ever went to with the wines of Chateau Pontet-Canet at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. was because of one factor: the Sommelier Caterina Abbruzzetti decanted every one!
Of course, there aren’t only wine dinners: In 14 years at TasteDC, I’ve attended craft beer dinners, whiskey dinners, Tequila Dinners, Cocktail Dinners, Rum Dinners and innumerable conceptual “dinners”, often unique and unusual, but one thing they all had in common – the dishes and the beverage were paired in some way..Hope this all whets your appetite – Cheers!
Charlie Adler, Managing Editor
TasteDC Food and Drink Event Calendar
“Educate Your Palate”