As one of the first in Chicago to host winemaker dinners, back in the early ’90s, Jean Pierre Leroux, who is now the general manager of Waterleaf Restaurant in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, is considered a pioneer for what’s become a steady offering.
Although Waterleaf only introduced its monthly four-course dinners—paired with five wines—in 2011 shortly after opening, Leroux’s experience reaches back to Barrington Country Bistro. He limits Waterleaf’s dinners to 60 people, charging between $65 and $85. They all sell out.
The dinners are beneficial for both the restaurant and the winemaker as they are hosting a curious customer eager to learn from the experience.
“It has to be very personalized so the winemaker has time to get to each table and talk with the people. There is no lecture,” says Leroux. “Customers have become more sophisticated about food and beverage; they’re becoming connoisseurs. It is our job to remain inventive.”
Selecting a flash-in-the-pan winery can backfire, so Leroux seeks out wineries with years of experience and solid distributor relationships. Jeffrey Jake, executive chef at Silverado Resort and Spa in Napa, California, does the same. “I like to stay with old-timers … who have more interesting stories because they’ve been in business longer,” he says.
For Michael Madrigale, sommelier at Bar Boulud, Épicerie Boulud, and Boulud Sud in New York City, restaurants that host six wine dinners each year, the goal is to promote the wines in a broader sense. “We’re really taking the spirit of the wines in [a given] area to reflect the kind of food we’re serving,” he says.
For instance, family-style dinners emulate a rustic, cozy setting, and he’s careful to use the largest room available since guests often don’t know one another. In February he hosted a dinner with a winemaker from Beaujolais and Ardeche, France, after a distributor mentioned an upcoming visit to New York City. At that dinner, 10 wines were paired with three courses.
The timeline for arranging a visit can take up to a year, from the point of contact to plotting out the food menu, and it’s important to be flexible with the dates. Many times—like with Napa Valley’s Chateau Montelena Winery and Waterleaf Restaurant—a special dinner is not the winery’s first partnership with the restaurant. “It’s like inviting your friend back home,” says Leroux.
For John Wise, director of operations for The Bartolotta Restaurants in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, it took six years to firm up dates for a Bordeaux dinner to be held this fall. He keeps a list of his dream hosts and tracks their attendance at trade tastings across the country—like the Union Des Grands Crus de Bordeaux in New York City, along with food-and-wine festivals—inquiring about a Midwest stop-over while traveling from coast to coast. Going to Napa Valley and Bordeaux to scout out winemakers has been part of Wise’s tactic, too. When a dinner is scheduled, he treats hosts like honored guests, picking them up at the airport and even giving them a Harley-Davidson leather jacket at the dinner. “There are a bunch of people in Bordeaux and Napa that have a Bartolotta’s Harley-Davidson jacket,” says Wise.
Wise only chooses winery owners, winemakers, or a member of the winery’s family as host for the eight to 10 dinners held each year. Prices range from $75–135 for dinners that seat 30–150 guests. Like Leroux, the wineries Wise partners with are often repeat visitors. “We don’t work with every winery that asks us,” he notes. “We have to like the wine. I’m not going to do something that you’re going to see in the supermarket.” The restaurant group’s variety of venues is one aspect that entices winemakers to seek out Wise, who cites Milwaukee’s seafood-focused Harbor House, which recently hosted an event with Schramsberg Vineyards, as one example—and the fact that Harbor House boasts a James Beard Award-winning chef, Adam Siegel, adds to the prestige for wineries, as well.
For most wineries, it’s important that the chef, as well as the restaurant’s wine professionals, have solid wine knowledge. “Adam [Siegel] and some of our other chefs have really good wine palates,” says Wise. “He’ll think, ‘What goes with it?’ Then, at the end of the night, he’ll taste the wine again.”
Being in Napa Valley might seem like an advantage for forming winemaker dinners, but it can actually be a detriment. “In Napa, there’s not a shortage of wine dinners to attend,” says Chef Jake, who hosted four dinners ($150 per person, for 40 guests) at Silverado Resort & Spa’s Royal Oak in 2013. “You really have to look for that hook that brings people in.”
His goal is to offer an interesting depth of wines that is perfectly matched with the food, such as hosting a chocolate and cheese showdown with Chappellet Winery’s Cabernet Sauvignon. At a recent Freemark Abbey dinner, both a Chardonnay and a Sauvignon Blanc were poured with the first course so guests could compare acidity levels. At that same dinner, he prepared yellowfin tuna two ways: cooked sous vide with eggplant and seared rare with avocado and mango.
Dan Beekley, co-owner of Remedy Wine Bar in Portland, Oregon, shucks the formal dining-table concept in favor of scattered seating around the wine bar. Some patrons sit in armchairs with TV trays while others huddle in front of the open kitchen. This also allows the visiting winemaker to easily rove. “The winemaker is blended in with the customer. We felt like we were in her farmhouse kitchen,” says Beekley, about a recent dinner with Musella Winery’s winemaker from Northern Italy. To keep the events special, Beekley will host no more than six wine dinners a year—each with four courses, including shared snacks, for $45, and additional options that include a wine flight for $25 and a cheese course for $15.
Although winemaker dinners are primarily a chance for restaurants to tout their wine credentials, the special events often attract a new demographic to the restaurant—especially when proactively promoted. For its winemaker dinners, Waterleaf communicates to its email list of 20,000 diners and retains a publicity firm to target media. Wise, of The Bartolotta Restaurants, plugs winemaker dinners on LocalWineEvents.com, along with check presenters and posters. He also taps into his file of loyalty customers, 60 percent of whom he has email addresses for. An internal email list of 10,000 people helps Remedy Wine Bar fill seats at its wine dinners, which typically sell out.
Check presenters, Chef Jake has found, have a good return rate, as does marketing with local tourism groups. “There’s a lot of ways to do it without putting big ads in papers,” he says. In a move that’s akin to seizing the moment, Leroux encourages bookings for the next dinner just as the current winemaker dinner is wrapping up. And in New York City, Madrigale uses free social-media tools like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
“It’s a promotional [opportunity] ... You’re pulling people who have never been to your restaurant before,” says Madrigale, adding that winemakers enjoy connecting with the customers too. “You’re getting a lot of like-minded people in one place at one time. A lot of times winemakers don’t get eye-to-eye with the end user.” At hosted dinners, the winemakers finally get a chance “to touch the market,” he concludes.