Milwaukee sommelier Nate Norfolk, who sells wine to restaurants through distributor Purple Feet Wines, thinks wine dinners often get stuffy and formal, making it difficult for him to work the room and answer guests’ questions about wine during a dinner. He wanted to offer something more interactive to wine geeks.
Then he hit on an idea: What if he hosted wine lunches on Sunday afternoons at a casual Italian eatery where inventive antipasti like grilled polenta cake with Dijon truffle vinaigrette and flatbread pizza topped with duck sausage share menu space with bottles of Barbaresco and Barolo from Italy?
Now, at Centro Café, one Sunday of the month he gathers diners at noon for a multi-course lunch paired with wines ($65 per person). At one lunch pairing he narrowed in on the wines of Veneto, Trentino, and Alto Adige; another month the focus was California wineries that grow Italian varietals.
“I make it a pretty casual experience because it is a lunch on the weekend,” Norfolk says. “It’s a very good forum [where we can] introduce people who are interested in wine already to secondary themes.”
Working with Centro Café owners Peg Karpfinger and Patrick Moore helped the restaurant get started with the events. But before talking about wine and food pairings, the trio had to determine the best time to schedule the space—a time that didn’t conflict with what was already going on. Because Sunday afternoons were historically slow, this seemed like the perfect slot. People could mill about and not feel crammed into a corner or have to compete with noise from other diners.
“It’s simple for restaurants to capitalize on events like this because … you only need a few people to staff it,” Norfolk says. “The investment from the restaurant is pretty minimal, yet it can be a great revenue booster.” By partnering with an outside source—a sommelier, such as Norfolk—it relieves the restaurant of some of the planning. Many people who take the class also end up making dinner reservations for a later date.
Norfolk worked with Centro Café’s sous chef to hammer out the menu. “It’s an organic back and forth. We try to be influenced by the regional cuisine and how it works with the food,” he says. “It’s a lot of fun for both of us. I can work with a chef who likes to explore his palate with me.”
While daytime wine events definitely appeal to the diners who want a more casual environment in which to learn about wine, it also attracts the under-40 crowd because the fee is much less. A typical wine dinner will cost around $100–$150, but it’s not uncommon to pay less than $70 for a daytime event.
A surge in 30-somethings is what Clare Tudor, a sommelier at Del Frisco’s Grille in Santa Monica, California, found when she started hosting Sommelier Saturdays in November. The two-hour event, priced at $35, including snacks and wine pours, is held on the last Saturday of the month in the restaurant’s private dining room.
“[That demographic] is done with the big drinking and the cocktails, and are more intrigued,” she says about the attraction for 30-somethings. Upon arriving for the event, each of the guests—whom she calls students—is handed a glass of bubbles to cleanse the palate and then welcomed with hors d’oeuvres. Food pairings accompany wines that are sipped throughout the class.
Like Norfolk, Tudor had grown frustrated with working the dining room at night. “I find that when I’m talking to guests during night service, there’s not always time to go into depth,” Tudor says.