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.