IT MAY ONCE HAVE BEEN enough for a winemaker to tend to his vines and barrels, to prune, plow, and keep an eye out for downy mildew. But today few winemakers have the luxury of sticking to their knitting or their properties — they've got to press the flesh as well as the grapes.
So, like congressmen who know all politics is local, winemakers all over the world have accustomed themselves to a yearly round of off-season travel, one that brings them face to face not only with distributors, retailers, and other wine trade insiders, but with the consumers who actually buy their wine and drink it. The most likely venue for such meet-ups: the restaurant-hosted wine dinner.
The season for these events runs roughly from late fall through early spring, when the work in Northern Hemisphere vineyards has wound down. With the vintage safely in the cellar, vintners can turn to the all-important business of talking up their properties.
A wine dinner gives them a forum to do just that, while guests get to taste along with the people who make the wine they love. Both get to savor a menu prepared for the occasion by chefs who are generally thrilled to step outside the nightly grind and test their improv skills. It's all rather jolly.
A typical event is scheduled for a night early in the week (when the dining room is likely to be less populated) and priced from around $85 to $125. Restaurants with the space may begin with a 30-minute reception where guests can mill about before being ushered to their seats, often at a single, communal table.
Retailer Howie Rubin, general mananger of Newbury Street's Bauer Wine & Spirits, takes pleasure in a quirk common to wine dinners. "You start out sitting with strangers, but by the end of the night, you've made a few friends, learned something about wine, and had a good time," he says. "The night may start off slowly, but eventually the wine does its work: People relax, start talking, get to know each other."
Multiple courses are presented with selected wines. Intent on bringing the varied elements into synch, chef and winemaker will have collaborated on the menu, and both will be present to chat with guests and explain their approach.
Chef-owner Jeffrey Fournier of Newton's 51 Lincoln calls this his favorite way to cook for diners. "They put themselves completely in my hands, and it leaves me free to be more adventurous, play a bit more freely with the ingredients," he says.
If the chefs just want to have a good time, you can bet they want their guests to feel the same way. Flutes of bubbly may be offered as diners arrive, and trays of passed hors d'oeuvres aren't unusual. This is the moment when couples and groups who have reserved with the intent of sitting together should plan their strategy. If you've come on your own, now is the time to size up the congregation and see who else might be looking for a tablemate.
There's no reason to think that a restaurant you love for its unbuttoned attitude is likely to morph into a nest of snobbery just because there's a winemaker coming in; by the same token, don't expect an establishment known for elegance and formality to kick off its brogues and show you its tattoos. This is one area where past performance is a reliable indicator of future results. Serious places tend to host serious events, and more casual spots go easy on the gravitas.
Blantyre, a posh resort hotel in Lenox, does no more than three wine dinners a year, but each, in keeping with its Gilded Age affect, is strictly gold standard. Guests recently ponied up $500 per seat at a single 25-foot-long table and savored a sequence of bijoux courses paired with wines from creme de la creme Bordeaux property Chateau Margaux. They also enjoyed a rare personal appearance by its celebrity winemaker, Paul Pontallier.
Sure, $500 a head plus tax and gratuity makes a pricey night, but consider that single bottles of Chateau Margaux may sell for upward of $1,000 upon release (more at auction) and that the fizz in your flute at the reception is the princely Krug, and the price looks more reasonable, even if it is a stretch for most people. A Blantyre event is sure to be a memorable one, and not just because of the wine. With guests bejeweled and dressed to the nines, hotel manager Simon Dewar's suggestion to "think Downton Abbey" seems spot on.
Meanwhile, at Cambridge's UpStairs on the Square, where wine director Matt Reiser keeps up a busy schedule of two events per month, December excepted, there's seriousness but no museum sensibility on offer. Prices are a more typical $70 to $125 per event, depending on what wines are being poured. As for familiarity, "about half our guests know each other well enough for a kiss on the cheek," says Reiser. "They're wine-dinner regulars. The other half are newbies. We won't have seen them before." The room most often used for UpStairs events is a cozy one with multiple tables rather than a single communal one and its own Lilliput-scale corner bar.
If anyone knows how to put it all together, it would seem to be Levent Bozkurt and his team at Stonehedge Inn & Spa in Tyngsborough. They've had plenty of practice. Wine dinners have been a regular monthly event here for more than 20 years. A key asset is the property's 60,000-plus-bottle wine cellar built into a hill. Having a serious wine program in place gives any restaurant a leg up in attracting winemakers of note, since they're typically eager to support restaurants that are already good customers. Bozkurt says the arrangement is usually advantageous for the restaurant's wine-dinner customers, too. "We don't try to make the same margins as when someone orders a la carte in the dining room." (Prices range from $95 to $125.)
The impulse to reward regulars is something restaurants take seriously, and it means that scoring a seat at the table isn't always as easy as picking up the phone or sending an e-mail. At Legal Sea Foods, which like Stonehedge has a vast library of wines, any diner can reserve for wine events online, but the company's wine czar and beverage VP, Sandy Block, typically makes targeted pitches to individuals he has reason to think will be interested.
At Boston Harbor Hotel, executive chef Daniel Bruce gave the wine-dinners movement a jump-start when he initiated the Boston Wine Festival at the landmark waterfront hotel 23 years ago. This January, February, and March, when the 2013 festival will be held, more than 40 dinners are scheduled — which should be enough to keep you busy. Bruce is widely thought of as a master of the art of creating dishes that make wine sing, and his swank, beautifully organized soirees attract top winemakers from around the world.
NATURALLY, winemakers are there to flog their wines — that's why they leave home, remember? — but since Massachusetts liquor statutes ban restaurants and wineries from retail activities, attendees eager to purchase wine then and there will be disappointed. The work-around is for a retailer who stocks the wine to participate in the event. Guests can check off the wines they wish to order on an offer sheet circulated at the table, taking delivery later. The exception is Blantyre, where no hint of commerce is allowed to break the Masterpiece Theatre spell. "The wines we serve are going to be sold out anyway," says sommelier Christelle Cotar.
How much fun you have may depend on whether the event takes on the feel of a seminar, larded with esoteric detail, or just a roaring good time with a train of interesting dishes emanating from a motivated chef and a string of entertaining anecdotes from a chatty speaker. The best experience is likely to be one that presents a bit of both.
And it's not just winemakers who present at dinners. New York-based importer (and wine writer) Terry Theise does one or two events a year when he knows the chef is someone he can work with "to craft a really lovely event, in which it's worth everyone's time and the diners are in some way both enlightened and delighted," he writes in an e-mail. His ideal event is one "where the kitchen 'gets' the wine and marries the food sensitively . . . The room's acoustics make it possible for the speaker not to have to shout. The pacing is genial; not too slow, not too brisk. The wines have stories to tell. There aren't too many wines, and the wine guy avoids being self-indulgent. The spirit of conviviality trumps the need to spiel at all costs."
If at this point you're making a note to get yourself on someone's mailing list with a view to being a guest at one these events, Christopher Howell of Cain Vineyard and Winery, a winemaker who's in high dinner demand around the country, has a word of caution: Choose a wine dinner at a restaurant you are interested in, where wine you really want to try will be served. That may sound obvious, but "it's like a blind date," he says, "Getting the right guests is what makes a successful event.
"I may be a little jaded about wine dinners, but one thing I know about them is that just as important as the food and the wine are the guests. Just thinking about what interesting people I'm going to meet makes me enthusiastic about an event. It's when you add wonderful people to the right wine and cuisine that magic can happen."
WHERE TO BOOK A WINE DINNER
Finding out what's happening when involves checking websites and, most important, letting restaurant managers and wine retailers know you would like to be on their mailing lists. Restaurants with a commitment to hosting wine-themed dinners include the following (already-scheduled upcoming events are listed):
51 Lincoln Street, Newton Highlands; 617-965-3100; 51lincolnnewton.com
555 Talbot Avenue, Dorchester; 617-825-4300; ashmontgrill.com
> Monday Night Wine Club (weekly; reservations recommended)
16 Blantyre Road, Lenox; 413-637-3556; blantyre.com
BOSTON HARBOR HOTEL
Rowes Wharf, Boston; 617-330-9355; bostonwinefestival.net
> Boston Wine Festival (January 11-March 29, 2013; reservations required)
300 Technology Square, Cambridge; 617-576-3000; catalystrestaurant.com
569 High Street, Westwood; 781-461-8118; chiarabistro.com
> Wednesday Wine Tasting (monthly; reservations recommended)
371 Commonwealth Avenue, Back Bay; 617-517-5915; deuxave.com
69 Church Street, Bay Village; 617-426-6969; erbaluce-boston.com
GASLIGHT BRASSERIE DU COIN
560 Harrison Avenue, South End; 617-422-0224; gaslight560.com
> Gaslight Gastronomy Series (monthly; reservations required)
GRILL 23 & BAR
161 Berkeley Street, Back Bay; 617-542-2255; grill23.com
> A dinner with Aldo Vacca of winery Produttori del Barbaresco (November 19; reservations required)
888 Main Street, Waltham; 781-894-2234; ilcapricciowaltham.com
ISLAND CREEK OYSTER BAR
500 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston; 617-532-5300; islandcreekoysterbar.com
> "Merroir/Terroir" tastings (monthly; reservations required)
LEGAL SEA FOODS
Locations including 26 Park Plaza, Boston, 617-426-4444, and Liberty Wharf, Boston, 617-477-2900; legalseafoods.com
> A dinner with Deborah Hutton of Moet Hennessy USA (November 8; Liberty Wharf; reservations required)
129 South Street, Leather District; 617-542-5108; winebar.com
> Tuesday Wine Tastings (weekly; reservations recommended)
STONEHEDGE INN & SPA
160 Pawtucket Boulevard, Tyngsborough; 978-649-4400; stonehedgeinnandspa.com
> Celebration of Wine dinners (monthly; reservations required)
UPSTAIRS ON THE SQUARE
91 Winthrop Street, Harvard Square; 617-864-1933; upstairsonthesquare.com
> A Celebration of Bordeaux dinner (November 12; reservations required)
> A dinner with importer Terry Theise (November 14; reservations required)