At least two or three invitations or press releases about wine dinners hit my inbox each week, with a few beer dinners thrown in now and then. Is it insane in today’s economy, what with consumers holding tight to their purse strings, to present a wine-focused event? Not at all. When marketed and executed properly, wine dinners can present tremendous value to the guest and deliver bottom-line benefits to the hosting restaurant and not just in terms of a one-time revenue spike.
Recently, I had the pleasure of attending two wine dinners, one at Ruth’s Chris Steak House outpost in New York City and the other at La Tavola Tratorria in Sayville, N.Y. Two vastly different operations, two different events, but in the end, very similar results.
The Ruth’s Chris event was ambitious, to say the least. Director of Beverage Strategy Helen Mackey coordinates what she calls National Wine Dinners; this was the third in 2011 and five are planned for 2012. On Oct. 20, 38 Ruth’s Chris locations around the country presented an Antinori Wine Dinner event, during which a total of 1,116 guests enjoyed the same four-course meal paired with selections from the Tuscan winemaker’s portfolio on the same night. Pulling off such as event in one location can be challenging, but doing so simultaneously in 38 restaurants scattered around the U.S. is commendable. Click here to learn more about how Mackey pulled it off.
The key to any wine dinner is the pairings. Our evening began with the Antica Napa Valley Chardonnay paired with a Pear, Gorgonzola & Arugula Salad — a surprise, as we were geared up for robust reds, given the steakhouse locale. As Marchese Piero Antinori (pictured left with Mackey), patriarch of the 625-year-old winery, who was on hand at the New York event, explained, the Antica label name represents the combination of Antinori’s Italian heritage and its joint venture in California. The wine was a European-style Chardonnay, full-bodied and with enticing minerality that complemented the salad beautifully. I myself am not a Chardonnay fan, but this particular wine won me over.
A Roasted Tomato and Crab Soup deliciously married with the winery’s 2006 Chianti Classico Riserva was a match made in heaven, while the richly textured Wild Mushroom Risotto benefited from the full-bodied and warm Guado al Tasso, which boasts Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. The highlight of the evening was the 2007 Tignanello, a wine named for its specific vineyard that revealed the Tuscan terroir with a blend of Sangiovese and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. Paired with the Filet and Cold Water South American Lobster Tail, it delivered the robust, velvety warmth we all craved.
At the event were loyal Ruth’s Chris fans as well as patrons new to the steak house but curious about it and eager to sample the vintages. That’s a double-win for any operator — to fill a room with loyal and new guests for a focused event goes a long way toward building repeat visits, the engine that drives long-term sales and growth. And the fact that some in attendance were actively tweeting and posting to Facebook throughout the event only added an invaluable viral marketing element.
A similar win was achieved for La Tavola via its California Harvest Wine Dinner. I had never been there before, but when friends invited my husband and I to the event and cited the spot as one of their new favorites, we jumped at the chance. The comfortable, rustic feel of restaurant made it the perfect setting for a Rodney Strong wine dinner. While the winemaker wasn’t on-hand, sales consultant at Empire Merchants, Gennaro D’Orsi served as our host for the evening. Rather than delivering a high-brow, minutia-ridden recitation of each wine’s origins, he provided an entertaining, informatiave and brief overview of each wine along with a bit of fun trivia as each course was served.
We began the journey with Shrimp & Scallop Ceviche paired with the 2010 Rodney Strong Charlotte’s Home Sauvignon Blanc. My husband is strictly a red wine drinker, but I urged him to sample the Sauvignon Blanc, and he was quickly sold on the crisp grapefruit notes. The rich Ricotta Gnocchi with Cauliflower Carbonara Sauce was balanced by the 2009 Rodney Strong Pinot Noir, Estate Vineyards, Russian River Valley selection. While I’m a sucker for Willamette Valley Pinots, this one made me think twice about Russian River offerings.
The main course of Braised Short Ribs benefitted from the ’08 Rodney Strong Cabernet Sauvignon, with its bold, textured body and rich fruit. A special treat was the silky, sumptuous 2006 A True Gentleman’s Port, paired with a selection of chocolate and cheesecake offerings.
D’Orsi made new fans for Rodney Strong, and the food and service reinforced our friends’ loyalties to the restaurant, turning my husband and I into new customers, as well. Win-win-win.
Now is the time for savvy operators to tap into their relationships with suppliers and wholesalers and coordinate efforts to present such programs. Be sure you know your objectives — delivering something special to loyal customers, attracting new patrons, creating buzz and publicity in local media, etc., — and be up front with the vendor-partner about those goals. Also, find out their goals and work to help them achieve them as well; just make sure that the event remains yours and that your establishment remains the “star.” You want your guests to leave your place thinking that you brought them something really special and are eager to return to you again and see what other great experiences can be had. I know I’ll head back to Ruth’s Chris soon, and also will seek out Antinori wines. I’m on the look out for some more Rodney Strong Pinot Noir, and La Tavola’s beer dinner series is on my calendar already. And yes, I plan to bring some beer-loving friends.