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VINTAGE MEALS
WINE-TASTING DINNERS HAVE BECOME THE TOAST OF THE TOWN

Been to a wine-tasting dinner lately? The answer may well be yes.

"Just about every restaurant that has a kitchen is trying to do them," jokes Bret Blumberg, Upstate New York director of fine wine sales for Service Universal Distributors. "Wendy's and McDonald's may be next."

And it's true that these events are as common in Western New York restaurants as creme brulee or caramelized onions. Wine-tasting dinners, usually announced through snail or e-mail, are based on a simple idea: food/wine pairings. Customers fork over a prix fixe from $35 and up for a carefully chosen multicourse meal with carefully matched wines.

Most dinners have a theme behind them. Sometimes the dinner is planned around the wines of a certain wholesaler/distributor or are based on a single grape. Appropriate food brings out the highlights of the wine.

Some dinners have a more whimsical touch. Katherine Ochal of Katherine's Restaurant in Eden planned a recent event around Martha Stewart. It happened to be scheduled the very day the domestic diva was sprung from jail.

"Martha Stewart's Out of the Big House" was the title. The dinner was based on recipes like Martha's Chicken Stuffed with Duxelles, Pureed Parsnip Pierogi and Red Cabbage Stew and Roast Plum and Strawberry Strudel with Buttermilk Sorbet.

And, in an inspired touch, all the accompanying wines were blush wines. (Although we don't know if Martha ever got that embarrassed.)

The dinner turned out to be a good thing.

Dave Root of Root Five Restaurant in Hamburg went for a game menu centered around the likes of Duck and Goose Pate and Stuffed Elk Loin over Beet Risotto.

So the wines were all American ones, points out David Davidson, of Colony Liquor and Wine, who helped put the event together. (The elk came with a St. Francis Claret.)

Usually the food is chosen first. "I come up with the menu," says chef/owner Daniel Johengen of Daniel's in Hamburg, who has been hosting the dinners for 12 or 13 years. "And then I sit down with the wholesaler/distributor and go through his book. We taste the wines and decide."

The wholesaler usually sends a representative to the affair to discuss the wines and answer questions.

"I like to do them because it gives me a chance to cook something I can't normally cook on a busy night," Johengen said. "I'm cooking only one thing and I know the number of people."

Daniel's dinners tend to be formal sit-down affairs, but Fredi Rzemek of Fredi's in Clarence Center considers his buffet affairs to be "nothing but a fancy house party."

A recent Fredi affair centered around the food, wine and music of America and featured guitarist Doug Yeomans playing blues, food like Yankee Pot Roast, Chicken Fried Steak and Apple Brown Betty.

The wines came from vineyards in Oregon, Washington State, the Jersey Shore and New York State. All were affordable or personal favorites, not terribly familiar to people in the industry.

"We like to show people they can have a good bottle of wine for not much money," Rzemek says. "Kendall-Jackson is not spoken here."

Why do restaurateurs opt for wine dinners? "We started them a couple of years ago to increase business on Tuesday nights, not a time when many people go out to eat," says Ochal of Katherine's. "And it just sort of blossomed from there."

Now, Ochal says she has some 399 names on her mailing list. At first she restricted her guest list to women, calling the series "Wine, Women and Song." She thought her female customers would enjoy a relaxing meal on the way home from the office. Obviously she was right.

The events are still restricted to women on alternate months. One such meal was devoted entirely to women wine makers, in fact. But the event has proved so popular that Ochal occasionally throws a dinner for couples, as well.

Wine dinners attract diners with adventurous palates. "I enjoy doing them because I can showcase other kinds of food," Ochal says. "Maybe things that wouldn't ordinarily sell on the regular menu."

People seem to enjoy the different dishes at the time, she says. They often suggest I put them on the menu. I've tried that but you know what?

"They still don't sell."

Some frequent dinner attendees are really enthusiastic, however. Carol and Steve Chojnacki of West Seneca said they regard a Daniel's event as "a very special evening out." John and Lori Saliba come to the restaurant all the way from Pendleton.

"I'd come even if I lived in Toronto," Saliba says. "It gives us a chance to taste food and wines we wouldn't normally order."

Saliba keeps careful records. He still remembers an appetizer of several years ago made from prosciutto-wrapped figs stuffed with feta and served with pork glaze, paired with a Hahn Estates Meritage; he dreams about the Sea Scallops served with a Pine Nut Gratinee and Saffron Sauce accompanied by a Corey Run Reserve Chardonnay.

Like Chojnacki, he says he's purchased many of the wines tasted. "They usually aren't that expensive," he adds.

But Bret Blumberg thinks buying is the exception. Wine distributors usually get involved with wine dinners as a favor to their restaurant customers rather than to make money, he explains. Blumberg also says that the dinners do not necessarily increase sales of specific wines. "It is not a quid pro quo thing."

But the exposure doesn't hurt, needless to say.

"There are people who come to these dinners just to eat and drink and some people who like to learn," Blumberg says. And sometimes lectures or descriptions aren't necessary to make the point, he says. Wine interacts with food.

"You watch a person drink a tannic Cabernet Savignon and it's hard for him to drink," Blumberg says. "Then he takes a bite or two of lamb and all of a sudden, the taste of the wine changes and it's wonderful and they love it. Unfortunately, ours is not a culture that has an easy relationship with wine."

Maybe that will change someday and we won't have to have wine dinners or even sommeliers any more to make the point, he suggests.

"People will -- simply -- just drink and enjoy wine with their food."

e-mail jokun@buffnews.com