I am curious if anybody has insight and experience on the most interesting and productive ways to host a private wine pairing dinner at a restaurant. I know there are a few threads on this topic, but I couldn't find anything recently.
I am currently the Wine Director for a small farm to table restaurant in North Carolina (37 total seats). We currently host wine pairing dinners once a month and cap the ticket sales at 30 people. We have had success overall with all of them this year, but there are always a few issues we encounter in terms of layout/format/pacing/noise/alcohol intake etc...
My main question is if you have hosted private wine dinners before, or have attended enough to have ideas about what works and what does not, do you have any recommendations on organization, wine selection, layout, overall presentation of the wine and food (introductions and speaking points, not glassware/food presentation), how to control the room, pouring the wine, handling guests that continue to speak while you are, balancing education vs entertaining, gratuity for staff, etc...
For example, we have done sparkling on arrival, and we have done nothing on arrival. We typically address the room as a group at the beginning of the dinner, and again before each wine is poured and each course comes out. We use that time to explain what is in the bottle, why we chose it, and how the food will compliment the wine. The food typically follows the wine with minimal delay.
I know this is broad, but please post if you have any best practices on things that you have done to consistently keep guests entertained and happy for a full evening of wine pairings.
I just worked a dinner last night. 5 courses and 38 guests. It seems to flow nicely if you have a cocktail space to allow your guests to gather before sitting down. I usually have a 3 minute highlight at the very beginning, explain the order, thank them for coming etc. During the courses and wine, I table hop touching each table 3 out of the 5 courses. It allows for conversation of guests without inturuption clanking, ( sometimes an airhorn wouldn't work) . At the end I bring out the back of the house for a toast and then on to checks and out the door.
I try to either start with or end with bubbles as it tends to set the mood or leave them smiling. ITs a fine line between education and entertainment, so I try to keep it to the 1 minute elevator pitch/cute story/ winemaker is 29th generation etc..( guests often repeat these quips when opening up another bottle with friends etc...
Thank you! We have had mixed success with cocktail space; sometimes it works, sometimes the guests go straight to the tables.
If you're doing a 3 minute highlight introduction, do you spend the majority of the evening table hopping? Are you only addressing the room during an intro and post-event toast speech? Is your 1 minute pitch done at each individual table?
Phillip, This may sound like a cop out but rule #1 for me is to always know your crowd. I never serve wine on arrival as I fir me keeping everyone as sober as possible is the best way to keep control of the room. I always do a welcome that I try to keep to under 5 min. In that time I welcome the customers, lay out the basic theme for the evening and if I have a guest winemaker etc do an into for them. Like you I put down the first wine and while the food is being served I do a short talk on that wine and the food and why they go together, I try and keep in painfully brief. I make sure to keep an eye on the customers, the people who are talking and having fun are there to have a good time and usually arnt too serious about wanting in depth information. The people who are quiet and keeping eye contact are the serious ones, I make sure to go to those tables more and be ready to answer in depth questions. You will always have people who are gonna get loud, I try to control that by first not letting people over drink (for five courses I wouldn't be pouring more than 3oz per wine) and if I have people who I just cant seem to control I dont invite them back for the next event. I also try to have some pairing event with other less formal events mixed in, We do a summer patio party here where I serve tastes on new wines going on the by the glass list with samples of new summer cocktails etc. These less formal events are great for customers who are looking for a fun time more than an education. Hope this is helpful, if you have any questions feel free to ask...
yes, table hopping most of the event. It allows me to keep an eye on food, resolve issues, and recite that 1 minute spiel ( I try to hit each group 3 times). I find that trying to regain the attention numerous times takes a lot of patience and lengthens the experience ..unless you start and are continuous with the lecture mode ( not my favorite style)
Thank you Dennis! I briefly read through your profile and if you are in Myrtle you're not too far, maybe we can do some tastings in the future with the small group you have down there!
Thank you, David! Seems like we currently run things similar to you, but it was interesting to see that you would not invite the rude customers back. I would absolutely love to do that, and our owner/head chef would 100% back that move, but what if said customer is a loyal regular? Would you have any hesitation in not extending the invitation or denying ticket purchase? We pride ourselves on our hospitality but we also keep it balanced with strict execution of what our mission is. I am curious if you have denied a 'regular' for such a situation and how that went. The more casual event seems like a great idea that I will look in to as well. I rotate the BTG list quite often and only select wines that nobody within a few miles of us serve, and our cocktail list is ever evolving with a high reputation for our area, so that would be a great feature event to do even during open business hours as opposed to a private event.
Hi Philip - I have done many wine dinners recently and all follow a similar format to what you and Dennis describe. We have done a few things differently that we think worked well.
1) Change up the table layout. We had good feedback serving dinner for 1 long table (24) or 3 medium tables (10 - rectangular). The guests seem to interact better as a group on a long table. It prevents the 'rowdy' guests from behaving too badly and helps the new guests or quieter guests to chat with their neighbors. This layout works well when speaking to the group as a whole. If there is anyone that will continue to talk, they quickly notice that everyone else has quieted down. (much harder to command attention with many small tables)
2) We do serve a small glass of white or bubbly upon arrival but no more than about 10 minutes before start time - so no one over drinks. And glasses of water too.
3) We generally don't serve a dessert wine (unless specifically requested by the winery). Most people don't end up finishing it or they just chug it down because they feel obligated and have already had enough wine.
4) This one might be controversial - but for some of the dinners we did not serve (plated) desserts. Just petit fours, cookies or chocolates, plus coffee. The guests seemed to like the casual end to the meal so they could get up to walk around, chat about the wine with the winemaker or our sommelier;
5) If this is allowed in your state - Allow guests to order/purchase wine while at the dinner and pick up later. We were able to print on the back of our menus, the bottle price and case price for the wines served at the dinner. Guests could fill out the form with their contact info and credit card, and select what wine they wanted to purchase. We then ordered to the total amount of wine from the vendor and had it delivered. (ex. Wednesday wine dinner, wine delivered on Friday, Guests to pick up on Saturday morning). We found that ordering this way, we sold cases of wine to about half our guests vs selling 1 or 2 bottles the night of the event.
6) Education vs Wine tasting - We try to market the event with that type of information in the invite. "3 course Casual Wine Dinner, meet the winemaker, ...etc.", or "4 course Paso Robles Wine Dinner, experience the region with Wine Writer XXX and learn about the different regions, topography and weather that influences this region". It helps the guest to be prepared for the style of the event. We have the luxury of having a screen and project in our two banquet rooms and often run slides (for the education part) or run a loop of pictures of the winery, region, grapes, etc.
Philip, it all depends of course on the level of "Rude" behavior. Someone who is just a little loud is one thing, but someone who is really impacting the enjoyment of the event by other customers is another. Its never easy, in the past I have just "Overlooked" inviting customers like that to future events, or "Recommending" that other more casual events may be more to there liking. Its easy to fall into the trap of looking the other way for customers who spend a good amount of time and or money at your restaurant, but the few times I have had to put my foot down with customers like that I am almost always happily supersized when other customer thank me for doing so.
surprised not supersized lol.
Gotcha, all makes sense! I think I can use a soft "recommendation" for the ones I have in mind so that they don't feel as though we are not inviting them. I really appreciate your insight! Thank you!
Thank you!! I definitely agree on the family style table over smaller tables, which is something we use often, although not everyone fits in the space we have. And now that you mention it, I usually have an issue with talkative guests who are sitting at 2 of the only non-family style tables. You were implying that you host the dinners in a similar fashion as Dennis? So you do not address the room with each wine/course?
Do you do your final speech on the evening and the opportunity to purchase bottles before you serve the cookies/coffee? Or do you mingle around and say goodbye to everyone individually? We have been doing dessert wines for the past few dinners and although it has not seemed to have a huge influence on the behavior of the guests, I can totally understand how some may just pound it back, especially after 4 or 5 2-3oz pours prior. The only reason I enjoy doing a small pour of dessert wines is mainly because in our market we have found that a small percentage of guests understand the differences in style, or have never had the exposure to certain fortified wines (and they usually end up buying a few bottles!). Have you had more success with the casual end to the evening and the mingle period?
I am definitely intrigued by the way your format the title of the wine dinners. That is something we have not taken advantage of or realized! Seems like a straight forward way to initially communicate what kind of evening we are looking to have.
Thank you so much!