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The Trouble with Wine Dinners – Straitjackets

By Kenneth Friedenreich

This will probably tick someone off in the hospitality trade, whether eatery or winery. As few nuggets of avuncular counsel go but misconstrued, this advice considers the prix fixe special wine dinner at your favorite leave the children at home restaurant.

Such events seen a good idea whose time has come–and alas, gone.

That a winery and its winemaker can team with a restaurant with a chef and staff with chops enough to do it right
appears a savvy idea.

Regrettably the amiable put on a happy face of these feasts often begins to look like the evil Chucky doll in those fall down the cellar steps and break your keyset horror flix made for teens intent on ditching school for an afternoon.

Rather than just grouse about it, I will here both cite the difficulties as seen from the dining room and suggest some possibilities to reduce the absurdities and elevate the evening.

The first thing we need to do, therefore, is drive a steak knife into the heart of the vampire noun sold as an “Experience.”

Experience as a header on a resume establishes the fiction of knowing things. Experience as a commodity, a thing sold to offset the boredom and futility of life, is quite another.

“Experience” may help make you wise. if commoditized, it just makes you chum for PT Barnum.
Thus we package “an experience” like sliced cheese. It has entertainment value, supposedly, to relieve the tedium of existence. So we have experiences to hype dental implants, ultrasonic facials, mountain bike vacations, wine tours and wine dinners.

Experience in the vineyard amalgamates various insights and perspectives gained over time to know reasonably well what this block of vines will do.

At the other loop of this little chain of being, the wine in your glass will augment by experiencing it as your taste memory in both associations and sensations that combine momentary and longer-term knowledge.

Memorable wine pairing dinners, few though they be, are at the intersection of the personal and communal resonance of the event. But executing such a plan is fraught with difficulties.

We usually fall way off the mark, not for lack of talent, but of imagination and time.

First, it costs to damn much money. When Eric Figgins was putting on a local dinner away from his Walla Walla hustings, the tab was $225.00 a 20% gratuity if not included here, will be added.

I imagine the wine captain introducing Mr. Figgins saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to this special dinner with Mr. Figgins. Let’s begin properly. Did you bring your checkbook?” Note: $225 per person(!)

The cost benefit correlation really goes off the rails when the chef and the wine guys try too much to make a meal around a procrustean table of wines in one portfolio.

Result? The inmates buy the asylum.

We’re strapped down, compelled by the order of varietal character, to engage in a parody of synchronized swimming as one “pair” follows apace from the one before.

My guardedness about these events owes its most recent call to my attention from a wine blog I read. Coincidentally, we had the same wines plus two at the winery in the first quarter at Napa Valley. The menu was something else. It recalled a similar menu consumed at great cost nearly a decade ago, and 1000 miles away. Talk about a foodie lockdown

The reviewer was accurate in the assessment of the wines, So why be Grinch-meister about a regimen that strove for originality? Put simply, I want more matter than artifice, and greater flexibility in the dishes intended to highlight the wines.

Let me illustrate in part to the reviewer’s cogent take on this procession.
The appetizer is too precious by far. An overture should be lively and bracing, and simple. Sablefish and roe amped up may dazzle like fishtails in a fireworks display, but it also may be just some twinkling holiday lights on the commode tank. From a distance, I would skip the hoopla for a little crème fraishe. Crostini as served seems just a little Spartan. The chef seeks give and take with the Viognier, but this particular wine makes more sense with the Chevre and some kind of apricot relish. No need to overdo it.

Salads always pose the challenge of making the vinagrette light enough as to not destroy the balance of the wine, usually some Chardonnay as here. I am not partial to salad courses in the meal instead of after it, Euro-style. Of course, that poses the challenge of getting dessert right and one cannot do this in an assembly line progression of wines paired with food and and influenced by table talk. Americans don’t sissify the table by having salad after the whole meal.

The real culprit is short ribs. I could dine across the continent on the times short ribs show up on this Happy Dale meal. We are not short of short ribs. And they are delicious and generally more filling than memorable. Let’s give those ribs some time off. The red Cab-based blend was asked to obscure the deja vu this course inspires.

The steak course elicited yawns from our reviewer, and my supposition is that after the prior course we didn’t need this one. But we had this wine to get rid of, see? Value of the packaged experience relies on the Cabernet Sauvignon, and it mandates a red meat course, but is a reach nonetheless, like Camels after aerobics. But we must pay tribute to this menu item that Americans consumed per capita per annum at 116 pounds not long ago.

The finale, when it’s to cheese, and now usually isn’t, is uniformly chocolate in some guise resembling an orgasm, testimony to one virtue of the cocoa bean. This course is over-rich, gooey, and very sweet so it tosses out most wine combinations with a kiss–or kiss off. The reviewer disliked the combination of this voluptuous dessert with a Petite Syrah both he and I really enjoyed for itself, he at this asylum and i at the winery.
Since we live in a world constrained by do-good behavioral fascists, no Stilton, no port, and certainly no cigars light to provide some space between the combatants in the lists of this dinner.

How then, do we get past this hodge-podge of high end vittles?

Well, the best such dinners of this ilk in my experience were taken in a private dining room at a now 40 year old restaurant in Orange County. It is Italian, at the cross road of European trade and tradition.
We don’t mean ravioli from a can.

We mean the Italians have been pairing local foodstuffs and local wine–usually vines a few feet past the chickens, for a millennia or two prior to Julius Caesar’s luckless trip to the Capitol. We cannot replicate these traditions in the nation as we are habituated to big food.

We can, however, work to simplify the courses, even if not eliminating them, and patiently moving through the whole business with less dispatch than that obese guy who always wins the hotdog eating contest at Coney island. Yo! whaddya drinking, Godzilla?

The effort should best celebrate the kitchen and cellar muses, not compromise their integrity. We need , more patience to savor the dialogs between the farm and the vine. I prefer to allow experience to better my time, not wrap it up in cellophane with a happy face label.

It is not a pairing dinner, but a dinner of textures interleaved, like a life well lived.

In sum, the flush food and wine fans come to pair flavors of food and wine. That is one-dimensional eats and drinks. What about color? What of aromas? What flavors meld or diverge? How filled and then finished are the items we ingest? It is texture the feel of the whole meal rather than a dialectic between chef and winemaker.

Can a good pairing dinner work? Well, my most memorable such meal was hosted by McAllen’s Distillers. And it was in an Italian restaurant. And the chef was from Palermo. So…go figure.


Kenneth Friedenreich is wine editor for California Homes Magazine and a frequent contributor to Oregon Wine Press. His new book, Oregon Wine Country Stories: Decoding the Grape, was published April 2018 by Arcadia Pres.

1 Comment on "The Trouble with Wine Dinners – Straitjackets"

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  1. Jay says:

    Too much info. Good food good wine start the drink ins right away. Tour and taste from the cellars. Keep em laughing give them good value and leaving with a smile.

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