It’s been three decades since I acquired my love of all things vinous. It’s no coincidence that my love affair with wine began at the same time I met many of the wine giants of Kansas City: Doug Frost, Steve Cole, Joe Digiovanni, Ed “Gomer” Moody, George Vesel, and so many others.
It was also at that time that my wife and I started attending winemaker dinners. They were new and exciting for us, a chance to gather with other wine lovers and taste the wines from places we wanted to visit, featured by people we wanted to meet, paired with cuisine we loved to eat. There seemed to be a winemaker dinner every other week, or at least once a month that we wanted to attend. We couldn’t get to them all, but we got to a lot, perhaps too many.
Now, in 2016, after dozensof winemaker dinners here and in Chicago, 275 half-hour episodes of my television show, “Culinary Travels with Dave Eckert,” produced on location, many in wine country destinations, and thousands of delicious wine-themed meals prepared by my bride, my friends, at terrific restaurants around the world, and, yes, even by me, my desire to attend the winemaker dinner has waned.
Yet the dinners still proliferate. I wanted to know how they’ve changed, how restaurants pick, choose and market the events, and what continues to make them popular after all these years.
“We look for people who have made a special connection with the market,” Tannin Wine Bar and Kitchen’s Barry Tunnel stated. I chatted with Tunnel as he and I prepared for a special tasting I was hosting at Tannin, an event I will share with you in another article.
Tannin does considerably more winemaker dinners than the average Kansas City restaurant, about one a month. In fact, my tasting came just two days after a winemaker dinner featuring Jann Forth of Healdsburg’s Forth Vineyard Winery where, even with quite a few cancellations, more than 40 people turned out.
Tunnel credits the success of that, and other, winemaker dinners Tannin hosts, to the quality of the wines, and in this particular case, the personal effort Jann Forth has made to connect to people in Kansas City both here and at her Sonoma County Winery.
“She’s got such a great personality. People just love to come and chat with her. There just aren’t many winemakers who can, or have, taken the time to know the market like she has,” Tunnel said.
OK, so a personal connection helps sell a winemaker dinner. That makes sense. Oh, and Tunnel also says, for Tannin, there’s also a price point sweet spot they try to hit. For them, that’s $75. Go above that, and the wines and the experience better be pretty special.
You can just about double that price point, and you’ve got the winemaker dinner The American is hosting with Washington State’s Woodyard Canyon Winery. Fellow blogger and good friend Craig Jones wrote about the dinner in a recent column.
“That’s The American,” Tunnel stated. Fair enough.
The American has been raising the bar and the price tag among Kansas City restaurants for decades. And this dinner is special for a number of reasons. First, the wines of Woodyard Canyon are highly praised and eagerly sought. Second, Rick Small, Woodyard Canyon’s owner, and his son, Sager, are flying in to attend. And, third, The American’s Executive Chef Michael Corvino has his roots in Walla Walla, Wash., where Woodyard Canyon is based. Jones writes that as a young chef, Corvino did wine pairing dinners for and with Woodyard Canyon. So there’s that personal connection again.
I also heard about an upcoming winemaker dinner in May at Sullivan’s Steakhouse featuring the wines of CADE and Plumpjack Wineries from The Napa Valley. Executive Chef Wesley Boston is a fellow Chicagoan and great guy, so I thought I’d drop in and get his thoughts on this and other winemaker dinners at Sullivan’s.
Turns out, Boston is more of a beer geek than a cork dork though Boston says that his staff try to make every dinner special. “I have a lot of history with wine and beer dinners over my three years here. We keep all of the menus in a front room, and there must be 20 or more,” Boston said. “We don’t pick the winemaker dinners. They come to us for the most part. I find the menus more challenging to write.”
You could have fooled me. The CADE/Plumpjack dinner will start with flash fired jumbo shrimp married to the CADE Sauvignon Blanc before heading into Lamb Wellington with wild mushroom and lamb bacon au jus matched with the Plumpjack Syrah. I will go no further as my mouth is watering and I will not be able to attend, so I’m more than a little jealous.
Sullivan’s Sous Chef Taylor Fluevog is credited with writing this menu, but I’m betting Boston had his hand in it, too. There’s no real personal connection to the market or the wineries for this dinner than I can glean, but the food and wine pairings look stunning. I’ve not had the wines of CADE or Plumpjack, though both wineries have outstanding reputations.
So, there’s that then-mouthwatering cuisine matched with excellent wines I’ve yet to try. I guess I have a few (dozen) winemaker dinners left in me.