Sunday, November 24, 2019

The Absolutely Last (and Final) Wine Dinner I Will Ever Do

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“It was bound to happen, eventually,” he said to himself. “After all, having done more than 600 wine dinners, what more can one say or do about Italian wine in front of a group of juiced-up bacchants on a Saturday night, getting their drink on and rushing through the courses, so the deejay can turn down the lights, turn up the noise and get them to dancing their derrières off, into the wee hours of the morning?”

And so it was, not with a bang but a sniffle that he shuffled off the dais and proceeded to eat his cold pasta on some long-abandoned table, wondering why, why did he fall for it again?

They wanted an Italian wine crackerjack. The well-healed crowd in the latest and greatest purlieu of this metropolis, was billed as smart, chic and eager to learn about Italian wine. There would be hundreds of them, tooling in with their Alfa Romeos and Ferraris, drooling over their Chardonnay and Orgalini, in breathless anticipation of his fervid depictions of Il Bel Paese.

Or maybe when they reached the Barolo, maybe then it would be a good time. They would really be ready then, to hear about what it was we were tasting and drinking, and something about the grape, the vintage, the match-up with the food, some history even?

But golly gee, it was not meant to be. They were having too good of a time. And why would the ace Italian interject and spoil their evening?

He made his way back to his sorry little table, once again, sat down, and ate his cold rolled meat dish with the Barolo. And he made a promise to himself, and the world, channeling his inner Scarlett O’Hara, “As God is my witness, I swear I`ll never do a wine dinner, ever, again!”

Which is ironic, because most of the well-heeled people at that last wine dinner thought, “Frankly my dear, we don’t give a damn!”

And for anyone who entertains the idea of doing a wine dinner in some stardate in the future, maybe it would be a good idea to sketch out the parameters for success at such an event. So, lets dig in.

Intentions of a wine dinner attendee
These really are the most important constituents at a wine dinner. They are the reason one puts together an event like this. So, for that reason, the element of hospitality is paramount. Forget why they come; the real reason is that they want to be gladly received. And in the ancient tradition of hospitalitās, that really is all we should expect. If they are rowdy, or noisy or tippled, if they are more interested in talking to each other, or taking selfies for their Instagram feed, so be it. I’m sorry to have to admit it, but that is the social contract. More on how one who is not a guest (like the presenter or the host) should act to follow.

But the bottom line to a wine dinner is that the guests be made comfortable. Period.

Expectations of a wine dinner presenter
It depends on the format and the intention for the event. But generally, a wine presenter is asked to come to a wine dinner because they might exhibit some level of expertise or fervor in which to impart upon willing guests. Willing being the operative word. It might be a journey through the Langhe or a jaunt through Tuscany. One should get a determination of the depth in which the guests are likely to want to go.

If the event is on a Friday or Saturday night, it is safe to assume it will be more of a social gathering. The educational aspects of the event are probably not the first and foremost reason for guests who are coming. But one must be prepared to talk, and also to not talk.

If, within the first minute of talking about a wine or Italy or simply an introduction, the crowd starts talking, it’s a good, solid indication that they are not here for you. They have their own orbit, and why not accede to the prevalent winds in the room? Go around table to table, as an alternative. Have those one-on-one conversations ad infinitum. And yes, someone is invariably going to tell you about their trip of a lifetime to Venice in July. Or that Italian wine they had at the most wonderful trattoria in Rome, which they cannot remember, but you, being an expert, surely must know of which they are talking about? You’ll be well advised to be prepared for the real expert in the room who is there to debunk anything you might be heard to say and uphold his superior caliber. Just remember your inner mantra, “Om, mommy take me home.” And eventually that is where you will end up.

Look, expertise and “presenting” is probably more appropriate for a small group, where the ground rules are laid out in advance. Or for an educational seminar.

A rule of thumb I have realized is: if there is a fork and a knife at an event, wine is not going to be the most important factor. If there is a spit bucket, a pencil and a tasting sheet, more likely folks are there to learn. Got it?

Objectives of the host account
The optimal arrangement is to have some kind of retail point of purchase in place. If not, most people will not remember the next day (remember, when there is a fork and knife present….). So, get a restaurant who has the appropriate license or get thee a retailer to the table. If not, it’s just a party. And at best, it’s a way for a restaurant to put butts in the seat on a slow night. And as long as everybody knows what the main reason such an event is for, no one gets their feelings hurt. Not too much. I mean, we are talking about Italians here, and they are sensitive creatures.

I’d advise it to be really important to get an understanding of how many people will be coming. Not how many who reserve (and then “ghost” the event), but just how many people are actually going to sit in the seats. And that is the responsibility of the restaurateur. If they have a good relationship with their clients, all the better. If it’s a new place, or they don’t have a “network” established to the outer community, there might be disappointments. Nobody wants to fly 1,500 miles to a wine dinner where five people show up (and three of them are from the distributor). But anyone who has done wine dinners for 5-10-20 years probably have a story or two about things like that. (In my case I found a BnB in New Orleans that I just loved to stay at. Unfortunately, it was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina).

Anyway, you really need as complete of an understanding by the host to know what one is getting into. That said, do not be disappointed if it isn’t exactly as advertised. And remember, the most important thing is that cardinal virtue, hospitalitās.

Overall desire for general success
What are the markers? Is it when everyone goes home with a full belly and a case of wine? To the wine presenter, especially if he or she comes from the winery, that would be really nice. But that’s more the exception than the rule.

If 10% of the people who go to a wine dinner remember it as a pleasant evening and they go back to a store and buy the wine, I’d say, by today’s standards, that was a pretty successful event.

But to the guest, if they have a good time with friends and family, nice conversation, good food, good wine and leave with a feeling of comfort, that is probably more a signal of success than anything. Sorry if it doesn’t get you the numbers you wanted (or needed) to make before the end of the month). It’s not where we are in time and space. But there are places where the magic works really well. I’ve written over the years about my local little Italian grocery store, which now has become a place of pilgrimage for many Italian winery folks. And they do sell a lot of wine during those always sold-out events.

[Hint: at this place, the owner often includes in the price of the event, a bottle of wine. So, if 60 people come to the dinner, at least they know they will have “sold” 60 bottles. Which is brilliant. But they keep the price down, and while there is tax, there is no tip, so folks can get an event that won’t clean out their wallets. It’s a good solution.]

And, really, speaking from the perspectives of those who have done hundreds of wine dinners, they aren’t all going to be brilliant victories. But always, above all, whether the event is wildly successful or it sinks like the Titanic, remember those famous words from Ms. O’Hara, “After all... tomorrow... is another day!”

Never say never.

written and photographed by Alfonso Cevola limited rights reserved On the Wine Trail in Italy
wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W

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