Lessons in Wine Blending
“We wanted to try something different,” explains Vern Lakusta about a new offering to wine-enthused guests at The Royce, a steakhouse inside The Langham Huntington in Pasadena, California. The first wine-blending seminar was held in mid-July, a new angle to its monthly wine dinners.
With the addition of the wine-blending lessons, “guests were really engaged at monthly wine dinners,” says Lakusta, director of hotel operations, who is enthused about the seminar hosted in the hotel’s Red Wine Room. “[This has] a much broader appeal.”
By late June the blending event was almost sold out, with mostly locals signing up, which pleased Lakusta, as that’s a demographic he continually seeks to entice. Partnering with Rodney Strong Vineyards—the wines already sold at the restaurant and a favorite among customers—put the event on firmer footing.
“A lot of people know Cabernet Sauvignon but don’t really understand there are components to it; like [there’s] Petit Verdot in the bottle,” Lakusta says. During the two-hour afternoon seminar, the idea is for guests to guess the blend in Rodney Strong’s Symmetry Meritage wine after tasting each of five red-wine varietals.
“The fun part is that people can really guess the percentage,” says Lakusta, adding that the winemaker chooses the winner, who most closely nails the blend.
Attendance was capped at 30 people for the blending event ($30 per person), followed by just 16 guests at a five-course, wine-paired dinner ($175, including blending). Each participant receives a bottle of his or her blended wine to take home.
More than just an impressive lineup of wines, wine blending is the new amenity for diners. It’s a way for guests to enhance their wine knowledge and get to know the wine staff. In an increasingly competitive market, extending the experience distinguishes the restaurant brand.
The Roots of Wine Blending
Grand Bohemian Charleston, an Autograph Collection Hotel that is part of the Marriott group in Charleston, South Carolina, claims to be the first hotel in the U.S. to offer a class in wine blending. It launched in 2015 when the hotel opened.
Inspiration for the event traces back to the hotel’s owner, Richard Kessler, CEO of The Kessler Collection’s nine luxury properties. On vacation in Napa Valley, Kessler learned to blend wine.
“Mr. Kessler took a class [at Raymond Vineyards], loved it, and wanted to create a similar experience,” says Sarah Young, head sommelier and instructor.
The “Wine Blending by Kessler” experience ($95 per guest) is offered Wednesday through Saturday. During the 90-minute class, participants taste several red-wine varietals to get a sense of the variance in flavors and what suits their palates best, before tackling the creation of a special wine blend. At the conclusion of the class, each person goes home with a bottle of wine that she has made—and a custom-created label (art and photos to create the label can be sent ahead of time).
A group can be as large as 20 people, although individuals can just as easily be accommodated. “It’s usually couples who sign up for the same class,” Young notes, adding that the events truly inspire a sense of community. “I’ve seen them all go out to dinner and exchange business cards. It’s amazing how wine can bring people together.”
Wine blendings are also prime for private gatherings, as Young says, “I see a lot of bachelorette parties, birthday trips, and girls weekends.” She enjoys tailoring the class to interest levels and shares that the end goal is increased confidence when ordering wine with dinner. She likes to erase any formalities and make the engagement with wine more casual.
For Jon Farace, director of operations at The Ritz-Carlton in Charlotte, North Carolina, what prompted him to design a wine-blending seminar was a desire to educate people. He also watched the success of The Punch Room, an intimate 37-seat cocktail bar on the hotel’s 15th floor, which opened in November. The bar took cocktails to the next level, and Farace decided that wine would be next.
The blending seminar, he says, “adds a different dimension to our food and beverage offerings. Beverage has always been a significant part of our hotel. This is just another way to drive it.”
Seminars are hosted in the hotel’s Hidden Wine boutique, which is located off the lobby and is also a retail outlet for guests to purchase bottles of wine. The $65 fee for attending the seminar, which is led by the wine steward, includes a tasting of five varietals, the opportunity to create their own blend, and a 375 mL bottle of the guest’s personal creation.
“It becomes their own unique blend. They walk away with knowledge and a keepsake,” he says. So far, the clientele has been varied, about half locals and the other half hotel guests. It’s also proven to be popular with corporate groups in search of a team-building retreat.
“Sometimes it’s just a group of friends getting together,” Farace adds, who also noticed some people take their special wine to have with dinner at BLT Steak inside the hotel.
The wine-blending seminar also jibes with the neighborhood, including nearby condos popular with millennials. “Wine blending is about adventure,” Farace says, “and millennials are looking for something different.” Recently two young guests took the blending seminar and bought $1,500 in wine at Hidden Wine after, proving his point.