Reset the Wine Clock
Milwaukee sommelier Nate Norfolk, who sells wine to restaurants through distributor Purple Feet Wines, thinks wine dinners often get stuffy and formal, making it difficult for him to work the room and answer guests’ questions about wine during a dinner. He wanted to offer something more interactive to wine geeks.
Then he hit on an idea: What if he hosted wine lunches on Sunday afternoons at a casual Italian eatery where inventive antipasti like grilled polenta cake with Dijon truffle vinaigrette and flatbread pizza topped with duck sausage share menu space with bottles of Barbaresco and Barolo from Italy?
Now, at Centro Café, one Sunday of the month he gathers diners at noon for a multi-course lunch paired with wines ($65 per person). At one lunch pairing he narrowed in on the wines of Veneto, Trentino, and Alto Adige; another month the focus was California wineries that grow Italian varietals.
“I make it a pretty casual experience because it is a lunch on the weekend,” Norfolk says. “It’s a very good forum [where we can] introduce people who are interested in wine already to secondary themes.”
Working with Centro Café owners Peg Karpfinger and Patrick Moore helped the restaurant get started with the events. But before talking about wine and food pairings, the trio had to determine the best time to schedule the space—a time that didn’t conflict with what was already going on. Because Sunday afternoons were historically slow, this seemed like the perfect slot. People could mill about and not feel crammed into a corner or have to compete with noise from other diners.
“It’s simple for restaurants to capitalize on events like this because … you only need a few people to staff it,” Norfolk says. “The investment from the restaurant is pretty minimal, yet it can be a great revenue booster.” By partnering with an outside source—a sommelier, such as Norfolk—it relieves the restaurant of some of the planning. Many people who take the class also end up making dinner reservations for a later date.
Norfolk worked with Centro Café’s sous chef to hammer out the menu. “It’s an organic back and forth. We try to be influenced by the regional cuisine and how it works with the food,” he says. “It’s a lot of fun for both of us. I can work with a chef who likes to explore his palate with me.”
While daytime wine events definitely appeal to the diners who want a more casual environment in which to learn about wine, it also attracts the under-40 crowd because the fee is much less. A typical wine dinner will cost around $100–$150, but it’s not uncommon to pay less than $70 for a daytime event.
A surge in 30-somethings is what Clare Tudor, a sommelier at Del Frisco’s Grille in Santa Monica, California, found when she started hosting Sommelier Saturdays in November. The two-hour event, priced at $35, including snacks and wine pours, is held on the last Saturday of the month in the restaurant’s private dining room.
“[That demographic] is done with the big drinking and the cocktails, and are more intrigued,” she says about the attraction for 30-somethings. Upon arriving for the event, each of the guests—whom she calls students—is handed a glass of bubbles to cleanse the palate and then welcomed with hors d’oeuvres. Food pairings accompany wines that are sipped throughout the class.
Like Norfolk, Tudor had grown frustrated with working the dining room at night. “I find that when I’m talking to guests during night service, there’s not always time to go into depth,” Tudor says.
Conversely, Sommelier Saturdays are more interactive. “It’s really attainable to everybody, but if somebody has more knowledge in one area I can spend a little bit more time with them,” Tudor explains. “I don’t get too much into the terroir, but I do talk technically about why the grape grows so well [in an area].”
She intentionally keeps the Saturday group to no more than 45 guests so there are plenty of opportunities to answer questions. The events have garnered many repeat customers—and multiple lunch and dinner reservations. “I’m creating a wine club within the restaurant,” Tudor says.
Just south of the Sommelier Saturdays at Del Frisco’s Grille, sommelier Ed Manetta rolled out a similar wine-lunch series in March at Cucina Enoteca in Newport Beach. Because the restaurant—which opened in 2014 and offers a retail wine component—is already known as a wine destination, a lunch pairing was a natural extension of service.
The first wine lunch, held on a Tuesday, was priced $68 and featured three courses paired with wines; it attracted 54 guests. Manetta blocked off the patio, a happy setting defined by bright-yellow chairs, potted plants, and colorfully patterned pillows, and tapped fifth-generation Italian vintner Gaia Gaja—of Gaja in the Piedmont region and Ca’Marcanda in Tuscany—to preside over the event.
“We wanted to make a splash with our first [wine lunch],” says Manetta. “It couldn’t have been better.”
Nighttime wine events often carry pressure to bring in revenue because they compete with table service. For lunchtime, this is a non-issue, says Manetta, who found it challenging to sell enough seats for winemaker dinners in the past. Lunch was a different story: “There’s a lot of wealth [in Newport Beach]. We had everyone from die-hard wine enthusiasts to women lunches to business people who thought it was a fun activity to do for a few hours,” he says.
Wineries don’t blink at the shift to daylight hours either. “Most of the wineries love doing events like this. The bigger the winery the more difficult the logistics, but it’s worth it to get those bigger names,” Manetta says. One drawback is relying upon kitchen staff to develop recipes not already on the menu. But for the right team this can be a fun challenge. “It’s another layer of creativity,” he says.
The trend of daytime wine events extends to the East Coast as well. Erica Archer is founder of Wine Wise, a wine-education and events company in Maine. On Fridays she offers afternoon walking tours to restaurants in Kennebunkport, on Saturday she shifts to Portland, and on Sunday the event is held in Ogunquit.
Each tour starts mid-afternoon and wraps by 5 p.m. At each restaurant the staff pairs a small plate with a 2.5-ounce wine pour. “I try to make it more exciting than sitting in a chair. Most people will go back to one of those restaurants and have dinner,” Archer says. Because she handles the marketing, the reservations, and the menu coordination with chefs, it takes pressure off of the restaurant staff. However, on the day of the event, waitstaff and the chef come out to greet Archer and her group. “It’s always great when the chef or somebody who’s really passionate about the restaurant is there,” she says.
George Hock, general manager and wine director at Barchetta in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, took the plunge this spring. His first daytime event, held in late April, shone a spotlight on wines from Mount Etna in Sicily, Italy. Six wines and a sparkling selection were paired with snacks, also inspired by the region, for $40—a veritable bargain.
Hock determined that Saturday between 4 and 5 p.m. was the ideal time for Barchetta to host the event. Staff could easily prepare and plate the foods, and some of it was even made the day prior to allow for gelling and marinating. Guests were served on the Lido Deck, with space for up to 20 people and separate from Barchetta’s dining room to offer more intimacy and avoid distracting early-evening diners.
The private setting not withstanding, Hock’s hope for future events is that they will “be as boisterous as possible,” proving that wine lunches can be just as much fun, if not more, than wine dinners.