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Winemaker Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard in Davenport, California hosts a wine dinner at Brewology in Speonk. (Credit: Lenn Thompson)
Winemaker Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard in Davenport, California hosts a wine dinner at Brewology in Speonk. (Credit: Lenn Thompson)

Winery events abound on the East End, but not all wine events are created equal. They range from the very wine-focused — things like barrel or vertical tastings — to the not-at-all-wine-related. I’m looking at you, vineyard yoga.

Among all winery events, the wine dinner reigns supreme. Just about every winery in America hosts them at restaurants or right on their own property. It’s a simple equation: winery plus restaurant equals fun to be had. They are a great way for a wine producer to reach new audiences and build relationships with restaurants. Restaurants benefit, too, often selling these dinners out on nights that are typically slow and building those same relationships with the wineries.

I’ve been lucky to not only attend several wine dinners over the years, but also co-host and organize them. It’s a lot of work, which the customers don’t see. At least if you do it right.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of lame wine dinners that I see advertised.

There are myriad reasons that a wine dinner could be uninteresting, so I submit my do’s and don’ts for wine dinner awesomeness.

Do put thought into the pairings

You can tell when the winemaker has spent time with the chef, tasting and retasting the wines and some of the pairing ideas. For a pairing to “work,” both the food and the wine should taste better together than they do separately. It’s not as simple as “We want to serve fish, so let’s pair with sauvignon blanc.” Your customers are paying good money (we’ll get to that in a minute) for this dinner, so give them the best pairings you can put together.

Don’t unload old stock

This is probably the thing I hate most: when I look at a wine dinner menu and see old (or worse, lesser) vintages paired with the food. It’s one thing if you’re doing a library dinner and are showcasing older wines to show how well they age. But if you’re using wine dinners to get rid of the last bit of 2006 merlot, you’re not doing it right.

Do work with restaurants that support local wine

If a restaurant serves local wine — especially your wine — only during the wine dinner itself, don’t work with them. It seems obvious, but I’ve been to dinners where the only local wines on the premises were in my glass. Why support them if they aren’t going to support you?

Don’t gouge your customers

Sure, make the money you need to make for the dinner to be worth doing, but don’t charge $125 per person for a three-course menu with three $25 wines. Be fair and you just might reach — and appeal to — a wider audience. I have wine-loving friends who will pay big money for a wine dinner. Even more of my friends would attend a $70 dinner, though.

Do demand custom dishes from the chef

This might be nothing more than a personal pet peeve, but I don’t want to see a dish that’s already on the restaurant’s menu on the wine dinner menu. If the chef is truly working with the winery to create a special menu and evening, he or she should be willing to tweak the food to better pair with the wine. While we’re at it, I also hate seeing make-ahead-in-bulk dishes — things like chicken française, beef stew or flourless chocolate cake — on a wine dinner menu. Leave those dishes to the wedding caterers. I expect more from a restaurant hosting a wine dinner.

Don’t have dessert unless you are serving dessert wine

There isn’t a lot of dessert wine made here on Long Island, but every wine dinner has a dessert course, often chocolate-based and often served with dry red wine. Just like the dubious chocolate and wine pairing on Valentine’s Day (I drink milk with my chocolate), that’s not how I want to end a wine dinner. If you don’t have a late-harvest or ice-style wine, maybe go with a cheese course to end the meal. Well-chosen cheese, of course.

Do let guests know they can ask for more wine

The tasting pours are usually only a few ounces over the course of a dinner — and that’s OK. Some friends of mine went to a wine dinner last week and didn’t realize that they could ask for more of one wine or another. I think they were a little embarrassed to ask. Tell people up front to avoid that feeling.

Lenn Thompson

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