By Gail Oberst
My very first winemaker’s dinner in the spring of 2000 hooked me. It was a dinner at McMenamin’s Hotel Oregon featuring Panther Creek Cellars’ wine and then-new winemaker Michael Stevenson. They set aside a small room, covered the tables with white cloths and wineglasses and flowers, and brought on their best food – salad and chowder and roast pork loin and chocolate mousse and a few other things I can’t remember. What I do remember is how much I learned about the wine I was tasting, and why Stevenson chose a particular wine to accompany each course.
While we were feasting, he told us about the winery. The people around me – regular folks like me -- were talking, laughing and drinking wine. It was a fine time. So fine, I’ve attended many other winemaker’s dinners in the past 10 years. Each was unique, and I’ve always had a good time.
A winemaker’s dinner is not something any oenophile should miss. So, for newbies to winemaker’s dinners, here’s what I’ve learned:
What should I do in advance?
• First, scan available dinners for the price that suits you. Dinners can range in price from $50 up to $200 per person, depending on the winery and the occasion (upper-end dinners are usually benefits). A good place to start is at the Oregon Wine Press calendar.
• Then, choose a winery that suits your palate. The best choice is a winery whose products you have already tasted and admired because there’s no place like a winemaker’s dinner to get to know a winery, intimately. Some wineries post their menus online, so if you can see in advance what’s going to be served.
• Choose a winery that suits your style and mood. Ties and strappy heels are might be proper for a Portland benefit, but more laid-back dining is available at dinners served by Eola Hills Winery, for example. If you love views and white tablecloth outdoor dining, try Kramer Vineyards “Under the Stars” dinners in August. Often, indoor dining is among the barrels.
• Lastly, make a reservation at least a month in advance. These events are popular and fill up fast.
What can you expect at a winemaker’s dinner?
• Dinners should include the presence of the winemaker -- the expert on the wine you are tasting. It is possible your winemaker may choose a wine or two from another winery, but the main attraction will be the winemaker’s products.
• Dinners usually begin with a stand-up appetizer and a palate-cleansing wine, usually a bubbly, but not always. This is a good time to get to know others at the event, possibly to introduce yourself to the winemaker, and to choose a table, if it is not assigned. Hint: find out where the winemaker is sitting and sit close!
• You’ll be asked to take your seat when the first course is served. Most dinners will include at least four courses, and possibly more, starting with appetizers, soup, salad, at least one entrée and dessert. With each course, the winemaker or staff will serve you a wine chosen to complement the food you are eating. The winemaker will describe each wine, possibly tell stories about the harvest, the soil, the winemaking process, and he or she may tell other anecdotes that add to your understanding of the wine. Ask questions and don’t worry about sounding dumb. Everyone is happy and generous at these events.
• Follow the general rules of wine-tasting etiquette. If you don’t like the wine, don’t drink it, and keep your comments to yourself. Everyone’s taste is different. If you like it however, say so. Another rule of thumb: Make your glass last to the end of the course, and you’ll have no problems with over-drinking.
• You are not obligated to purchase wine, but most winemakers will give you the opportunity to buy at the end of the dinner, and possibly at special discount prices.
Location: An Oregon WInery or Restaurant near you
Date/Time: Check the Oregon Wine Press Calendar online.