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Our Burgeoning Wine Culture
By Michael Apstein
Oct 18, 2011
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Despite the economic turmoil, wine consumption in the United States continues to increase.  Up only a mere one percent in 2010, according to the Wine Market Council, but that was enough to make us the world’s largest wine market, surpassing France.  Although our per capita annual consumption, about 10 liters or 2.6 gallons, lags well behind the French (53 liters or 14 gallons per person), our much larger population catapulted us into first place for total consumption. 

More impressively, in the last decade the percentage of Americans who reported that they drank at least some wine increased from 43% to 57%.  And for the first time, the number of people who said they drank wine more than once a week outnumbered those who drank infrequently.

The statistics not withstanding, we Americans do not have a wine culture comparable to European countries. There’s no celebration here as there is all over France on the third Thursday every November where signs plastered on restaurant windows read, “Beaujolais est arrivée”, trumpeting the arrival of Beaujolais Nouveau.  Even with greater number of Americans opting for wine, it is still considered by many to be an upscale drink, trendy and hoity-toity. 

Wine Dinners

Nevertheless, the proliferation and success of wine dinners held at restaurants across the United States is an example of how wine continues to deepen in its penetration into American culture.  These events have sprung up all of the country and vary in scope and expense.  Some occur when a visiting winemaker, from California or anywhere in the world, is in town and the winery’s importer or distributor organizes the event, often including wines brought from the winery especially for the dinner.  Retail wine shops in cooperation with a local restaurant might organize a dinner showcasing a variety of their wines or wines of a specific producer as a way to promote sales.  In addition to learning about the winery first hand and drinking out-of-the-ordinary bottles, these events emphasize the importance and variation of food and wine matching when more than one wine accompanies a course. 

A Nationwide Event

In what must be a first, Ruth’s Chris Steak House will be hosting a dinner at 32 of their locations across the country tomorrow (October 20), pairing their menu with the wines of Antinori, one of Italy’s leading wineries.  Piero Antinori, chairman and patriarch of the family-owned company, will host the event at the Ruth’s Chris Manhattan location.  It is not clear who will preside over the dinners at the other 31 locales, but representatives of Antinori or their importer will likely be in attendance.  The dinner will be the same in all the restaurants.  A first course of pear, Gorgonzola and arugula salad paired with an Antica Chardonnay, from Antinori’s Napa Valley property, will be followed by a roasted tomato and crab soup with an Antinori Chianti Classico Reserva.  Guado al Tasso, from Antinori’s Bolgheri property, is matched with a wild mushroom risotto.  Finally, Antinori’s Tignanello, their Super Tuscan, will be served with a surf and turf, a filet and south Atlantic lobster tail.  Ruth’s Chris’ website does not indicate what vintages will be served, presumably because they may vary depending on availability at each locale.  The price of the dinner varies from $100-120, plus tax and tip in some instances.

The Boston Wine Festival

Daniel Bruce, the star chef at The Boston Harbor Hotel who is a genius pairing food and wine, has been the force behind that hotel’s Boston Wine Festival.  Started in 1989, it’s the nation’s longest running food and wine event and will begin its 23rd year in January.  The festival runs from January to April and features both wine dinners and tastings.  The program for 2012 has not been set yet, but will undoubtedly be extraordinary, based on past years.  The 2011 festival included dinners matching Bruce’s food with wines from Staglin Family Vineyards, Château Palmer, and the Duckhorn Wine Company, to name just three.  Incredibly, Bruce has never repeated a course over the life of the festival.  The festival has been so successful that Bruce has expanded the concept nationwide, to the French Quarter Wine Festival at Maison Dupuy in New Orleans, The Capital Wine Festival at The Fairfax at Embassy Row in Washington, DC, and the Berkeley Wine Festival at the Claremont Hotel Club and Spa in Berkeley, California.

Blantyre

No one creates better wine dinners than the team led by proprietor Ann Brown, Grand Chef Christopher Brooks and Executive Chef Arnaud Cotar at Blantyre, a Relais & Châteaux property in Western Massachusetts.  Equidistant from Boston and New York City, it draws a well-heeled crowd to its upscale one-of-kind events. Their dinners are unique in the United States because of the luxurious English country-like setting, the prominence and reputation of the wineries and the presence of the person in charge of the winery.  Past dinners have focused on Château Margaux, presided over by Paul Pontallier, Château Margaux’s general director since 1983; Chateau Haut-Brion with Jean-Philippe Delmas, the chateau’s director, leading the tasting; Burgundy’s Domaine Leflaive and Domaine Pierre Morey, hosted by Pierre Morey, the winemaker at both properties, and the Rhone superstar E. Guigal led by Philippe Guigal.  Getting these owners or directors to attend and speak about the wines and their properties is a real coup for Blantyre--given the extraordinary other demands on their time.  The food and service is exquisite, precisely what you’d expect from a Relais & Châteaux property. 

Blantyre’s next dinner, on October 23, 2011, features Champagne Louis Roederer and wines from Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande and will be led by Frédéric Rouzard, Président and CEO of Champagne Louis Roederer.  As always, the array of wines is unique and staggering:  Roederer non-vintage Brut from magnum with passed hors d’oeuvres, the 1985 and 1990 Roederer Brut served with the first course of American caviar and potato blinis, the 1996 and 2000 Roederer Cristal to accompany the seared scallop and lobster in a Kaffir lime broth, the 1996 and 2000 Roederer Cristal Rosé paired with monkfish with leeks and truffles, and the 1982, 1996 and 2005 Pichon Lalande with venison.  A 1970 Ramos Vintage Port rounds out the meal with dessert and coffee in the music room.  Even at $450 per person (plus tax and tip), they sell out quickly because the dinners are limited to 20 to 40 guests.  This intimate setting gives guests plenty of opportunity to speak with the principals.  

Search for Them

Less elaborate dinners are also fun and educational, especially for those without their own wine cellars.  Consumers should ask their local wine retailers about upcoming events.  Another good source for listing of wine dinners and a host of other wine related events is LocalWineEvents.com.

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Your opinions about wine dinners?  Email me at mapstein@winereviewonline.com