Wine dinners have shape-shifted into smaller, more intimate affairs.
Reinventing wine dinners to make them more socially distant—while still maxed out on innovation and extravagance—has been challenging for club chefs.
It has also been deeply energizing.
When Matthew Blazey, Executive Chef of Lexington (Ky.) Country Club (LCC), began planning for a slate of wine dinners as things began to reopen, he wondered if less would be more.
“We decided to cap wine dinners at 30 members,” says Blazey.
Pre-pandemic, the headcount at an LCC wine dinner would soar above 80. Such a crowd prevented Blazey from developing intricate menus with personalized touches. He also wasn’t able to be with the members who attended for any length of time, as the event flew by at a frenzied pace.
Now, when members attend one of LCC’s more exclusive wine dinners, they aren’t thrust into a crowded ballroom. Instead, they’re whisked away to a private dining space—sometimes outside on the lawn, other times inside the clubhouse—where they can indulge in a meticulously crafted prix fixe menu with carefully curated wine pairings.
“The smaller size has been a blessing in disguise,” says Blazey. “Not only are we able to serve smaller groups more intimately, we’ve also increased demand. Our reservations and waitlists are selling out almost immediately.”
Open to All
Midland (Texas) Country Club is running a similar playbook with the size of its wine dinners this year.
“I would hate for wine dinners to become banquets,” says Benjamin Lesnick, CEC, Executive Chef. “When we have a smaller group, around 40, we can put more details into every plate. And we can spend more time explaining the pairings and the reasons the flavors work, as well as how each dish is prepared.”
Over the past few months, Midland CC has seen many new faces participating in its wine dinners.
“Traditionally, our older members have been our biggest wine drinkers and wine-dinner attendees,” Lesnick says. “But when we first reopened, we had a number of new and younger members request private wine dinners with family and friends.
“These members have become wine lovers now,” he notes. “They’re generally more adventurous, and eager for us to push the culinary envelope, too.”
In response, Lesnick and his team are exploring a new catalogue of ingredients and cooking methods. They’re taking bigger risks and introducing more global flavors, as well as molecular techniques.
Midland has enjoyed so much success with these wine dinners that Lesnick is planning to parlay the success into more wine-centric events that are casual and easier to access.
“The success we’ve seen with these wine dinners has revealed an opportunity to grow the wine program in new directions that aren’t so formal,” he says. “We’re going to introduce a series of hors d’oeuvres and small plates with pairings, and host pairing cocktail hours, too.”
New Entry Points
Just over a year ago, James Wheeler came to North Hills Country Club (Glenside, Pa.) to take over as Executive Chef, after previously being with The Philadelphia (Pa.) Cricket Club.
“Before me, [North Hills] hadn’t hosted any wine dinners,” says Wheeler. “We’ve had to take things very slowly here because of [pandemic] restrictions. But through it all, we’ve been trying to find ways to add value to the membership—and wine dinners seemed like a natural fit.”
North Hills, which does about $2 million in annual F&B, plans to host five wine dinners in 2021, capping them at 25 members for each event. The club has also introduced a wine society where members can pay an annual $350 fee and enjoy 25% off all wine purchases, no corkage fees, and six complimentary wine tastings with pairings. They also receive a free gift—a personalized charcuterie board, for example—to thank them for joining.
A Classic Event
Every year, when the top 100 wines are announced, the Traditions Club (Bryan, Texas) hosts a specialty themed dinner featuring the 1st, 10th and 100th-ranked wines on the list.
Melissa Davis, Food and Beverage Director, works closely with the club’s Executive Chef, Adam Deviney, CEC, to develop the menu and pairings.
“We’ll typically start with a champagne, then do a white, then a pinot noir, and build from there,” says Davis.
Each year, the Traditions team tries to outdo the prior year’s Top 100 wine dinner. Whether it’s the theme, the décor or the menu, the bar just keeps rising.
“This year, we’re going to focus on classic fairy tales,” says Davis, who spent ten years working for the Disney corporation. “We’re going to take our members on a journey through the stories with a live storyteller, over-the-top decorations and a whimsical menu to match the wines.”
The dinner will be capped at 55 members and feature seven courses.
“We’ll begin with a champagne reception featuring oak-smoked trout caviar with crème fraiche, butter-poached lobster with orzo, ricotta and a parmesan crisp, and a 48-hour short rib with creamed corn, polenta and a spicy orange glaze,” says Deviney, noting that the process of building a menu begins with the wines. “From there, we’ll move into each course with food, drink and stories.”
For the Traditions Club, the goal is not to profit from wine events, but instead to use them to add value to the membership experience. “The Top 100 dinner has become a signature event for the club,” says Davis. “It’s the kind of event you won’t find anywhere else.”
“Not only that,” continues Deviney, “it’s a chance for the kitchen to think about menu development in a totally different way. We get to use ingredients and techniques we might not otherwise put on a typical a la carte menu.”
Back at Lexington CC, Blazey has the same mindset about menus.
During a Napa-themed wine dinner earlier this year, Blazey opened with a smoked olive oil-poached plum, blue cheese custard, charred radicchio, and walnut-citrus emulsion paired with a 2018 Sauvignon Blanc from Kenefick Ranch. Another wine dinner featured a four-day Berkshire pork belly with smoked heirloom tomato “cassoulet,” mustard seed, and a malt vinegar glaze.
“I want these menus to help show just how expansive our culinary skill sets are,” says Blazey. “Yes, we can make a really great burger for when you come off the course. But we can also sous vide a loin of lamb and plate it with a rhubarb gel and spiced pumpkin parsnip hash that pairs perfectly with a 2015 Stellareese Cabernet Sauvignon from Marcey’s Vineyard.”