From novice imbibers to dedicated oenophiles, club members enjoy the adventure of wine and spirit pairing dinners.
While working at The Bridgewater Club in Carmel, Ind., Ron Duprat, the club’s former Food and Beverage Director/Executive Chef, offered his members the opportunity to explore the world of local and international food-friendly wines and spirits at tasting dinners.
“Our members have very refined palates and travel around the world dining at Michelin-starred restaurants and some of them know more about wine than some sommeliers,” Duprat explained, who now heads culinary at FirstService Residential property management. “They’re very receptive to new food-and-beverage combinations.”
Duprat likes to draw from his French- and Afro-Caribbean-inspired cooking styles to create innovative pairings. He often chooses game meats such as elk, venison, goat and oxtail to make the dinners even more of a culinary adventure.
Most of the prix fixe tasting dinners sell out, he said.
To surprise members, sometimes he will host “pop-up” wine dinners in place of the regular dining room menus.
“Depending on the wines, everything on the menus for those dinners might be French, Italian or other international cuisine,” he said.
One of the most memorable pairings for Duprat was a tasting dinner featuring Horse Soldier bourbons named for the small special operations teams of Green Berets who fought on horseback in northern Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 attacks. He explained that the members were engaged as much with the story behind the bourbons as they were with the spirits themselves.
Outside the Box
Alexander Learned, Food and Beverage Director at Wichita Country Club in Wichita, Kan., usually hosts four wine dinners per year. One is usually for the local Food and Wine Society (“multiple club members belong to this group and luckily we are their favorite place to host events in town,”) and another is a charity dinner for a community medical clinic.
Pairings give Learned a chance to “think outside the box.” One club-favorite event is a four-course “dueling wine lunch” during which he serves varietals from two different wineries.
Not all tasting events at the club involve meals. One recent tasting consisted of bourbons and cigars at a bonfire on the south lawn.
For a high-end bourbon tasting, passports were distributed to guests. With each bourbon sampled by the guests, they would receive a stamp on the passport (each guest received one sample of each bourbon) along with tasting notes. Guests took the passports home so they could easily recall the bourbons they liked best.
Learned also invites master vintners and distillers and liquor distributor sommeliers to lead wine or liquor education classes.
“We have a large group of people who love to learn about and talk in depth about wine, so these classes are well attended,” he said.
One recent class was on high-end red wines, eight in total. Another was a journey up the West Coast comparing wines from various locations and exploring why they taste different. Still another focused on nine Spanish wines.
As for food served during these classes, members have indicated that they like a heavy hors d’oeuvres buffet or an array of foods from a certain country or region, such as a recent Italian antipasto salad, fig and brie flatbread and charcuterie board.
New this year will be a class in which members will learn to craft six different cocktails. Learned expects that class to be well received by members.
One of the highest attendance events at the club was a visit that a distributor had set up at the club with the Vice President of Rombauer Vineyards of California.
“Members respond particularly well to big names that they know, and they like to hear the back story of the winery,” Learned stated.
Learned uses pairing dinners to introduce members to new wines and liquors.
“Our members are more adventurous at an event than they are at a regular dinner in the dining room,” he explained. “Once they have tasted the wine or liquor, they are more likely to order it in the future.”
To promote exclusivity, he offered a series of intimate wine dinners with a guest limit of 20 instead of the usual 50 participants. At one, he did not tell the guests the price of the wines at the beginning but served “big baller” foods to pair with them. Guests were surprised to find out that the reds were priced at only $10 to $12 per bottle and the whites $8 to $9. That night, the club sold 20 cases of the wines, Learned reported.
Learned chooses the wines and spirits for the pairings, then hands his tasting notes over to the chef to design the menu.
“Although the chef may ask me for my opinion on a few things, he has full creativity to do what he wants,” he notes.
Beer & Spirits
This year, Greeley Country Club in Greeley, Colo. has tentatively scheduled four wine dinners, two craft beer dinners and one spirit dinner, according to John Weatherford, Executive Chef/Food and Beverage Director. Seventy-five percent of the wine dinners are vineyard specific. The others run the gamut from Spanish wines to recognizing women winemakers.
Most of the prix fixe pairing dinners feature six or seven courses. The Spanish pairing will have at least five tapas-style courses. The dinners begin with a reception at which wine and passed hors d’oeuvres are served.
Sometimes the wine inspires the food and other times it is just the opposite, Weatherford explained.
“For one dinner on northwestern wines we chose a wine because it complimented the oysters we wanted to serve for the first course,” he said.
Weatherford pointed out that these pairing dinners are all about building relationships and trust with the members.
“The first year I was here we did one wine dinner, then, when that was successful, we hosted a beer dinner and now we’re adding a spirits dinner,” he said.
Last year, the club had a tasting of Alabama’s John Emerald Distilling Company spirits without a dinner and this year a selection of spirits will be paired with food. With each course, guests will receive a sample of the spirit and a cocktail in which it is the star.
Weatherford has tried to host pairing dinners for as many as 50 guests but says he has found somewhere in the mid-30s to be a more manageable number. Every one of the pairing dinners the club has held so far has sold out.
“To keep prices reasonable, we break even on the food and wine,” he said. “We consider these dinners to be a service to our membership.”
Weatherford emphasized that he loves doing these pairing dinners because “they are the truest expression of the experience we want our members to have at the club.” He said that it also gives him great pleasure to see members trying new food and beverage alone or in combinations.
Small Is Big
Wine and spirits pairing dinners traditionally consist of four to six courses ranging from appetizer to dessert. But some chefs are choosing to serve one- or two-bite small plates to give members a broader tasting experience.
Ron Duprat, Food and Beverage Director/Executive Chef at The Bridgewater Club in Carmel, Ind., said that his members enjoy the 12 to 14 “small bites” he creates to go with each wine or spirit selection.
“That seems to be the trend of 2023,” Duprat pointed out.
Alexander Learned, Food and Beverage Director at Wichita Country Club in Wichita, Kan., also likes to serve “big baller foods in small portions with big flavor.” A recent “crowd favorite” was venison loin and the next pairing dinner will feature wild boar rack.
“The food presentation should say ‘wow,’” he added.