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February 2013

Wine and Dine

by Maria Lenhart

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In wine destinations throughout the West, it’s no longer just about the wine. Increasingly, it’s about the food as well, making an event at a winery or wine country resort a chance to experience how wine and locally sourced cuisine can combine for a memorable pairing.

These days many wine venues are as focused on the capabilities of their award-winning chefs and catering operations as they are about wine. Some wineries include outstanding on-site restaurants and catering operations. Conversely, many hotels and resorts in wine country locations are partnering with local winemakers to enhance their culinary operations.

The upshot is that food as well as wine figures prominently in an ever-expanding array of wine country meeting activities, ranging from multicourse wine pairing dinners to culinary team building.

“The culinary aspect has become a much bigger part of the wine country experience for groups,” says David Rubens, CMP, president of Bay Magic Meetings and Tours, a DMC based in Walnut Creek, Calif. “Increasingly, they want to enjoy wine tasting as it relates to food.”

Winery Restaurants
Among wineries with a strong culinary focus is Wente Vineyards in Livermore, Calif., a 130-year-old family-operated winery with an array of group-friendly features that include an on-site restaurant with private dining rooms, an event center, a wine cave, a concert lawn and conference rooms. Under the stewardship of Executive Chef Matt Greco, Wente’s emphasis is on seasonal dishes prepared with ingredients from the winery’s extensive vegetable and herb garden, says Robert Gundrey, vice president of hospitality sales and operations.

“Our garden here has really evolved—in fact, we will be opening a pergola in the garden in June where we can do chef’s table events for groups of up to 18,” he says.

Evening events at Wente frequently start with a wine tasting reception in the historic sandstone caves, with the wines paired with passed appetizers. Then the group will move on to The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards for a multicourse dinner paired with wines.

Cooking demonstrations, culinary team-building challenges and wine blending are among the activities available for groups at Wente, Gundry says.

“A favorite team-building experience is where groups adorn pizza dough with various toppings for the chef to cook on an outside grill,” he says. “Then a panel of judges from the group tastes them to see how the pizzas pair up with wines. It’s casual, fun and not too complicated.”

Located in the Napa Valley culinary mecca of Yountville, home to the French Laundry and other renowned restaurants, the Domaine Chandon winery offers an acclaimed restaurant of its own, Etoile. Chef Perry Hoffman, named a Best New Chef by Food & Wine magazine, uses Dungeness crab, Liberty Farms duck breast and other local ingredients in dishes designed to complement the winery’s signature sparkling and still wines.

Domaine Chandon offers private venues that range from elegant dining rooms in the restaurant to outdoor areas overlooking the winery’s rolling vineyards and oak-shaded duck ponds.

In New Mexico, another example of a winery with a strong restaurant component is St. Clair Winery, the state’s largest winemaker. Along with a tasting room and event space at its headquarters in Deming, the winery operates the group-friendly St. Clair Winery & Bistro restaurants in historic areas of Albuquerque and Las Cruces.

With both indoor and patio dining for groups, the St. Clair restaurants feature menus pairing New Mexico wines with locally inspired dishes, including pastas and meats spiced with green and red chiles.

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