Planning a kick ass wine dinner

Back in 2009, a group of us decided we wanted to class things up a bit. Our goal was to try outstanding wines and pair them with an amazing meal…simple enough. Our inaugural wine dinner was meant to give us the opportunity to try something special without having to foot the bill all on our own. The wines were the focus, with a line-up of four, culminating in a bottle of 2007 Clos des Papes Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Wine Spectator’s “Wine of the Year” in 2009 (Holy Moses, what a wine). The meal, the wine, the conversation, and the fun made for a memorable experience that we’ll never forget.

The first wine extravaganza.  Who's that chubba pouring wine? And yes, that is a Bud Light can...we don't want people to think we're serious!

The first wine extravaganza in 2009. Who’s that chubba pouring wine? Is that a Bud Light?!

What seemed like a simple gathering ended up developing into a tradition and a passion. Since then, I’ve been a part of organizing 25+ wine dinners, many of which were for a core group of friends and our spouses. Others dinners were pure pomp, such as the Winemakers’ and Vintage dinners for clients at Stonehedge Inn (where I served as sommelier and manager). Regardless of the level of formality, all were meant to share a unique experience that would not be forgotten.

But why should you care?

Thanks for asking such an insightful question! My hope is that this inspires you to host a kick ass wine dinner of your own. Who knows, you may stumble upon your own tradition and new-found passion. At the very least, you’ll have a fun story and enjoy some epic juice.

But before I go any further, go grab a glass of wine…reading a blog about wine is way more enjoyable with some good wine! I’m well aware that some of you are reading this in the morning, but don’t forget, it’s five o’clock somewhere…

So how do you plan a kick ass wine dinner?

Step 1: The Peeps…

This is the most important step. It’s also one that you may not get right the first time around, but finding 3 other couples that share the following qualities is a must.

  • Open-mindedness
  • Appreciative of good food and wine
  • Want to learn or develop a greater appreciation for wine
  • Must be fun!

Why a total of 8 people? Simple math…8 x 3 ounce pour = 1 bottle of wine. If you want to invite more, have at it, just make sure you’re not jipping yourself.

Step 2: Necessary players/Responsibilities…

There’s two ways you can approach the dinner: have it catered or have a chef friend do it up. If you don’t have a friend who wants to be responsible for the menu and execution, I’d recommend a caterer or private chef (which isn’t as expensive as you may think, especially as this isn’t something you’ll be doing all the time).

The players:

  • Chef/Good Cook: responsible for pairing the meal with the wines selected and executing the dishes at game time. Expendable if you’re willing to have the food brought in.
  • Wine Guru: Indispensable as they are the one’s responsible for starting the process. They’ll be the ones to pick out the badass juice and should know enough about the wines to help formulate the menu, as well as teach a few things throughout the dinner.
  • Dish Washer: Indispensable. This could be one person or a team effort. Typically, there will be a few courses and having clean dishes is kinda important.
  • Everyone: Indispensable. Y’all better be ready to have fun and let loose. Remember: “What happens at a kick ass wine dinner stays at a kick ass wine dinner, unless someone has a blog or Instagram…that shit comes back.”

Step 3: The Wines…

This is where the Wine Guru gets to have fun. Finding out what the others want as the theme and price range is a necessary first step. But then the wino can have at it. We’ve done anywhere from 3-6 course menus in the past (4 is perfect IMHO), so picking out an interesting variety that sets-up a cool menu should be the objective.

Three of four wines for our upcoming 'Tour of California' BBQ dinner.

Three of four wines for our upcoming ‘Tour of California’ dinner.

Here’s a sample line-up:

  • Sparkling (Champagne or other sparkling)
  • Interesting White (Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Viognier, or Chardonnay)
  • Medium-bodied Red (Cali Pinot Noir, Grenache, Cabernet Franc, or Merlot)
  • Full-Bodied Red (Syrah/Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, or Meritage)

This step provides the framework for the creation of the menu.

You don’t have to go super expensive. We’ve done wine dinners that targeted “value” wines under $30. Then again, we’ve also gone big, like the Tour de France dinner that averaged $80/bottle and featured Roederer Cristal and a Bordeaux 2nd Growth. In the end, the make-up of the wines selected is up to you and your group’s preferences.

Poppin' the Cris to start one of the dinners.

Poppin’ the Cris to start one of the dinners.

Damn, I really want a glass of wine right now…stupid work rules!

Step 4: The Eats…

This doesn’t have to be a snooty or pretentious occasion. Think of this as your “special occasion” to enjoy the foods that you loooove (i.e. filet mignon, short ribs, lamb, fried chicken, lobster, scallops, etc), because they all go great with the right wine. So all diets, training regimes, and other self-inflicted restrictions are put on hold for one night!

Also, if a dish ends up being a flop, so be it. I remember at one dinner, my buddy was feeling experimental and tried to go at a foie gras dish for the first time. Simply put, it was a train wreck. So much so that it scarred my wife for life (she will never try foie gras). BUT, the wine that was paired with it was otherworldly and allowed us to kick back, digest some and carry on a fun conversation. Disclaimer: that was Berkie’s one and only poor dish…ever!

If you’re just getting started with food and wine pairing, there are many guides available on the web to assist (here’s one that’s basic, but useful…click here). Beyond that, here’s an sample menu based off the wine framework above:

  • Oysters w/ watermelon and cucumber relishes (Champagne/Sparkling)
  • Oil poached salmon on braised leaks (unoaked Chardonnay)
  • Duck Confit flatbread  (Pinot Noir)
  • Pepper-crusted Filet Mignon w/ creamy polenta (Syrah)
  • Cigar (Port or Cabernet Sauvignon)…this is a cool way to finish off the evening.

Ok, now I’m craving pepper-crusted filet w/ creamy polenta…and a cigar. Stupid marathon training!

Step 5: Prep/Timing…

Part of this step is making sure you prep prior to everyone coming over, or have a couple of people over early to help prep.

Think about the timing needed for each dish and how you want to handle it. It may involve the ladies eye-humping the chef as he’s creating a masterful dish (which seems to happen when Berkie is cooking). Or, it may simply mean everyone hanging at the table as the caterer serves the next course.

In the end, this forethought will allow everyone to relax a lot more during the hedonistic feast.

Step 6: Enjoy…

You’ve made the decision to get together as a group to have fun and enjoy a unique experience (as well as invest a few bucks in the evening). If things go wrong or not as planned, who cares?! If a wine doesn’t go perfectly, or if everyone doesn’t love it, that’s fine too. The important thing is that you have fun with this. Having a wine dinner with friends is hella cool, memorable, and very few people do this, which makes you a trendsetter by default.

In the eternal wisdom of the late and ever gracious Robert Mondavi:

Wine to me is passion. It’s family and friends. It’s warmth of heart and generosity of spirit. 


Categories: Wine & Spirits

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11 replies

  1. I absolutely love this idea! I have tried in the past but it was just 3 of us girls and needless to say we ended up drinking and talking and not finishing the dinner … although the evening did ended with a pretty epic dance party in my livingroom, so its okay! Definately planning on having another, and thanks to your tips and advice it will be more organized and with less dancing!

  2. We just did this last weekend – except with beer. I know – heathens! We did decide to do a follow up with a wine tasting party. So thanks for the step by step (although you have a much more refined palette when it comes to food).

    • Hey hey…I threw fried chicken in there (don’t want people to think I’m too serious)! A nice Cali Sauv Blanc would go great with KFC 🙂

      Hope you LOVED the beer dinner you evil heathen!

  3. I guess I don’t understand, so no PBR? Ha, this sounds awesome and what a great tradition 🙂 Hope you’re having a great week.

  4. I absolutely LOVE this idea. It’s so classy and fun to do as a group!

  5. What a great post!! Last year, I threw a wine party where everyone needed to pick a wine and then bring a food associated with the country their wine was from. Think: Italian wine and mini lasagna bites, German Riesling paired with pretzels and fancy mustard. It was SO fun and everyone got really into it (some had a fun play on words and brought Chili to go with their Chilean wine… I just laughed!). I’m all about themes so this is fun:)

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