There’s a central theme to caring deeply about wine that has as much to do with the who as it does the what. Some may say that wine is only as good as the company you drink it with. When you’re able to really bite down on this and get to the marrow of it, things seem to fall into place. And when attending a wine dinner, rather than being kept on the outside of understanding and fumbling about, a rough outline of order sets in and you’re free to improvise to make it all your own. I’m sure there’s a jazz reference I could make here about knowing rules and breaking them, but that’s not my bailiwick. On the other hand, wine dinners are.
Broadly, I would define a wine dinner as any experience where you’re focused on wine as an aspect of your dining. Yes, even if you’re alone. These experiences are meant to be a celebration of something bigger than ourselves. Things that act as a catharsis or reaffirm our feelings of connectedness to others. They sure as hell aren’t meant to be a contest of egos. Nor an opportunity to whine about the guy who brought the flawed bottle and no back-up. Those are simply distractions from what drives us to attend or host such dinners. And the dinners come in all shapes and sizes. Earlier this week my wife Lisa and I went to Chad Colby’s new Los Angeles restaurant, Antico. In an area affectionately called Larchmont-east, Chad and Kevin Caravelli (partner/wine director) have opened an inviting spot where all your pasta and wood-fired dreams come true. Chad is back at it with force, and they’ve put together a serious wine list that is insanely well priced. But what’s great is that this wasn’t meant to be a wine dinner sort of night. We walked in looking for an easy local bite for the two of us but as luck would have it, the place was lined with familiar faces and friends in the wine world, a few of whom offered to share a bit of the bottles they brought. A 4-top of generous friends sent over a taste of 89 Vietti Brunate (flawless, dark olives, capers, some sweetness, a tinge of iron, game and red fruit, killer) and 99 Bereche les Montees Reserve Privee (a still wine from Champagne, a good wine but mostly an intellectual curiosity; light bodied, stemmy, pure strawberry with high toned floral notes). Add those to the individual glasses we ordered off Kevin’s list, the incredible dishes coming from the open kitchen, and before we knew it we had ourselves a modest little wine dinner. We spotted Chef Jeremy Fox of Rustic Canyon having a well-earned night off in one corner, the owners of Lady & Larder in another as well as Dustin Lancaster enjoying a bottle and a breather from having opened the Firehouse Hotel and celebrating the anniversary of Covell, one of the most successful wine bars in the city. I don’t think any of them expected to run into any of us, but we cheers’d from across the room and soon enough glasses were being passed around. So much for a quiet night out. Kevin returned with a glass of a small batch Chinato he and Chad perfected before opening. It was a damned near perfect night.
As a counterpoint to this are the heavy-hitter dinners where people plot and scheme and dig deep in their cellars for the right bottle(s) and obsess over themes, vintages and bottle line-ups. It’s important to keep in mind that these are meant to be as personally satisfying and enjoyable as the casual wine dinners. But you must know your audience and what the goal of the evening should be. Not everyone who loves an easy wine dinner is going to enjoy a seat at the table with such a serious-minded group. Not everyone walks through the Louvre at the same pace, but we’re all looking at the art.
One of my wine groups, The Burgundy Group (a simple name for a complicated region), has been meeting once a month for years to explore one region in great detail. We collectively (usually) agree on every aspect the line-up for each dinner and spend hours breaking down the details and nuances of each wine. It’s an informed group, to say the least, with many members sharing bottles they bought upon release decades ago. Occasionally we have guests join which gets us to the heart of the issue – who do you invite to something like this, and as the guest, what is expected of you? The group wants to invite people who will both enjoy the evening and be able to contribute to the discussion. Not an easy task, but not overly challenging either. From the group’s side, curiosity, a half-decent palate and an ability to express yourself are all we’re looking for. From the guest’s side, if the invitation to something like this feels like being tossed into the deep end of the pool, you can either put on your big-boy trunks and jump in or you can decline and look for others who you feel are at a similar level. If you jump in you will either discover you know more than you thought, or that you have a long way to go (remember, we’re all still learning). But whichever it may be, don’t b.s. your way through it. You’ll get sniffed out in a hot minute and there goes your ticket to the next dinner. We’re all tempted to portray ourselves as knowledgeable, especially with peers and those we respect, but if you remember the people you’re drinking with might be on a first name basis with the wine maker you’re discussing, or have been to that region multiple times and can tell us why the forest line behind a certain vineyard looks the way it does in a way no book will ever convey, well then it’s best to avoid any one-upsmanship.
If the study of wine is important to you and you know it’s going to be even a small part of your life, then seek out people who know more than you and listen. Don’t turn it into a Cult Wine point-scoring contest and remember to drink what you like. The kicker is this though: if you do all of these things well, then what you enjoy drinking now will evolve. And what you likely end up liking years down the road probably won’t be what you think of as your kind of wine now. It just means you’re doing it right.