A Winemaker’s Inquiry Into ‘Winemaker Dinners’

After receiving a recent email newsletter from The Scholium Project we pressed Scholium winemaker Abe Schoener to expand on and share his thoughts with our readers. He agreed, and we hope you'll agree with us that what he has to say should be heard by everyone who makes, buys, sells or drinks wine.

I must be candid: I hate “winemaker dinners.” Most such events are marketing dinosaurs, lumbering arthritically across a sad and faded landscape.

I have been pressed to do them for years, and I have rarely enjoyed them. And when I have, it was never because of some alleged “synergy” between the wine and the food, but because some chef had a fantastic night and knocked us out (as did Chef Rob Drennan, suddenly preparing molecular gastronomy on his last night at the Metro Wine Bar and Bistro in Oklahoma City), or perhaps because there were ever only 12 people in the room, at a single table, united in purpose (Rouge Tomate, NYC). But mostly, they are terrible dining events — a winemaker punctuating an otherwise delightful meal with pontifications on his wine or his terroir or his startling racking protocols, or which wines are named after which children and which dogs . . . .

Often, a restaurant will sell the dinner to unsuspecting guests as they enter the restaurant (or the county club!), only to have a stranger suddenly appear at the table and ask them how they are enjoying their unpronounceable white wine. This sudden visit can enliven a dull meal or distract from a date going south — but I will never forget the time I carefully approached a couple in earnest conversation and asked them if I could answer any questions about the wine. “No,” said the man to my left. “Actually, we are discussing our divorce.”

Certainly more grace or perspicacity on my part could allow me to avoid such interruptions — and let’s say I master both of those virtues. What is the benefit of the event? Does it help a venue fill tables on a desultory Monday night? Yes. But does it improve the restaurant’s reputation or profile? Help them sell my or any other wine in the future? I think not. Or perhaps there is some such benefit. It comes at the price of an artificial meal in a good restaurant. And let’s ask, what value is there to me? A few signups for the mailing list? Almost never. New enthusiasm for my wines, or better understanding? I have no evidence.

I find that, at this point, the people who attend such events are divided between those who are already old friends and loyal followers, and those who have come because they love or have always wanted to dine at the venue and do not nor ever will care about my wines. I think that I have never seen a single signup for the mailing list following a dinner, nor have I ever sold more wine to the account. In many cases, the only burst in sales is for the dinner itself, and then sales return to the pre-dinner level, or sometime even go to zero; the wandering winemaker having served his purpose of providing minstrelsy for the night.

 

I am happy to say that I have recently worked with a few friends and colleagues in the restaurant and retail world to abandon this conventional, sclerotic, format. We now aim at something that is, in sequence, more studious and more festive. What I mean is: a rigorously structured study session, not at dinner tables, but standing, or at a bar; followed by a party, where we all hang out together. And all of this is carefully and strenuously promoted by the account, so that no one wanders in looking for a two-top on neutral ground to discuss custody issues. I had the honor of participating in one such event earlier this month at Corkbuzz in New York and it was as fun as any evening I have spent with my best friends and most ardent fellow students. A complete success. A few days before, I had done a remarkable study session with complete newcomers at the Metropolitan Club in Chicago. Another complete success.

One of the principles of the format that I am working on is: Not all the wines will be Scholium. Enough Scholium-only tastings! It is not the way that my friends and colleagues and I drink or think about wine. With friends and colleagues, with guests in my home, at the restaurants we love — we drink and think with variety — and in a context that is multifarious, not monolithic.

So, as much as possible, from now on, my tastings will include the wines of other winemakers I love and admire. At Corkbuzz, each Scholium wine was presented in a flight of two, contrasted with the wine from another producer. And after some study of the wines, always blind, we all sat down together at a single table and drank whatever we wanted in whatever order we wanted. The producers that Scholium shared the table with were Sandhi and Matthiasson, friends from California; and Tissot from the Jura, and Sandro Fay from the Valtellina. It really was an honor and a pleasure for me to see new friends drink my wines and consider them in relation to and together with these very different wines that I admire so much.

Will there be greater marketing value to me or to the account by virtue of proceeding this way? There is no direct reason to think so (though I did sell a lot of wine at the Metropolitan Club, but I ascribe that completely to the charm and determination of the host). Have I had more signups for the mailing list? No. But are we now cultivating better events, wonderful culinary and festive experiences, rather than rehearsing stale gestures, accepted by mutual consent? Yes. It is part of the new world, and as old as any celebratory feast.

Abe Schoener began the The Scholium Project in 2000 and is its winemaker.