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Wine Dinners Done Well: The Secret

I've attended a lot of wine dinners. I really enjoy them. And I organize and present at least two wine dinners a month for tasting groups, plus a few charity events, and have for almost twenty years. Some of the dinners I've attended (including a few of mine) have been well done. Some "not so." But only a couple have been really well done. We recently attended a wine dinner at our local golf club, and to my pleasant surprise, it was really well done.

The occasion was a five-course dinner featuring the wines of Catena presented by "a representative of the Catena Winery." That representative turned out to be Marika Vida-Arnold, proprietor of Marika Vida et Fils, who serves as wine director at the Ritz Carlton in New York and consults for a variety of clients, including Catena. She's a pro in the best sense of the word--with a resumé that includes work with some of New York's best chefs--and she did a wonderful job. In reflecting on the evening, I thought about the things that make a wine dinner stand out.

First--a blinding flash of the obvious--you have to know what you're talking about. Nothing kills the buzz at a wine dinner faster than the presenter saying something that people know is just plain inaccurate. It happens more often than it should. Second, you have to care about your subject. If you don't care, why should anyone else? In retrospect, some of my weaker wine dinner presentations came about because the wines bored me. I may not care about the pinot grigio that members of the tasting group asked for, but I need to find something about it or its history or the pairing that excites me.

Marika scored 100% on both counts. I know a little about Catena--we've visited the winery and I find its history really interesting...Nicolas Catena was a real trail-blazer and his legacy has been profound. Marika was spot-on with every comment--even the little throw-away details. Perhaps even more impressive was her passion for the subject--her infectious enthusiasm.

I probably could have cited both of those factors even before my reflection. But the real key to successful wine dinners emerged with greater clarity in an email exchange I had with Marika following the dinner. I complimented her on an excellent job and she said: "...I do wine dinners for a living and reading a crowd is very important...."

In a nutshell, that's it--the difference between an average wine dinner and a really good one lies in reading the crowd. That starts with the selection of the wine. The centerpiece wines of the dinner we attended were the Catena Alta series (chardonnay, malbec, cabernet sauvignon). There are very respectable Catena wines at the entry level...and there are outstanding single vineyard malbecs and the cab-driven Nicolas Catena Zapata blend at the high end. But the big, bold, ripe Catena Alta wines in the middle were exactly the right choice for this crowd. It hit their taste right on the money without sending them into sticker-shock.

The second part of reading the crowd is more subtle--and real-time. How much information to present. Marika did it beautifully--offering just enough information but never over-doing it. All of us have been to wine dinners where the speaker droned on and on. I know enough not to do that. But I also know I've occasionally committed the sin of talking about what interests me instead of adjusting the focus to what interests them. It starts with understanding the audience--true for any speech or presentation. But the real skill lies in reading the crowd--the verbals (questions and comments) and the non-verbals--and tailoring the presentation appropriately. Marika did it well--and it made the evening enjoyable for everyone.

In theory, I went to the dinner to learn about Catena wines--though in fact, I already knew them pretty well. But that doesn't mean I didn't learn anything new. I did. I learned how to make a wine dinner more enjoyable.

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