Wine events of all kinds have been steadily growing in popularity during the last decade. Since California is indisputably the most renowned wine-producing region in the United States, hosting a gathering here holds the extra appeal of introducing your meeting groups to the endless diversity of vintages right where the wines are made.
As a professional wine writer who has been planning events in California for almost a decade for companies such as IBM and Microsoft, I can attest that our state is home to a bounty of extensive and well-priced wine lists, amazing vineyard venues and top-notch locally sourced food pairings that make those wines shine.
If you want to show your group the delights of California wine country, great vineyards and charming tasting rooms are only an hour or two from Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose or San Diego. Many of these tasting rooms are concentrated in small, charming towns, such as Healdsburg, Santa Ynez and Carmel.
Along with Napa, Sonoma and Santa Barbara counties, up-and-coming wine regions such as Lodi, Amador County and Monterey are great areas to explore with a group. You can arrange a wine tasting at the Monterey Bay Aquarium or at a Gold Rushera hotel in Amador. These locations-as day trips or settings for multiday meetings-allow groups to dig into regional cuisine, artisan olive oils and locally grown produce while they explore the wines.
The key to great wine events is keeping them lively, interactive and tailored to the participants’ level of interest, knowledge and background. Everyone should walk away feeling they learned something-the best temperature to store wine at or what to do with the cork-and that they just participated in a unique, insider experience. Hosting events at winemakers’ homes or wineries not open to the public, such as Sonoma’s Jordan Estate or Paul Hobbs, ups the ante on exclusivity. Anyone can pay the fee and visit Opus One, but very few experience a private party in its inner chambers, giving your team bragging rights for years to come.
With so many options, focusing on what’s exciting and affordable for your group can be a challenge.
HOW TO GET THE MOST FROM YOUR WINE BUDGET
I budget a half-bottle of wine per person at a two-hour event, which is generous if guests are driving home, hence partaking in only a glass or two. Costs can range from $8 a person or less if you bring the wines into the venue, to $20 to $25 at a restaurant, hotel ballroom or special event venue with a solid wine list. Your wine budget is generally 20 to 40 percent of food costs. So, if you are doing a simple cheese and appetizer reception with wines that you can purchase directly at retail, you might keep the food and beverage costs per head at $30 to $35.
If you use a cutting-edge venue such as a space in San Francisco’s emerging Dogpatch area, a high net worth investor’s primary or secondary home or a San Jose mansion like the Hayes Mansion, where you will be catering food and wine from outside vendors, you may be able to save money on the wine purchase.
But even if your event is taking place at a restaurant, a good bottle of wine should be available for less than $40, unless it’s a Michelin-starred restaurant. If the wine list isn’t competitively priced, move on. Whenever I work with wine directors, I look for those who actively want to support my business and my clients with well-priced wines. These wines can be on the regular wine list or reserved for meeting planners or savvy wine professionals.
TO ENJOY A GREAT WINE EXPERIENCE AT A VENUE, FOLLOW THESE SIX EASY TIPS:
1. Avoid serving well-known, big-ticket wines with high price tags.
2. Find venues that offer a unique food and wine experience: unusual local brands and pairings, and good pricing.
3. Seek out quirky restaurants and bars that have great wine and food programs. They generally go above and beyond the call of duty and are often covered in mainstream wine publications, such as Wine & Spirits, Wine Enthusiast and local city publications such as San Francisco magazine or Los Angeles magazine.
4. Look into lesser-known regions, such as the Loire Valley and Alsace, and local California sparklers such as Schramsberg Vineyards and Roederer Estate for wine choices at events.
5. Explore off-the-beaten-path French regions for wine choices such as Cahors and Madiran-both known for intense and amazingly food-friendly big reds-which offer better values.
6. Tell a restaurant or venue’s wine director or owner that you want to do something unique and ask for their support and advice. Then listen to their ideas and be open to them.
Smaller, food-focused venues, such as Boulettes Larder in San Francisco or Tarla, a Mediterranean restaurant in Napa, can be sources of great wines and unusual, winefriendly dishes.
When you can bring your own wine for events without a corkage fee, you should also be able to buy stellar bottles for less than $15 or $20. Gruet blanc de noirs, a sparkling wine made by a family based in New Mexico, routinely prices out for $16.99 retail or less. In blind tastings, dozens of my top tech and legal teams have mistaken it for Champagne or top-of-the-line California sparkling wine.
Some top local wine retailers to work with include K&L, with locations in San Francisco, Silicon Valley and Los Angeles; Bottle Barn in Sonoma; Beltramo’s in Silicon Valley; and Wine Expo in Santa Monica.
Ask to speak to the wine buyer of whatever category or region of wine you are looking to purchase. Many of your events may feature only California or Italian wines, for example, and the buyer’s feedback and perspective will be invaluable.
HOW TO SPOT VALUE WINES
The higher production the winery, the less expensive the wine is likely to be. Five Rivers, which is owned by large wine distributor Excelsior, produces one of the best reasonably priced cabernet sauvignons and pinot noirs made in California (both retail for under $20 a bottle).
However, many other mass-produced wines are more likely to disappoint. Generally the elusive, good high-volume wines will be well reviewed in local wine publications and savvy wine directors will also point them out. Educating yourself about these finds may seem like a lot of work, but it is research that can be used for dozens of events. If your wine budget is tight, consider seeking out areas that have low land and labor costs, such as Sicily for both reds and whites or Mendoza in Argentina, mostly for big, corpulent malbecs. Chile, Argentina, South Africa and
Portugal have been producing some of the best wines over the past decade, thanks to affordable production costs, reasonable marketing budgets and hard-to-pronounce wine names that many consumers are hesitant to buy.
Almost anything with the name Napa attached to it is going to come with an additional up-charge. Look for lesser-known California regions, such as Anderson Valley, Paso Robles, Santa Ynez and Santa Barbara. J. Lohr is one of the best known, most widely available wines from Paso, and Roederer sparkling is based in Philo in the hills of Mendocino. Washington and Oregon are also producing some beautiful wines-Oregon more on the classic, French-influenced pinot noir-style, and western Washington full-bodied reds, such as syrah or Bordeaux blends.
DON’T OVERLOOK PAIRINGS WITH NON-MEDITERRANEAN FOOD
If you don’t want to host a traditional wine pairing dinner, some of the best dishes with wine are those with delicate spice layers. Indian, Chinese and many other Asian foods are divine with a wide range of wines. A few ground rules: Whites tend to pair better than reds with a range of spices. Wines with residual sugar to cool the palate-off-dry rieslings from Germany or gewürztraminer from practically anywhere-are generally also divine as are more aromatic wines. If you choose a red, you’ll want a bright, low-alcohol, cool-climate wine that won’t overwhelm the delicate flavors, such as chinons from the Loire Valley or zweigelts from Austria. Tannic wines with high alcohol levels such as California cabs will completely overwhelm the delicate taste profiles of these dishes.
MANAGING WINE EVENTS FOR BOTH OENOPHILES AND NONDRINKERS
You’ll have to address a wide audience for many of the wine events you plan; some attendees may not even drink at all. This is important information for you as a planner to ascertain and communicate to the sommelier or wine pro who is leading the event. Be sure to find out if the majority of your guests are wine drinkers or have an interest in wine. That will allow a wine educator, like myself, to plan alternate activities/tastings that will keep the nondrinkers engaged. One such activity is a water tasting; once you start paying attention, you’ll be struck by how different the mineral content and salt levels of, say, Badoit from France and San Pellegrino from Italy are. You can also pair food with nonalcoholic artisanal grape juice instead of wine. Navarro Vineyards, for one, makes delicious nonalcoholic juice from wine grape varieties. There are also sensory experiences that everyone can enjoy, like tasting candies with one’s nose closed to realize how important the sense of smell is to taste perception.
Liza Zimmerman has been writing, educating and consulting about wine, cocktails and food for two decades. She has also worked almost every angle of the wine and food business: from server and consultant to positions in distribution, education, event planning and sales. She has visited all the world’s major wine growing and spirits producing regions-50-plus countries and counting-and is one of several hundred people in the U.S. to hold the Diploma of Wine & Spirits (D.W.S.), the three-year program that is the precursor to the Master of Wine.