When it comes to food and wine, there’s arguably no market in the country more competitive than Napa Valley. Here, winemaker dinners at various scales of spectacular are staged at multiple venues multiple nights of the week.
The Meritage Resort & Spa, tucked just off Highway 12/29 at the base of the hill crowned by the iconic Grape Crusher statue, has drawn raves for dinners served in its underground Estate Cave private event venue. But on a recent holiday weekend, it tried something risky and different: A six-course master winemaker dinner staged alfresco in a vineyard setting atop the hill.
The idea, says Frederic Najem, the resort’s director of food and beverage, was not just to pull out every stop imaginable to impress guests at the $249 per-plate soirée, but to provide an example of the seasonal magic the resort is able to conjure for high-end incentive or executive groups. “The only way an event can stand out in this market is to create a ‘wow factor’ and go outside the box,” says Najem, who began preparations for the event six weeks in advance.
The evening repast, held in conjunction with Arkenstone Napa Valley, an all-estate winery in the Howell Mountain appellation, began from the guest perspective with being handed a sip-through-a-straw Pommery Champagne Pop before heading up the steps to the venue. At the top, guests were directed through the vineyard to a row of live-cook hors d’oeuvres stations. Wine flowed while a harpist provided lush musical accompaniment as attendees noshed and watched the sun sink behind vine-covered hills.
Dinner was served at two long, canopy-covered tables for 32, each sparkling with a forest of stemware (seven glasses at each place, 484 in all). Courses paired to Arkenstone wines were nuanced and decadent, starting with poached lobster tartare followed by big-eye tuna and quail egg; foie gras on hot stone; rabbit confit, and crispy wagyu meatball. Simultaneous delivery was synchronized at each table by a serving staff of 14, all provided with new uniforms for the occasion. A flaming dessert of white chocolate with passion fruit and honeysuckle was dramatically presented—and quenched with liquid nitrogen—as a grand finale. (Tables were covered with custommade 6-foot-by-9-foot pieces of glassware, Najem says, “because we didn’t want to do the firing on wood and needed protection.”) In the background, the Rat Pack band played tunes from the Sinatra era.
For the guests, it was a flawless and spectacular affair. But it took weeks of trial, error and behind-the-scenes minidramas to pull off. Among the challenges: A portable, generator-run kitchen had to be constructed under an oak tree about 500 feet from the venue. Charcoal grills took the place of ovens, while some courses were prepared using the sous vide technique. Two powerful generators were rented, one for the kitchen, the other for lighting. A landscaping company was hired to trim and clean 10 rows of vines for visitor access during the reception. The resort’s engineering division was called in to grade and widen a dirt track to make it truck-accessible, enabling delivery of portable toilets, tables and other equipment. Hors d’oeuvre stations had to be leveled and stabilized after hot oil spilled during a trial run.
The wild card factor: weather. “We were really concerned about how cool it would get, and if we would be able to keep the food hot if there was a breeze or a draft,” Najem says. “I was worried. I visited the venue for four nights before the event, when the temperature was 55, 60 degrees, and thought we would be able to hold the food. The servers had to go to the lower deck to plate and walk to the upper deck to serve. So there was a good 10 to 12 seconds before the food reached the table. The timeliness of service was key to making this happen.”
To ensure guest comfort as an evening chill descended, servers passed by late in the meal with baskets of fleecy and gratefully received lap blankets.
“From the first impression to the last, we wanted to show off small details,” Najem says of the evening feast. “The goal was to create an unforgettable lifestyle experience. We wanted people to be blown away. But it was about more than a one-time thing. We want to create high-end packages for small incentive groups, starting next year.”
By all accounts, guests at the inaugural hilltop dinner were indeed wowed: Many lingered until almost midnight at an event scheduled to end by 10 p.m.