Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk
August 27, 2010
The perfect scenario is that you show up to the restaurant and there, standing to greet you, is the winemaker himself with a glass of something sparkly or refreshing that he doesn’t release to the general public. For the next four courses you have great wines that he charmingly describes in detail – vintage, vineyard, style, etc. All of the info that only a winemaker who is passionate about his product will think is important enough to share.
But sometimes the experience is a little different. The distributor or marketing arm of a winery has set up a deal with a restaurant to pour their wines, often wines that you can buy at a discount at any liquor store in town, with whatever is on the menu. They send a local rep who may or may not know much about the wines and for the next four hours you are underwhelmed, overfed and feeling like you would have been better ordering off the menu or staying home.
I’ve attended many of both of these kinds of dinners, fortunately more of the former than the latter, but I’m always a little leery of what I’m in for when I head to a winemaker dinner.
So when I called Scopa, a highly recommended Italian restaurant in Healdsburg, the heart and soul of Sonoma wine country, to make a reservation I was slightly unsteady when I was told that the Brack Mountain Wine Company would be hosting the “Winemaker Wednesday” the night I would be dining there. It turns out I need not have been concerned.
Scopa is perfect. It’s a family-run place that uses Sonoma’s freshest products, and the simplest preparations, to turn out gorgeous, flavorful dishes that are as Italian as they are Californian. Or vice versa. The food – fresh burrata cheese with eggplant and peppers, California sardines served Venetian style, grilled Dry Creek peaches, calamari done with just the right amount of smoke, white beans and fantastic olive oil, crisp wood-fired pizzas – was terrific, across the board. But the unique winemakers dinner format that Ari and Dawnelise Rosen, Scopa’s owners, devised simply enhanced the evening.
This being wine country and all, the Rosens wanted to find a way to integrate local winemakers into the restaurant and have them actually interact with diners. So they came up with a scheme where each Wednesday a winemaker whose wines make the list will come in and act as an actual waiter, working the floor and pouring his or her wines. The process begins in April when the staff at Scopa tastes wines and determines which local labels will make the list. Ari says they only select wines they like (there is also a large selection of Italian wines) and then contacts the wineries to tell them they are on the list, provided they agree to come to Scopa on two Wednesdays in the upcoming year to pour.
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The concept has evolved a bit (it seems that winemakers are not the best waiters, because they spend too much time talking with people about their wines), but now each Wednesday Scopa sees winemakers working the floor, pouring and telling people their stories.
Brack Mountain Wine Company was represented the evening we were in, as two of the company’s owners, father-and-son team Dan and Chris Fitzgerald, poured their wines and explained their story. We started with a Rose of Pinot Noir from Ellipsis, one of the wines that Brack Mountain represents, and it was a light, bright summer sipper.
Brack Mountain bills itself as a “next generation” wine distributorship and is selling wines that they make under different labels from different sections of Sonoma, as well as a number of other small artisanal producers. They offer high-quality juice at low prices to restaurants in the Bay Area. They are also working on some interesting packaging, including kegs for restaurants that are pouring from tap, an emerging trend in the region. We tried both a Bench Cabernet Sauvignon from the Dry Creek Valley and a Cab/Sangiovese blend from Enos, and both were outstanding with Scopa’s flavorful offerings.
The real joy, aside from the great food and wine, was the casual nature of the Winemaker Wednesday events. Nothing too stuffy – we were able to order from the menu, and we got a great feel for some winemakers we will both look for and root for in the future.
To borrow a phrase from Brack Mountain, it was a “next generation” winemaker dinner.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and a black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at email@example.com.