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Wine Dinners


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Like probably almost everyone here, I've seen or gotten notice of innumerable wine dinners over the years, collaborations between the various cogs of the wine trade and a local chef or restaurant. I've always avoided them, worried that either the wine would be underwhelming and the price overwhelming, that the restaurant would deliver that kind of upscale banquet food that even the best restaurants tend to put out for large groups, or that I'd be stuck at a table among a bunch of aging wine assholes (as opposed to you and me and the rest of the Rockwellians) with whom I had little in common. Besides, it's not like I'm going to walk out with a $500 case of wine -- not in the budget. I once went to a less structured French wine tasting, sponsored by Calvert-Woodley, and really felt the wines were mostly second-rate and, even though I did buy some at the time, it left a bad taste.

but Mrs. B ran across an ad from (again) Calvert-Woodley, offering a flight of Newton wines -- a sentimental favorite going way back -- and Marcel's restaurant, just a favorite favorite. And, at a hundred bucks, tax and tip included, for five courses and five wines, it seemed a deal and a good excuse to catch up with two friends whom we hadn't seen in a long time.

It started out badly. Not saying that they were wine assholes, but despite the hushed negotiations conducted by Matt from Calvert Woodley (Washington's greatest Deadhead wine professional) and one of Marcel's impeccably dressed floor staff, the earlier arrivals at our table could not be persuaded to a modest rearrangement of their seating so that our foursome might sit within shouting distance of one another. "All very high school" as a waiter later whispered to us.

Just as we were getting to the "fuck this" point, and heading into the bar for something stronger than unfiltered chardonnay, however, Marcel's -- have I mentioned how much I love the service at Marcal's? -- came through with what was described as the "President's table" -- a four-top perched on a small rise between a window to the kitchen and back room where the proles were bunched in steerage, 10 to a table (except the one we were supposed to occupy, of course).

And after that, things went well. Swimmingly, even. The food was about 75% as good as Marcel's at its best. I particularly enjoyed the Loup de Mer with garlic puree and the duck "confit" (no way was that real confit but who cares) raviolis. I can't recall vintages but among the wines the unfiltered Chardonnay was a standout -- elegant, complex and restrained (all wine descriptions to ba taken with a grain of salt); the Merlot/Cab Claret was about as good a $20 ($17 this week) steak wine as I ever hope to find and the Cabernet, though young, seemed quite wonderful -- one of those chocolate-y cabs you hear about.

All told, for a hundred bucks, it was a good introduction to the restaurant for our friends, a chance to taste five wines from a respected grower -- couldn't really hear her from our balcony seats, but, had we been of the mind we could have chatted her up - and a pretty good way to spend a hundred bucks on a Wednesday night.

So my question is, is this normal? Do you generally get your money's worth in food and wine and insider gossip and so on? Or did we luck out, and stumble across a rare combination of food, wine, service and reasonable price?

And, with all due respect to the many professionals here, I'd especially like to hear from civilians who have participated in these things through the years. Worth it? Or crap-shoot?

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I go to them on a regular basis and I think it really matters who is hosting the dinner, and where it is being held. The best I have been to have been at Marcel’s, Bourbon Steak, and Tosca (including a white truffle dinner that still ranks amongst the best dinners I have ever eaten). Maybe it is that I deal with smaller stores than C-W and have not had any issues like you have described.

Do I get my money’s worth? I would say most of the time I do, and as a bonus it gives me a chance to meet new people, try new wines, and generally drunkenly buy way too much (wine buying is currently a more important part of my budget than eating out).

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Decide what reason you are going for. I go for the wines, mainly, and try to go with friends that might enjoy it. This means I am very particular about the ones I go to, generally producers I know where I hope to try a mix of latest releases mixed with stuff from the library or even rarer stuff...

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Interesting thread. I will say first that I'm not able to attend many of these types of dinners b/c of cost, but I will fork over the cash when the stars align - a chef I like, high quality wines, and a menu that has dishes that appeal. I've generally been pleased with my experiences, one at PS 7's stands out in my mind. I do really love PS 7's as anyone can probably tell from my posts in that thread, but this was the chef at his absolute best. The wines were very good across the board and more importantly they paired quite well with the dishes. The winemaker provided some info about the wines, but if my memory is correct, it wasn't obtrusive and you could follow up with questions later if you wanted. We ended up at the table with 2 staff members so no concerns about stuffy guests for us.

Based only on my history, I think it's the food that tends to guide me - if the chef/menu appeals I'm more drawn to consider it. If I see wines that I know I like or want to try, but the restaurant is questionable, I dismiss it. So my expectations going in are probably that the food is excellent and that the wines pair well; I'm not necessarily looking for wines that I would buy and add to my cellar, if that makes sense? Mostly, I think it's an opportunity for a chef to be creative and inspired and show his best.

Of course, if I had more money, I would do this sort of thing much more often and would probably be much less discerning. ;)

On a somewhat side note, if you want to eat good to great food, drink a LOT of good wine and just have a lot of fun overall, I recommend the Chef's Expressions dinners up in Baltimore. The chef's are great guys, a lot of fun and always interacting with guests, the food is always good with a standout or 2 and the wines tend to be really good and flow freely. It's a larger group (Chef's Expressions also does catering and other events) so it's on a different level, but the cost is line line with that, usually under $100 for 5 courses plus hors d'ouvres that are passed beforehand (wine with those as well) with wines with every course.

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