#BDX in #BTV: A Reminder Why Wine Dinners Matter

January 28, 2015

We cook a lot at home, and because of that we don’t always get out as much as we probably ought to. That said I do try to keep my ear to the ground in order to stay on top of the wine dinners and tastings that are going down all around the state. We have a Google calendar that’s available to the public but mostly it’s so that I can keep track of what’s going on, just in case there’s an opening in the schedule. Recently, the stars and wines aligned, and I had the privilege to join in a lovely meal, a fine vertical of Bordeaux and good company at the Bluebird Tavern in Burlington.

What transpired that evening was an excellent example and good reminder of why wine dinners matter and who they matter to. I often tell folks that wine dinners with the producers and importers are some of the best wine value-to-taste experiences available to the average consumer today, and so I tend to plan our outings around these types of events, for precisely this reason. Jason Zuliani proprietor of the Dedalus wine shop in Burlington is doing the good work to expand and enhance wine culture in the Queen City. Collaborating on dinners like these is an important part of a formula that has drawn the appreciation of clientele and attention from the greater wine world. So I jumped when Jason extended an invitation to join him and a welcoming committee, comprised of the shop’s mailing list recipients, customers of the tavern and those, who like me, had taken notice via digital channels. Olivier Laval would be the guest of honor representing his family domain of Gombaude-Guillot in the heart of Pomerol.


Jason Zuliani - Lisa Strausser - Olivier Laval (L > R)

Let’s get this out of the way. The most important and self-serving reason why, you the wine lover, should care about wine dinners is because, as a rule, the restaurant establishments and the providers of the wines are going out of their way to create an experience that is worth far more than the price of the entry ticket. Yes I realize it may seem a luxury, but I also look at restaurant menus enough know what a “regular dinner” can cost when beverages are included. A wine dinner can seem spendy at first, when priced anywhere from $45 – $200 per person, but if we do the breakdown of what those wines should cost, often from deep cellars, some of them obscure, or otherwise unobtainable, being served alongside three to seven courses of thoughtfully prepared dishes, over the course of a few hours, often in the presence of the importer or the very person whose hands produced the wine…the value is nearly priceless.

Wine dinners matter to the importers or distributors of the wines because they represent some of their best opportunities to directly connect with wine consumers and educate them about what they bring to the table. Distributors spend much of their time talking to restaurateurs and retail shop owners who are also great sources of information for wine consumers, but sometimes that layer of abstraction means things can be left out, or lost in translation. Fortunately on this night we had Lisa Strausser on hand to share the knowledge and shepherd our French visitor.  She is one of a number of talented Vermont wine people who previously pitched for one of our state distributors, in this case g.housen, and got called up to throw down in the big leagues by an important importer, in this case, Kermit Lynch.


When it comes to the dinners themselves, they really matter to the restaurants.  This is a great chance for the chef to go off-menu, let the kitchen show its stuff, and make some special choices for courses intended to match well with the wines.  Wine dinners are often held on what you might call, off-nights when the restaurant may not normally be as busy as prime time.  So it helps to put people in seats, but it also allows the restaurants to expand the kind of experiences they offer as well as introduce new people to their services.  This was my first time at the Bluebird Tavern and I was left with the impression that clearly, I need to go back again soon. Dinner was family style and friendly with plenty to go around each for course.

Wine dinners matter to the community. This dinner was like so many we’ve been to, where I could see that old friends were reconvening, and new acquaintances were being made.  It was a lively and near capacity group, on a Tuesday night, with a a blustery winter storm blowing outside, no less. I was flying solo and as I mingled with a very engaged crowd prior to the seating, I saw some folks who I knew but I met and befriended a couple who had recently retired from out-of-state and moved to north-central Vermont. The dinner was arranged as two long tables each seating fourteen plus and so we took places across from one another at the end of one in order to continue our conversation. It turned out to be much to my benefit for having done so. When they relocated to the Green Mountains last year they, both oenophiles, also brought with them sizable wine cellar and she was well quite versed in older Bordeaux. So it was a pleasure to taste with them and compare notes as the wine flights and food courses passed in front of us. These dinners matter because people connect with one another.  We meet because of our shared interest, but specifically one where the ritual of breaking bread together makes for a shared experience that is not easily duplicated.


And wine dinners matter the producers who come to share their handiwork and need some sustenance in the process.  It is a chance for them to interact with people who drink the wine so far from its place of origin. They work hard to produce the liquid distillation of their terroir and it always seems easier for them to tell their story sitting over a dinner table, than across a crowded trade show table. While I understand that too many dinners on the road can take their toll on a weary winemaker, I have frequently and specifically heard from them, that visits to Vermont are some of their favorites, because of down-to-earth people and sumptuously set tables.

This evening Olivier shared the story of his home soils, their vines of Merlot and Cabernet Franc and of his mother who took over the winery in the early 1990s.  This was a time when it was not so easy for a woman to take such a role, and on top of that hurdle, Claire also set the domain apart by changing-up to organic practices shortly thereafter. Taking on challenges may be trait inherited from her ancestors along with the land. Four generations before Marie Bélevier accepted the domain as a dowry in 1868, just a few years before the fire of phylloxera would rage through Bordeaux, and at a time when the neighborhood was probably even less accommodating of ‘de la femme’ ownership. The neighborhood is important here because, neighbor’s attitudes aside, their lands are especially recognized, and their names renowned, a proverbial stone’s throw from where Claire put her foot down.


These days, since 2010, Olivier has been tasked with making the wine, and he happily admits that he works for Claire while she still manages the responsibilities of running a chateau. He’s a rugged, affable young guy, with a twinkle in his eye and a grounded respect for the heritage he now curates and continues to create. He drew quite a group and so I did not press the opportunity to grill him about vineyard and cellar practices for my own educational purposes. It’s OK because I think that Olivier has a long promising career ahead of him, and expect that we’ll be seeing him for dinner again.
First Flight: PEI Mussels with ham hocks and delicious fresh bread. A winter squash, curried capanata for the assist.

musselsGombaude-Guillot 1994
Cocoa, plum skin and tar airs. Dense mid-palate, sandy tannin ,spicy, red with a little bit of hotness in the concentration.

Gombaude-Guillot 1995
Flora, red fruit, fauna running into a leather reduction, woody with some heat.  Balance questioned at first, but solidified and was just great as the night progressed.

Gombaude-Guillot 1996
Bright fruit and earthy berries, almost volatile on one edge and still not unwound on the other…still evolving?

Flight Two: Whipped liver of Hudson Valley duck on toast with a salad of winter greens.


Gombaude-Guillot 2005
Soft aromatics of moist clay and menthol. Palate is all purple tensions, bounding between soft and rocky.
Density is amazing. Seems demure at first but turns more power curve. Classic with great features and strong bones.

Gombaude-Guillot 2008
All flowers and berries, delicious to smell, cedar box perfume. Lovely weight with rugged tannin lines that is drinking quite fine and will for quire some ime

Gombaude-Guillot 2009
Yummy scents of plum skin and mint. Big and badass, wide stretch of plum tar highway. Super good albeit desires to get hot and heavy, with juicy salivation.

Flight Three: Seared Hudson Valley duck breast along sweet potato purée, and braised duck leg over a fresh spaghetti with peccorino.


Gombaude-Guillot 2010
Pent up power fruit, ripping it up with tart at the perimeters. Freshness and almost unbridled enthusiasm…definitely one to watch in the bottle as it elevates.

Gombaude-Guillot 2011
Racy acidity, a young wine showing more crab apple and cranberry than darker fruits, cutting the duck with a sweet and sour blade. Scents of violets and spice.

Gombaude-Guillot 2012
Oh exuberant youth, with a bright fresh jammy core not quite seen in the wines that came before. Maybe it’s just a factor of baby flesh, but this one has plenty of room for growth, with time in the cellar.


Jasper Hill - Woodcock Farm - Vermont Cremery

Over the years I’ve been very fortunate to participate in dinner nights like this one, and have never failed to thoroughly enjoy them. A couple of years ago we had dinner with Oregonian Rob Stuart up at Ariel’s in Brookfield…Rob is back in Vermont for a set of engagements over the next few days. Notable Austrians have come such as the Steiningers for a Sekt dinner, wine giant Leo Hillinger, and even Willi Klinger, President of the Austrian Wine Board, giving us good reason to say, danke! I tell you, there is serious wine culture stuff happening up here…where else could you have back-to-back dinners with Randall Graham and Bruno DiConcillis? Take that NYC, LA, HK!

Seriously. Stay on the lookout. Get on the email lists of your favorite restaurants and wine shops. Get on the lists of places you want to check out, and get an extra little motivator. If you are a wine lover who has not yet been to a wine dinner, or one where it has been far too long since, get out there and remind yourself why they matter…your taste buds and your community will thank you.

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