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How To Host A Wine Dinner

Pro tips from Arugula's chef, Alec Schuler


It’s no secret: We love the culinary artistry of Boulder’s Arugula Ristorante. And while this Italian-themed gem has been deftly blending local ingredients with Old World flavor for almost seven years, we’ve only lately discovered their coveted wine dinners.

“We actually started the wine dinners as soon as the doors opened,” Chef Alec Schuler says. “The process always starts with the wine, then we see where it takes us.”

Connected to distributers across town, Schuler—with the help of his kitchen team—usually picks a theme for his wine dinners based on a varietal, geographic region, or producer. Then comes the fun part.

“The distributer rep, Chef Sven, and I will sit around, open seven or eight bottles, and start sampling. Slowly, we’ll narrow them down to our four favorites, then spitball. What hits the palate? What flavors come out? Doing it in a group opens so many doors.”

Recent Fish Feature at an Arugula Wine Dinner

Recent fish feature at an Arugula wine dinner

As they taste, the Arugula team slowly builds the framework of a menu—five courses, four wines. “As a general rule, we’ll start with lighter wines and lighter courses, then work our way to heavier ones. For example, we almost always have a salad, some kind of seafood, pasta or risotto, and a meat dish.”

Case in point: the most recent Barolo wine dinner, which featured wines balancing modern and traditional winemaking alongside classic Old World dishes like Veal Risotto and Filet Mignon.

Between beautifully plated courses, wine pundits—typically distributer representatives or, just occasionally, winemakers—will discuss the wine’s pedigree and why it serves as an apt pair for the menu. Chef Schuler will offer his own interpretation, explaining how the wine of the night inspired the dishes that roll from the kitchen.

Last, but certainly not least: “We’ll always end with a dessert course,” he says, “but the drink pairing is usually something made in-house—like the grappa-fortified Chinato served at the Barolo dinner.”

Chef Schuler says he tries to schedule seven or eight wine dinners over the course of a year, generally skipping holiday-centric months. Preparation (read: wine sampling) happens two to three months before each dinner, so prepare your tastebuds for the next one in January, which will feature a treasure trove of Tuscan wines. You can learn more about this dinner, and any future pairing dinners, by visiting arugularistorante.com.

Line up of Tuscan wines for Arugula's January wine dinner

Line up of Tuscan wines for Arugula’s January wine dinner

While we highly recommend the wine dinner experience, it’s also fun to experiment with pairings at home. But where to start? Thankfully, Chef Schuler has some helpful pointers to get you started:

Tips for Hosting Your Own Wine Dinner:

  1. Always pick varietals you like. Get 3 or 4 bottles that fit your budget.
  2. Get your friends together and taste the wines, from lightest to heaviest. Choose an environment where you can truly contemplate the wine with all your senses. Take notes and discuss flavors, character, weight, texture, etc. (Here is a good guide, if you need one.)
  3. Research what ingredients are both local and in season. Consider these alongside the flavors you noticed during your wine tasting. Brainstorm possible courses that bring these together.
  4. As with the wine tasting, map out your menu to roll from lightest course to heaviest. Be careful with recipes that are very spicy or acidic—if overdone, they can ruin the enjoyment of the paired wine.
  5. Consider incorporating the same wine you’re tasting into some of the dishes. “Wines go well in sauces that accent meats,” Schuler recommends. Examples: demi-glace (primarily a reduction of wine and stock) and tomato sauce are great pairs with red meat; a simple beurre blanc (combination of shallots, white wine, and butter) is great with poultry.
  6. Don’t get too complex, or add too many wines/courses. Linger with each wine and each course. Learn from the pairing experience, and let it inspire your next one.
  7. Beyond all else, trust your imagination and your own palate. This is the best way to build a dynamite pairing—and to ensure you will enjoy it.

For more guidance, consider this article from Wine Enthusiast, which does a great job of parsing flavor profiles and offering recipe suggestions. You can also visit our recipe section for our ideas!

—Jeffrey Steen | Managing Editor

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