Distinguished by an increased emphasis on marketing, the 1987 Monterey Wine Festival brought together 1,100 attendees and more than 200 California wineries in the nation’s largest and most comprehensive wine event, March 8 to 11, in Monterey, CA.
Restaurateurs, retailers, distributors, and consumers participated in three premier wine tastings, daily luncheons with prestigious winemakers, and educational sessions by some of the biggest names in wine. Attendees also were on hand for historic firsts, the first Advanced Sommelier Course and Master Sommelier Examination held in America, and the subsequent certification of the nation’s first woman Master Sommelier.
This year’s festival was bigger and better due to an important change in leadership. The National Restaurant Association (NRA) brought its resources and convention experience to Monterey, succeeding the 10-year sponsorship of the Monterey Peninsula Hotel and Restaurant Association, by unanimous agreement of the boards of directors of both groups. The event, formerly known as the California Wine Festival, suffered declining attendance in recent years, due to poor programming, a policy which excluded many wineries from participating, and competition from other festivals, according to wine industry sources.
The NRA increased the number of exhibiting wineries from 100 to more than 200 and strengthened the educational program. It also made the event more convenient for restaurateurs and retailers by switching the dates from early December to March. Providing access to key winery figures was another priority. Winery owners, presidents, and winemakers participated in the evening tastings, which featured sparkling and dessert wines as well as red and white varieties. They poured their wines, mingled, and answered attendees’ questions.
Ted Balestreri, co-owner of The Sardine Factory restaurant in Monterey and immediate past president of the NRA, was instrumental in achieving NRA sponsorship. “This is what it takes to put wine on the map,” he said, observing hundreds of attendees tasting red wines in the Monterey Conference Center ballroom. “We’ve got the wines and the people, and now we have the way to broker wine to the public without all the mystique.”
TASTE OF MONTEREY
The opening night reception at the Monterey Bay Aquarium set the tone for the festival–an informal gathering marked by the warm welcome of the wine and hospitality industries. Attendees would spend the next three days enjoying fine wines and food as well as increasing their knowledge. Chefs of local restaurants and hotels presented “A Taste of the Monterey Peninsula” in the Aquarium, reserved that evening for the festival. It was a lavish array of local specialties such as chicken in roast garlic cream sauce, artichokes with red pepper mayonnaise, and the peninsula’s smoked shellfish and prawns. Vintners poured more than 100 selections, including California sparkling wines in a variety of styles, plus late-harvest Rieslings, ports, and propietary dessert wines. The Aquarium’s renowned marine life collection provided the evening’s entertainment. Sharks, bat rays, wolf eels, and scores of other sea creatures glided by in their realistic habitat exhibits as attendees strolled and sipped.
Educational presentations offered choices for a range of interests. A panel of distinguished California winemakers explored the various styles of Cabernet Sauvignon produced in California, Bordeaux, the Loire, and Italy. The technically-minded delved into a discourse by a University of California-Davis enology professor on research developments such as improved yeast genetics. Lighter sessions such as “Wine Through Art” and “Entertaining By Women In Wine” balanced the program.
Sessions on wine marketing for restaurateurs drew crowds. Three nationally-recognized restaurant professionals discussed their successful merchandising programs in a panel chaired by Michael Hurst of 15th Street Fisheries in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, himself an award-winning owner-operator. Thad Eure, Jr., owner of The Angus Barn restaurant, Raleigh, NC, spoke about wine displays and other methods he used to sell $500,000 in wine last year, including placing a bottle on each table in his 550-seat restaurant. Donald Monette, owner of The Flagstaff House Restaurant, Boulder, CO, spoke in favor of half bottles of wine for marketing flexibility. His award-winning wine list has 75 half bottles. Mary Ross, cellarmaster of The 95th Restaurant in Chicago, discussed special tastings and wine symposia that make a restaurant a destination for the knowledgeable wine customer.
A presentation by Restaurant Business wine columnist Edmund Osterland, America’s first certified Master Sommelier in 1973, focused on staff training as a remedy for low wine sales in restaurants. His program of sales and service training combined with wine tasting practice eliminates the “product ignorance, low self-confidence, and poor merchandising skills” by which he defines the poor wine salesperson. “Wine Lists Made Easy” by wine consultant and fellow Master Sommelier Ronn Wiegand of Napa, CA, covered the style of wine lists, selection of wines, pricing theory, and the merits of private labeling.
A panel discussion on American cuisine trends, moderated by former Restaurant Business editor Joan Black Bakos, brought together three of California’s top culinarians, Bradley Ogden, Cindy Pawlcyn, and Piero Selvaggio. The trio reached consensus on the continuing importance of fresh ingredients and regional-ethnic cooking styles in the American kitchen. They also looked forward to greater use of hot peppers and spices, herb-infused and flavored oils and vinegars in sauces, dressings, and marinades, and Asian techniques and ingredients.
Bradley Ogden, executive chef of Campton Place Hotel, San Francisco, predicted success for bistro-style concepts giving the customer a wide variety of tastes. His own kitchen splits and combines orders for no extra charge. Ogden also called for “more straightforward food and better price-value” for a discerning public.
Pawlcyn, executive chef/owner of San Francisco’s Fog City Diner and two other California restaurants, Rio Grill in Carmel and Mustards in the Napa Valley, noted, “a definite increase in hot foods, both in the Mexican genre and Thai cooking.” She added that she now finds available a wide variety of chili peppers, including anchos, pasillas, fire chilies, and Thai peppers. Pawlcyn combines hot ingredients with Asian elements in eclectic dishes such as swordfish flavored with jalapeno pepper, cilantro, and lemon grass.
Selvaggio, owner of a pair of Italian restaurants, Valentino in Santa Monica, CA, and Primi in Los Angeles, agreed with his colleagues that dining on a variety of small dishes remains in vogue, although he declared the word “grazing” passe, and likewise “yuppie.” Also receiving his thumbs-down was Cajun food: “The poor fish cannot be blackened any more.” He predicted that restaurants with convenient service hours and diverse menus will do well. “People are coming to restaurants whenever they want to eat, for whatever they want to eat,” he said.
Most restaurant operators spoke highly of the festival’s organization and content. A common complaint bemoaned choosing between appealing educational sessions offered concurrently. “Some of the presentations were so good, it was hard to decide where to go,” said Bob Rohden, general manager of Geja’s Cafe in Chicago. “I wish I could have seen more. I would have liked one more day, and repeats on some of the sessions I missed.”
Mitch Berman, food and beverage director of Embassy Square Suites in Washington, DC, said he came to Monterey in search of wines for the company’s new American cuisine restaurant which will debut this summer. “It was great to go to one place and have so much access to owners, winemakers, and their wine,” he said. “Trying to get that much information and tasting from your local distributors would take months.”
Robert Lahrman, manager of St. Elmo’s Steak House in Indianapolis, IN, found two new Cabernets and a late-harvest Riesling for his 130-bottle wine list, one of the city’s largest. He praised the hospitality. “Everyone was so friendly and outgoing, inviting you to private tastings and winery tours, treating you like a VIP. There was very little hard-sell.”
Rohden added that the festival gave him an opportunity to meet new people, renew relationships, and accumulate anecdotes as well as new labels for the customers of Geja’s, a 100-seat basement spot with a fondue menu and a commitment to wine merchandising. “Just to be able to mention “this wine I first tasted at the Monterey Wine Festival’ indicates that we’re out looking for new things, keeping abreast.”
The American debut of the Master Sommelier examination program was a coup for the nation’s wine identity. Invited by the NRA, the British Court of Master Sommeliers conducted the course work and testing for the first time outside London at a nearby Monterey location during the festival. Five British Master Sommeliers presided along with four American Masters: Osterland, Wiegand, Fred Dame of Monterey, and David O’Connor of San Francisco.
Eighteen candidates from restaurants, hotels, and the wine trade, selected on the strength of their resumes, took the Advanced Sommelier Course, an intensive review of wine theory and practice. Five passed on to the grueling three-part Master Sommelier diploma examination. The first part consisted of questions on the service of wine, sherry, port, Cognac, and cigars. The second part tested worldwide viticultural theory. In the final part, the candidates were asked to identify a selection, of wines by vintage, origin, variety, and shipper in a blind tasting.
The sole successful candidate, sommelier Madeline Triffon of The London Chop House in Detroit, MI, became the first American woman Master Sommelier and the sixth American overall. Triffon said she was very honored and surprised to have earned the diploma. “The program far exceeded by expectations,” she said. “The course work was terrific. It was such an opportunity to learn from the British Masters who were here.” In England, only 10 candidates are accepted for testing yearly, and only one or two will pass.
Bringing the prestigious program to America was the idea of Fred Dame, The Sardine Factory’s cellarmaster and resident Master Sommelier, and co-owner Ted Balestreri. “This program makes the job of sommelier/wine steward a profession,” says Dame, who traveled to London to earn his diploma in 1984. He likened the exam to “the Mt. Everest of the sommelier profession.”