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Your Next Great Culinary Adventure Is at the Winery

Your Next Great Culinary Adventure Is at the Winery

Wineries are channeling foodie vibes to lure wine lovers

Chef Tim Moore | Photo Credit: Early Mountain Vineyards

For the last 15 years, hundreds of people have gathered on the lawn at Spicewood Vineyards for the ultimate wine pairing showdown: the Pair It With Claret Chili Cook Off. The annual competition draws more than two dozen home chefs eager to show off their family recipes and even more guests ready to taste and pair each bite with Spicewood’s Claret. 

It’s not the most obvious pairing, but the wine’s fruit notes and hint of sweetness work well with all the chili spice. More importantly, the event is a rather unique strategy to attract a large crowd to a winery in the dead of Texas winter. “There was not a lot of traffic to the winery during the cold months of January, February, and March. So on a whim, I decided to throw a party in February and add a chili cook-off,” Ron Yates, owner and winemaker at Spicewood Vineyards, recalls of the first chili pairing hosted in 2009.

Since then, the Pair It With Claret Chili Cook Off has grown significantly, becoming a largely-attended event full of wine lovers looking to explore and engage with all the flavors of Texas Hill Country. Even more so, it’s been an impactful means of spreading awareness of Spicewood Vineyards.

“The cookout definitely helps attract new guests and bring back regulars who become even bigger fans of the winery,” says Yates, who notes that, during the cook-off, the winery sees a considerable uptick in memberships. “During the event, we have a tent set up where we offer barrel samples as a way to talk about our wine club and show [people] the kind of hospitality we’re known for.”  

Spicewood Vineyards Pair It With Claret Chili Cookoff | Photo Credit Spicewood Vineyards

A chili-based wine-pairing event may not be the most traditional way to get people through the door, but, at a time when wineries across the U.S. are seeing a decline in visitation and sales, creativity goes a long way. A Wine Business Monthly Tasting Room Survey released last July found winery visitations in the U.S. were about 8% less in 2022 compared to 2021. This drop directly impacted direct-to-consumer sales, which fell 12% in 2022. These figures mirrored Silicon Valley Bank’s annual report that claimed visitation to tasting rooms was down for the second consecutive year. 

Faced with a tourism drought, wineries are having to find unconventional ways to attract visitors to their tasting rooms. If there’s one way to lure the masses, certainly, it’s through their stomachs. 

A More Interactive Experience

Of course, food pairings at wineries are nothing new. Just about every estate winery offers a tasting menu alongside wine flights. These experiences can be as simple as run-of-the-mill cheese and charcuterie boards or as exquisite as five-course meals served at fancy winery restaurants. However, the wave of wineries going beyond the norm and creating interactive experiences leaves a lasting impression on guests. 

“It doesn’t always have to be formal,” says Brian Streeter, executive chef at Cakebread Cellars  in Napa. 

More than providing food-and-wine pairings, Cakebread’s kitchen offers culinary courses during which guests put on  aprons and work side-by-side with Streeter and his team to cook their own meals. Some ingredients used during the class come fresh from Cakebread’s garden, giving guests an authentic farm-to-table experience that they’ve essentially curated. After all the cooking is done, the group gets to enjoy dinner or lunch in Cakebread’s dining room or on the picturesque outside patio, where a lineup of wines is selected by Streeter and Cakebread winemaker Niki Williams. 

It’s a fun way to get people out of their seats and connecting with one another and the winery. Events like this also fire up the imagination. If people can experience wines with the food they create alongside a celebrated winery chef, what stops them from enjoying those wines with the meals they make in their own kitchens? 

At Early Mountain in Virginia, executive chef Tim Moore hosts the Edible Insight cooking class and several locally sourced food and wine pairing events. During these moments, Moore says he helps people understand wine and its versatility in an actionable way they can use long after the class is over. “We’ve cultivated an environment where each visit becomes an opportunity for discovery,” says Moore. 

Cooking classes have also proven to be a successful means of getting people back to the winery. In some cases, Streeter notes, repeat guests have used these events to introduce new visitors to the winery. 

“We’ve found that our guests sought more interactive experiences. They enjoy getting in the kitchen and cooking without chefs,” he says. . “Through our cooking classes and immersive food pairings, we showcase the versatility of our wines and connect our guests to the sense of place here in Napa. This allows us to foster that bond with our customers and create a larger community.”

While plenty of wineries in the U.S. offer cooking courses, some wineries host pop-up food experiences to help draw customers, Priest Ranch Wines’ Bacon and Wine Experience,  Novelty Hill-Januik’s popular Weekend Pizza Party, and  Sip-n-Scoop Ice Cream Flights  at Bayernmoor Cellars have long been luring wine lovers and foodies alike. 

It’s not just U.S. wineries generating winery excitement through immersive experiences centered around wine and food. Wineries worldwide are implementing innovative ways to connect people with wine through food.

“Food and dining programs play a pivotal role in expanding our reach,” says Federico Cerelli, head winemaker at Castello di Gabbiano in Italy, which hosts several specialty dinners and pairing events at its on-site restaurant Il Cavaliere throughout the year. “[Our dining events] give visitors the opportunity to savor the authentic flavors of Tuscany while experiencing the timeless charm of Castello di Gabbiano.”

Cerelli adds, “That unique blend of gastronomy and viticulture attracts a diverse audience of wine enthusiasts, food lovers, and travelers seeking authentic Italian experiences.” 

Shifting the Narrative

J Vineyards & Winery Bubble Room | Photo Credit: J Vineyards

It’s no secret that wine drinkers are changing. More Gen Z, millennials, and under-65 consumers are able to buy into the wine category than ever before, and just about every report that’s come out over the last few years has noted how the wine industry is failing to capture them. How can wineries tap into the interests of younger people and get them to drink more wine and visit more wineries? Adjusting messaging that aligns with younger drinkers’ values and concerns and shining a spotlight on aspects of agriculture, history, culture, and the family-made products that define the wine industry is a start. Giving them an entertaining outlet to discover wines and engage with fellow wine lovers and community members  is another.

At J Vineyards and Winery, pushing the boundaries of food and wine through thought-provoking conversations is helping to capture the attention of young and older drinkers. Launched in 2022,  the winery’s Shifting the Lens series invites guests to experience the flavors and foods of rotating resident chefs from different culinary backgrounds. Each chef’s unique approach to food and wine sparks a dialogue among guests and “pushes them to think differently than they might normally do with traditional food and wine pairings,” says Nicole Hitchcock, J Vineyards’ winemaker.

“Guests have been incredibly engaged,” says Hitchcock. “We’re really trying to inject each experience with conversation, both at the individual tables and also as a group conversation. Between the amazing food, the amazing wine, and talking about topics that can be difficult to discuss, our guests are getting so much more out of their experience than they would at a traditional wine dinner.” Conversations surrounding representation, diversity, and inclusion in the food and wine industry pop up across the dinner table, giving guests the opportunity to engage with one another and leave with not only expanded palates but perspectives, too.  

J Vineyards’ Shifting the Lens series has included renowned and forward-thinking chefs like James Beard Award nominees Preeti Mistry and Tu David Phu, as well as Ana Castro. “People have been really receptive to the dinner series,” says Hitchcock, who notes that drinkers are looking for introspective, out-of-the-box ways to explore the nuances of wine. 

Hitchcock adds, “Food brings people together, and our goal with Shifting the Lens is to do exactly that and to create an environment where people feel included, where they’re learning new things, meeting new people, and able to expand their knowledge of food and wine pairings.”