The first dinner table in America that served a variety of wines chosen for compatibility with the menu was at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia home. Jefferson, who loved to entertain guests ranging from politicians to foreign dignitaries, likely used these affairs to cultivate new friendships and alliances, perhaps occasionally converting an adversary into an ally.
I was allowed entry into Jefferson’s wine cellar and left amazed at the superb wines he stocked. France, Germany and Italy dominated.
Later, after being elected president, Jefferson established the wine dinner as a regular event in the White House, a tradition that has continued for two centuries.
Like many Americans, I enjoy wine dinners, particularly those in elegant settings where elevated cuisine is served and matched with appropriate wines. These are fun and memorable. But, are they truly Jeffersonian? That’s a question I cannot answer, but it does suggest a search for other possibilities.
Serving gourmet dishes that relate to a region here or in other lands and pairing these with a variety of wines from different cultures or regions, is challenging and I was unsure how this would work. I know Old World and New World wines but I’m not a chef. The key was finding the right person who combined professional skills with a sense of exploration. Virginia Hall is that person, a delightful and highly talented caterer who combines kitchen wizardry with a respect for tradition and a welcoming of experimentation.
If we had launched Dare to Pair in Sarasota, Chef Judi Gallagher would have been the natural choice. As it turned out, two historic places worked perfectly. First was the beautiful mansion, the Wells-Brown House in Stone Mountain, Georgia, also the headquarters of the Historical Society. The second was the Stillwell House, a structure dating to the 1820s, now a popular Bed and Breakfast.
Both sold out and were well received. Every dish in each course was an original creation by Ms. Hall. Everything we served on elegant dinnerware and the guests were sophisticated gourmets, familiar with epicurean successes.
The wines were quite varied. Burgundy and Bordeaux from France, Pinot Gris from Oregon, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc from California, Viognier from North Carolina and Cynthiana from Georgia. The Amuse Bouche was passed appetizers served with generous pours of Veuve Clicquot and other fine Champagnes. One surprise was Mead, the honey wine with a provenance that dates back perhaps 6,000 years.
Doubts and questions were put to rest. Dare to Pair has a bright future and could be duplicated in other places with other diners and would succeed if the excitement level was equalled by the food and wines served.
The educational benefit of Dare to Pair is essentially a broadening of knowledge as well as the palate. Too many of us are conditioned to think of wine in lockstep with marketing and advertising. Remember that wine was produced in Armenia 6,000 years ago and the descendants of those wines are available today. One of the program themes is Dining on the Silk Road. Another is Biblical Wines. Think about exciting Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine paired with wines from Israel, Lebanon, Greece, Armenia along with closely related wines in France and America.
Dare to Pair works smoothly with relaxed light-hearted commentary and relevant anecdotes. The emphasis is on fun with food and wine, the universality of both, leaving each participant with the satisfaction that they have been entertained and culturally enriched.
“Along the Oregon Trail,” “Carolina on My Mind,” “A Cross Creek Dinner,” “Gourmet Kicks on Route 66,” “Holidays in the Finger Lakes,” “Hill Country Treasures, and “South African Miracles,” are just a sampling of themes in the hopper. There will be other guest chefs including some celebrities and one Emmy Award recipient. Future locations under consideration are Florida resorts, regal Atlanta restaurants, at legendary Plantation and one with a Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald connection.
Dare to Pair is mobile and works magic best in interesting locations. Chefs and cooks are welcome and we will concentrate on diversity and talent. Television is on the horizon. Let us know if you think you have the skills and self-confidence. Believe me, the participants are very sophisticated and demand the best. They deserve no less.