A Pair of Aces

Wine appreciation is not just for wine snobs anymore; populism has finally found its way into the vineyard. Witness the film Sideways, an Oscar favorite about cork dorks who weren't born with silver spoons in their mouths. These days, even the most ordinary among us often has at least a basic knowledge of wine. And so meeting planners have a new opportunity to impress their guests by pairing wines with each meal.

Paul Maddison, director of food and beverage at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel, says he's noticed an increasing number of planners paying close attention to the food and beverage at their events. "A lot of planners are looking for more interactivity," Maddison says. "In early January, we hosted a group of about 350 corporate executives. The planner wanted the cuisine to appeal to everyone, and food stations are a nice way to do that, because you can have an Asian station, an Italian station, a Mexican station, and so on." This approach paves the way for specific wine pairings as well. "We had two wines at each station that came from the same country as the cuisine. So people were able to try some wines from Baja, Mexico, which a lot of people aren't familiar with, and we had a server at each station describing the wines to help with the choice."

Not all meetings have the budget for such elaborate presentations, but that's not to say food and wine can't be paired well—and inexpensively. "Even the top companies have budget limitations," acknowledges Maddison. But those organizations with far less to spend can find good-quality wines to match the food at affordable prices. "In the wine world, it's all about emerging markets right now," Maddison says. "Spanish, Chilean, and Australian wines are all very hot right now, and most of these bottles are $10 to $15 each at cost. It's a great way to save" while not appearing to scrimp.

Choosing the right wine can be complicated, so Maddison suggests planners first evaluate their group and then take advantage of all the help that is available to them. "Is the organization more of a Brooks Brothers, Wall Street-type organization, which might be more traditional? Or does it have a younger, 30-something, Silicon Valley-type demographic that might be more adventurous and interested in trying things outside the norm?"

Once planners have an idea of what their group might like best, they need to engage the conference services manager as well as the food service team. "The chef [Gregg Wangard] or I will get involved in a sit-down food and wine tasting," Maddison says. "We can taste the wines side by side, or with each dish we're serving."

Most importantly, don't be shy. "Don't be afraid to ask for a tasting with the chef," Maddison says. "That's the fun part for them."