Small Talk, Big Wines at World of Pinot Noir
At most large wine events such as World of Pinot Noir, organizers eventually
get around to gathering all the guests in a large room for a "gala" dinner.
It's sort of a group culinary hug. I like these kinds of dinners. But
what I like most about them is the moment when I arrive at my assigned
table and find out who will be my nine other dinner companions.
Unless one has forked out a large sum to buy up an entire table of ten, the lone guest or couple must expect to arrive at their assigned table with no idea with whom they will be talking small and mingling with for the next 3 hours.
This was the case at the very lovely and very well executed Friday Night Gala Dinner at World of PinotNoir where I strolled toward table #20, stag, wondering who would be my dining companions.
Now, I got lucky. That's for sure. The table-mates at #20 included a lovely, Pinot-loving couple from Arizona, The very pleasant and jovial Ben & Yolanda Papapeitro of Papapietro-Perry Winery, a young cork salesman who sat across the table from me and was rather quiet, a sterling couple that were newly minted Santa Rita vineyard owners and to my left the father and daughter team that manages the legendary Hirsch Vineyards and winery on Sonoma Coast.
Depending on your general level of social acumen and disposition toward other human beings, these make-shift tablings can be either terribly difficult or challenging and rewarding. I tend to find them the latter. The key to being a good table-mate at such gatherings is to possess a general interest in the unknown, a willingness to reveal yourself, to a degree, to strangers, and a proclivity to ask revealing questions that border on intrusive but don't quite cross the line of impropriety.
Because it's difficult to carry on a meaningful or at least pleasant conversation with folks at your table
who are not immediately to your left or right, one tends to focus most on those in neighboring seats. I got the lovely Jasmine Hirsch, the energetic, wine loving, bon vivante who is charged with selling and marketing the line up of Hirsch Wines and to the the Arizona couple who seemed a little overwhelmed being the only consumers at a table of industry types. Though they held their own rather well by simply being gentle and interested and happy to be in the presence of so much Pinot Noir.
What it all amounts to, this airdrop into social unfamiliarity, is something akin a very slowed down version of speed dating. Over three hours you eventually work your way around the table, learning more about your table mates. Of course the food and wine, which at this particular event was spectacular, is the common denominator. When stuck for something to discuss there is always the spread in front of you and the next wine that was brought to the table.
The wines, for the most part, were big Pinots. A couple ethereal and, to my taste, very attractive Austrian Pinots made their way to our table and I made every attempt to get my new friends to appreciate them as I did. I was less successful at this than I was at at small talk. Ah well, more for me.
But with all that said, I think I have a nice set of guidelines for enjoying an evening when you are forced to dine with strangers.
1. First things first, always introduce yourself first things when you arrive at the table or when new table-mates arrive.
2. Learn the names of those to your left and right as quickly as possible, commit them to memory, and try to learn something about that soon that can lead to a conversation later if the conversation at the table wanes.
3. Listen, if you can, to conversations not aimed at you. Eventually that conversation will move around th table to you and it's nice to be prepared.
4. Try to do something nice for the rest of the table-mates early on, such as procure an extra bottle of wine that wouldn't otherwise be brought to the table (Ms. Hirsch was particularly adept at this as she brought us tastes of a beautiful 1985 Williams-Selyem Pinot out of magnum.
5. Try to make conversation with the person who appears most uncomfortable at your table. It's a nice thing to do and it will give others the chance to overhear your conversation and weigh-in, making the table dynamic much more convivial.
6. If you are terribly uncomfortable in such situations, then just don't go. Skip it. You'll be happier, less stressed and the table of new friends will also.
7. Learn the art of small talk.