Call it, Napa-style: having your sales reps compete to create the best dessert or blend the most exquisite Merlot. But you don't have to go west for fine wine, since 48 of the 50 United States have wineries, many of which are suitable for corporate gatherings.
What about a food or wine event on the move--whether that means on a cruise ship, an excursion train, or even a hot air balloon? Or consider an event on a chartered ship--bigger than most private yachts, smaller than a cruise ship--and almost as relaxing as a trip to Tuscany. Or host your event at a professional cooking school that will keep members of your group on their toes during a course tailor-made to their tastes.
Literally hundreds of wineries and cooking schools invite corporate business. Consider the following sampling of food and wine adventures for small- to medium-sized corporate events (groups of 20 to 50 people):
Moving Experiences Balloons Above the Valley offers trips over Napa Valley in hot air balloons. Early in the morning, the balloons glide in the light winds just above the vineyards, with up to 16 passengers each. A brunch with sparkling wine follows.
Contact: Bob Barbarick, (800) 464-6824
American Safari Cruises' Safari Quest hosts 21 pampered guests on a trip up the Petaluma River in Sonoma County and the Napa River in Napa Valley to visit renowned wineries such as Matanzas Creek, Frog's Leap, and Trefethern, as well as the RMS Distillery. Other visits include the famed di Rosa Art Preserve and the private villa of artist Carlo Marchiori. The food is top-notch gourmet.
Contact: Mark Mumm, (888) 862-8881
The Spirit of Endeavor and Spirit of '98, which carry about 100 passengers each, are considered mini-cruise ships. Typical four-day cruises stop at Sonoma's historic plaza; the art-filled Clos Pegase, Benziger, Merryvale, and Pine Ridge Wineries; and sparkling wineries at Domaine Carneros, Gloria Ferrer, and Schramsberg.
Contact: Mary Novak Beatty, CruiseWest, (800) 888-9378
The Napa Valley Wine Train offers scenic trips on restored locomotives and cars that wind through the beautiful valley. Brent Trojan, a wine tasting and wine-food pairing expert, explains the mysterious "fifth sense of taste," as guests are served gourmet meals, some in an open car ideal for the area's mild climate.
Contact: Erica Ercalano, (707) 253-2160
Cooking Schools Spice It Up
The New Orleans School of Cooking in New Orleans, La., offers private Cajun and Creole cooking classes--and participants get to eat their creations. A typical menu features gumbo, corn-and-crab bisque or shrimp-and-artichoke soup; jambalaya, red beans and rice, or chicken etouffee; and Bananas Foster, pecan pie, bread pudding, or pralines. The school is located in a renovated French Quarter molasses warehouse built in the early 1800s.
Contact: Jennie Blanchard, (800) 850-3008.
Ramekins Cooking School, in the historic town of Sonoma north of San Francisco, offers cooking classes and dinner for 16 to 28 people. Under the school's professional guidance, anyone from avid foodies to complete novices can make a meal. Or choose a class devoted to one food category, such as hors d'oeuvres or desserts. The school also has conventional conference rooms.
Contact: Gail Peterson, (707) 933-0452
The Culinary Institute of America of St. Helena is America's leading cooking school. Its campuses in upstate New York and in Napa Valley offer food and beverage classes for corporate groups. Classes in Napa include the Ultimate Cocktail Party, which teaches how to make martinis and hors d'oeuvres; Worlds of Tea; and The Champagne Challenge. The school also offers a rare opportunity for nonprofessionals to act as chefs for a night--under heavy supervision.
Contact: Jeanie Canepa, (707) 967-1010
Wine Appreciation, California-Style The Napa Valley Museum in Yountville, "the food capital of the world," offers a unique chance to enjoy classes in the history and making of wine. Also visit the permanent exhibits on wine making, sensory evaluation, and the area's history. The museum can arrange for local experts to speak to up to 150 people on wine and history and can serve up to 40 for dinner.
Contact: Elizabeth Mariani, (707) 944-0500
The Hess Collection Winery on Mount Veeder, above Napa Valley, houses another exceptional collection of contemporary art at the museum adjoining the historic stone winery. Tours, wine tastings, and dinner are also offered, and in the usually mild weather, events can be held outside. Next door is the Chateau LaSalle Conference Center, a magnificent old building available for groups.
Contact: Philippa Jones, (707) 255-1144
Clos Pegase Winery in Calistoga, which is itself a work of art patterned after a Greek temple, houses both contemporary and classic artwork. Owner Jan Shrem also teaches an engaging class about wine in art at a small theater built into a cave used to age wine. Wine tastings and dinners for up to 100 people are also offered.
Contact: Brenda Hinton, (707) 942-4981
Fetzer Vineyards' Valley Oaks Visitor's Center in Hopland, two hours north of San Francisco, was once a farm. Now it boasts an inn, a renovated estate, and a 13-room farmhouse, as well as a tasting room and deli, an organic garden, and a pavilion suitable for meetings, dinners, and cooking classes. The winery can arrange wine, organic gardening, and cooking classes. For additional guests, the restored historic Thatcher Inn lies minutes away.
Contact: Eileen Bailey, (800) 846-8637
RMS Alambic Distillery in the cool Carneros district at the southern end of Napa Valley is one of few firms making brandy like it's done in France--in eight picturesque copper stills, all in a room suitable for 50 guests. Events include a detailed tour and description of the brandy-making process. Guests get to sniff the "angel's share," the brandy that evaporates from the huge collection of oak barrels in the operation's large aging cellar.
Contact: Barbara Secor, (707) 253-9055
Rutherford Hill Winery, high above Napa Valley in Rutherford, teaches 10 to 50 guests how to blend their own wine in its "wine maker for a day" program. The course can be followed by dinner in a magnificent cave or by a picnic among ancient olive trees overlooking the valley. Guests bring home a bottle of their own special blend.
Contact: Michelle Truchard, (707) 563-1871
Cakebread Cellars in Napa Valley's Rutherford offers classes on wine and food interaction by on-staff chefs and wine makers. A course might include tasting young and old red and white wines of various ages with foods as diverse as sweet mango chutney and hot-pepper salsas, as salty as caviar, or as tart as lemon aioli. The sessions for up to 70 people may be held on a deck overlooking a pond or in aging cellars or gardens.
Contact: Pat Kincaid, (707) 963-5221
St. Supery Vineyards in Napa Valley's Rutherford conducts a wine-making course in the fall that starts with a tour and wine tasting, moves to a demonstration of how grapes are cultivated in the winery's vineyards, progresses to a grape-picking, and ends with a grape-stomping session under a giant oak tree. During other times of the year, the winery offers courses for up to 50 people, including Wine List Survival and Pairing for the Daring.
Contact: Christine Carey, (800) 942-0809
Niebaum-Coppola Winery in Napa Valley's Rutherford is the site of the magnificent Inglenook stone winery, built by Finnish sea captain Gustave Niebaum in the late 1800s. Now it's the property of screenwriter and film director Francis Ford Coppola, who added a museum of his career and movies to the property. It's available for corporate events that can include wine courses, tours, and area history, held in historic cellars or alfresco.
Contact: Claudia Rouas, (707) 963-9099
Merryvale Vineyards in Napa Valley's St. Helena gives classes on the essential components that determine a wine's primary flavors and aromas. Guests learn to differentiate among the tastes of alcohol, sugar, acid, and tannins, and to determine what they like best in a wine. The seminar is held in the winery's cask room, which can also accommodate up to 50 guests for dinner.
Contact: Merryvale Vineyards (707) 963-7777
Cuvaison Winery in Napa Valley's Calistoga offers guests a rare chance to taste different "clones," which are natural variations of wine-grape varieties, like Chardonnay. Other courses include novice wine tasting, wine and food pairing, and "vertical" tasting of the same variety from different years. The winery can seat up to 100 guests in its caves, patio, and other rooms.
Contact: Jessica Staples, (707) 942-6266
Sterling Vineyard, on a knoll in northern Napa Valley's Calistoga, offers an incredible view from its balcony, patterned after a monastery on a Greek island. The winery can arrange tastings, and its production and aging areas are exceptionally well arranged for self-guided tours. It also offers a banquet room suitable for a king's dinner.
Contact: Kendall Zanelli, (707) 942-3359
Domaine Chandon, in Yountville, is the largest producer of premium sparkling wine in America--and it also houses a five-star French-inspired restaurant, the only restaurant at a winery in Napa Valley. Guests can also get thorough tours of the complex process used to make sparkling wines, plus taste many fine varieties in an outdoor grotto.
Contact: Domaine Chandon, (707) 944-2280
California Press, in Yountville, carries on the old European tradition of producing fine cooking oils from lightly toasted nuts such as pecans, pistachios, walnuts, and almonds. Guests see the exacting hand-crafted process and taste the oils. The small facility shares a building with Bell Wine Cellars, which makes premium wine, allowing groups of up to 40 to view both processes and taste both products. An enclosed patio is suitable for meals as well.
Contact: Chuck Schutte, (707) 944-0343; or Anthony Bell, (707) 944-1673
Wine and Food Appreciation, Midwest and East The Indiana Wine Grape Council supplies a full list of Midwestern wineries, most of which use hybrids of American and European grapes that can grow in the severe climate. Indiana alone has 19 wineries, many open to groups interested in viticulture, enology, or tasting. The wineries range from small to medium in size.
Contact: Sally Peart, (800) 832-WINE
Stone Hill Winery, of Hermann, Mo., was the world's third-largest winery until Prohibition shut it down. It has been restored to its 1847 glory and is once again making award-winning wines from European-American hybrid grapes. The winery can host up to 225 people in an open-air pavilion and inside rooms.
Contact: Kay Schwinkle, (573) 486-2121
Glenora Wine Cellars on New York's Finger Lakes enjoys a climate much like the wine-making regions of Germany and Alsace. It makes excellent cool-weather wines, such as Riesling, Chardonnay, and Gewurztraminer, as well as sparkling wine. It also has an elegant inn with 30 guest suites, plus the gourmet Veraisons restaurant and banquet space.
Contact: Claudia VanHouten, (800) 243-5513
Westport Rivers Winery, an hour from Boston in southeastern Massachusetts' Westport, makes sparkling and still wines near the ocean. Its food and wine education center is the perfect place for New Englandbased groups to learn about two of life's greatest pleasures without having to travel far. The wines pair perfectly with the region's seafood bounty.
Contact: Carol Russell, (508) 636-3423
On the Wild Side Classic Encounters of New York, N.Y., takes small groups to explore the fauna and flora--and distinctive food and wines--of South Africa. Participants travel around the country, from savanna and jungle, to mountains and seashore, viewing the exotic wildlife.
Contact: Michael Jackson, (888) 808-1999.
Sequoia National Park, in California's new Wuksachi Lodge, focuses more on what's outside than what's in, but corporate groups can arrange food and wine classes to complement breathtaking views and invigorating hikes. Open year-round, the moderate-sized lodge is the ideal getaway during the peaceful winter months.
Contact: Delaware North Parks Services, (559) 561-0124 l