This Portland restaurant is making winemaker’s dinners hip again

Hosting a winemaker’s dinner seems like an easy way for a restaurateur to fill every seat in the house. So one may ask why so many fall flat, or at least short of expectations, devolving into overpriced overloads of short ribs, chocolate, and forced pairings.

As the proprietor of Arden, a small restaurant in Portland’s fashionable Pearl District, Kelsey Glasser has figured out how to navigate the hazardous shoals of such events to ensure they sail smoothly. Her location helps: “We decided that we should take advantage of our proximity to the many wineries surrounding Portland,” she says, “and [to] people disposed to a hip dining scene and frequent visits to wineries.”

Her experience also helps. Glasser was a sommelier in the trenches of Hollywood and New York before moving to Portland, where she began her tenure at bottle shop Thelonious. After she and her associates found a small space a few doors down with a see-through wine cellar and an open kitchen, she says, “opening Arden seemed to be [the] next best step,” allowing her to tap into the shop’s trusted network of suppliers and winemakers to build the beverage program. Since spring 2018, diners have come to ogle at the 250 SKUs in the cellar—not to mention the line cooks preparing Executive Chef Sara Hauman’s inspired farm-to-table cuisine.

In order “to build more personal interaction between [their] customers and [their] wineries,” Glasser decided that Arden would host wine dinners on a regular basis. “This year we will have ten dinners,” she notes. “[They’re] integrated into our operations as part of our business, rather than an add-on.” The team also begins preparing for them far in advance. For instance, she explains, “We have Doug Tunnell of Brickhouse coming here in the next few months. Chef and I [have already] sat down to taste the wines with Doug, and Sara was taking notes well ahead of putting a menu together.”

All of these forces combine to help Glasser and her staff make these dinners, if not flawless, then at least very memorable. At a recent gathering with veteran winemaker Maggie Harrison of Antica Terra in Dundee, the largely millennial, urban-professional audience seemed to shed inhibitions about new wines as easily as their outerwear at the door.

Glasser says that, next year, “Arden would like to invent a calendar of tastings devoted to female winemakers. We are putting faces on the stories of the wines: It’s not only fun but keeps us atop a very dynamic wine industry.”