At this Oregon restaurant takeover, three talented winemakers not only pour their best bottles, they also cook all the food, serve it and bus the tables.

By Ray Isle
Updated May 23, 2017
© Eva Kolenko

At this Oregon restaurant takeover, three talented winemakers not only pour their best bottles, they also cook all the food, serve it and bus the tables.

It's a rare day when a gang of winemakers comes into a restaurant, boots the chef out and cooks a five-course meal for 30 people. But maybe, winemaker Maggie Harrison says, that's how a wine dinner ought to be.

Having been to innumerable wine dinners, I can testify that many are less than exciting. The winemaker stands or sits at the head of the table and gives some details about the bottle that's just been poured: It spent 10 months in new oak, came from thus-and-such vineyard, is named after the winemaker's daughter/wife/grandmother/whatever. Next course, next wine. It can be informative, definitely, but not exactly spellbinding.

Harrison, who co-owns Oregon's Antica Terra winery, has never liked that model. Why not instead host a dinner where each dish is specifically tailored to go with the wine; where the winemakers actually pour their own wines; where, in fact, winemakers also cook all the food, serve it and truly interact with each and every customer in the place?

Pipe dream perhaps, but the opportunity came one night when she was sitting at the bar of Portland's Davenport restaurant. Chef Kevin Gibson, a good friend, mentioned to her that he was going away for a few days and asked if she wanted to take over the restaurant while he was gone. "He was not being at all serious," Harrison told me. "But I took him up on it."

Let that serve as a warning to chefs: Be careful about those late-night offers. By midmorning the next day, Harrison had enlisted Nate Ready (who has worked with her at Antica Terra and makes his own wine under the Hiyu label) as well as her friend Brad Grimes, the winemaker at Napa Valley's Abreu Vineyards. The plan: Stage a restaurant takeover. Harrison, Ready and Grimes would be the chefs, sous-chefs, servers, sommeliers and busboys all rolled into one.

It's a groundbreaking idea, and, if Harrison was right, it would result in a more meaningful experience for the diners. But, as Grimes says, "Once we thought about it, the consensus was that it was going to be a complete and utter disaster."

Those doubts were groundless, though, as two of the three winemakers have serious restaurant chops. Grimes, the architect of some of Napa's most sought-after Cabernets (and priciest: Abreu's Thorevilos Cabernet runs over $500 a bottle), has a culinary degree and worked as a chef in Seattle for several years. Ready is a Master Sommelier as well as a winemaker. And Harrison? "I was a waitress," she says. But asked if the other two let her help cook, she retorts, "They don't get to let me do anything. I'm the boss!"

On the day of the dinner, the winemakers met at Davenport at 2 p.m. Tinny indie rock from Grimes's cell phone provided the soundtrack for several hours of mushroom cleaning, nut-skin removing, tuna filleting and other tasks, along with plenty of Antica Terra Pinot (and cold Champagne from the restaurant's cellar).

The dinner itself worked exactly as Harrison had hoped it would. Because the winemakers were also the restaurant staff, all that stiffness of standing at the end of the table and dispensing facts about the wine was dispelled. Instead they could chat about both the wines and the food—mentioning, for instance, that Harrison had harvested the wild mushrooms for the gnocchi that went with her Chardonnay, or that Grimes had used juniper for the roast pork because it complemented the foresty aromatics of the Abreu Howell Mountain Cabernet. Rather than a presentation, it was more like an ongoing conversation between the guests and the winemakers. "The whole event was intensely personal," Harrison says. "You could see this natural progression from one wine to the next, from one course to the next. And there weren't any disasters, even minor ones."

"Except for the tuna," Ready says.

"OK. I did order about 25 pounds too much tuna," Harrison admits. "But that was the worst of it."