The Wine Project is like a fun, sophisticated dinner party to which you invite yourself. Single, in couples, friends, if you enjoy good food, wine and conversation, check out this weekly event at the Riverhead Project restaurant in downtown Riverhead. Everyone sits together at a long table, and over the course of the evening, chef sends out an appetizer, three seafood and meat dishes and dessert; wines are chosen off-the-cuff by a visiting rep from a winery or distributor. At $40 a head, it’s a terrific value. Family style, we pass around mussels in a hot, fragrant, saffron broth. Evan Ducz from Empire State Cellars in Riverhead’s Tanger Outlet Center pours the Paumanok 2012 Chenin Blanc. The wine is crisp, mineral, melted snow with a whiff of spring flowers; just right for this late-winter night.
“I love chenin blanc,” says Ducz. “I wish more Long Island vineyards would grow it.” We discuss unusual varietals found in the region, what grows well, what not so much. The conversation spins off down the table, added to, changing. Further into dinner, another pairing resonates: braised local duck breast on butter-seared bok choy with the Arrowhead Spring 2010 Cabernet Franc from the Niagara Escarpment. By the time butterscotch pudding arrives with the nectar-like Wölffer Estate 2012 Diosa late-harvest wine, we are all aglow.
Riverhead Project owner Dennis McDermott dreamed up the Wine Project, the Beer Project and the Chef Project to promote his restaurant and bring clientele involvement to another level. “I noticed that whenever I tasted with a rep for the wine list, people were fascinated,” says McDermott. “And we always opened way more wine than we could drink, so I thought, why not have a casual dinner afterward and let everyone join in? It’s a great way to get people to try new wines, and sometimes, if we’re lucky, really expensive wines.”
The weekly Beer Project is gaining a fan following, too. We drank the rare Mikkeller Single Hop Bravo IPA with Beer Project leader Terence Daly, who ran the beer program at Mirabelle before joining his family’s environmental wastewater remediation business. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of craft beer worldwide. The variables are endless; he talks passionately about malt, different hops (his fave is Sorachi Ace, a smooth, lemony Japanese hop) and wild yeast strains, whiskey, tequila or wine barrels for aging, ales, lagers, the Belgians, “gypsy” brewers followed from brewery to brewery by their cults, Northern Pacific hopheads pushing the genetic envelope: “Tastes exactly like grapefruit!” It’s all fascinating.
“The Mikkeller is made with the single hop variety, Bravo, which yields a soft, less bitter flavor profile than many hops,” Daly says. This beer is redolent of pine and resin, with meadow herbs and a hint of cedar, very nice if you like IPAs, which I do. A bowl of spicy chorizo chicken chili arrives to pair with this Danish import. The chili balances the Mikkeller, making it positively refreshing.
There’s also the Movie Project, in which a guest curator chooses a theme and four flicks and helps spread the word. “It’s popular with coworkers who want to get together and have a fun evening,” McDermott says. “The gang from Pottery Barn was here recently.” There’s also the Book Project, an open book club with wine. The projects reach a crescendo on the last Tuesday in August in what has become a big annual party, outside if weather permits. Go to the Riverhead Project on Facebook and theriverheadproject.com for more information.