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Forget terroir, let's party

A wine dinner lets its hair down, and customers swarm.

Those who showed up for dinner one Monday in September at Su Changs, a Chinese place in Peabody, Massachusetts, might have thought they’d crashed a wedding. There was a live trio channeling Sinatra, big tables filled with chatty people and the air of festivity was all around.

But this was a Sicilian wine dinner—yes, a wine dinner, those often-stuffy events where reps drone on about tannins and terroir. Su Changs owner Sue Waite wants her wine dinners to be more approachable, and this was her 24th such event. “When I first opened the restaurant, I had a full bar, but no one ordered anything but Chinese beer and mai tai’s,” says Waite. So she started doing wine dinners with special menus and entertainment. A Spanish wine dinner featured flamenco, a Greek event had a belly dancer.

Initial local newspaper ads got the job done, but word-of-mouth took over, and the events are now routinely sold out, more than filling the 100-seat front dining room. “We don’t take the wine too seriously; it’s more of a party,” Waite explains. “The wine reps are there to introduce the wines, but they don’t do the whole long thing about the soil and the acidity.”

Menus are Chinese, although Waite will play a bit with the food to suit the theme. September’s event—“Featuring the Sounds and Tastes of Frank Sinatra, Our Way”—showcased five Sicilian wines and more than a dozen foods, served family-style, like Hong Kong Steak a la Pizzaiola in which Chinese broccoli and shiitake mushrooms were replaced by chunks of tomato and braised tofu, “where you would have had cheese,” says Waite.

Admission: $75. Less than the c-note Frank might have tipped the valet just for fetching his wheels.          

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