Q&A: Chef Robert Anderson, The Ahwahnee, DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite

It can be difficult for seasonal resorts to attract guests in the off-season, so many have to get creative and make their establishments a destination.

Ahwahnee: The 123-room Ahwahnee resort is a historic landmark and includes rustic architecture that incorporates Native American, Middle Eastern, and Art and Crafts design elements.This was the goal in 1982, when a small gathering of vintners and hotel guests were invited to sample local wine at The Ahwahnee, a resort located in Yosemite National Park. Yet, more than three decades later, its annual Vintners' Holidays has become a significant California event for wine aficionados and winemakers.

"When I joined the staff 33 years ago, we'd hold Beaujolais events in the bar, but the general manager then was way ahead of his time," says The Ahwahnee's chef Robert Anderson. "He developed this event to do pairings with vintners and hotel guests who were wine aficionados from Napa."

The Ahwahnee's Vintners' Holidays event series showcases the region's top wineries in a monthlong series of seven sessions. Here, fall harvests that include limited-release and rare wines are presented with in-depth tastings; seminars moderated by certified sommeliers, wine journalists and experts in the field; a reception to meet the vintners; and a five-course dinner.

"What has happened is that the gathering evolved into a cool program that includes food and wine pairings," Anderson says. "It also has created a lot of excitement and enthusiasm around the hotel and its food program."

The 123-room hotel was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977 and listed as a National Historic Landmark in 1987. It is distinguished by rustic architecture that incorporates Native American, Middle Eastern, and Art and Crafts design elements. Condé Nast Traveler magazine recognized The Ahwahnee in its 2010 Reader's Choice Awards as one of the top 100 resorts in the United States.

FE&S spoke with Anderson to learn more about the Vintner's Program and how it is successfully executed.

FE&S: The hotel's back of house is extensive. Describe your production facilities.

RA: The kitchen is 8,000 square feet with 45-foot-high ceilings. It includes a bakery, with full-production pastry area. Our operation includes interesting, original pieces of equipment that have been here since 1927. This includes an all-copper, 45-gallon steam kettle and wood butcher-block tables used for rolling out dough. The back of house supports all dayparts and is operational 365 days a year.

FE&S: What makes the program unique?

RA: People appreciate the setting, which is at a historic landmark hotel in a national park. The atmosphere is not intimidating but is designed to encourage guests to expand their palates and find the wines they like best. Plus, the vintners are so approachable, with many having been involved in this program for years. We include some tried-and-true wine favorites mixed in with other varieties that normally would fly under the radar. This creates an interesting program that is different from others of this type.

FE&S: Describe the concept and its execution.

RA: The Vintner's Holidays starts November 5 and ends December 4. We hold a total of seven sessions, with two sessions a week. These include four vintners and a moderator. We hold the program in a 7,000-square-foot room that's adjacent to the hotel lobby. It's basically a massive wine tasting, where grape growers and winery owners come and talk about their products with program attendees. The face time is impressive, even though we typically have about 200 guests for these programs. Our staff will pour all guests six tastes per flight. There are ongoing discussions about the wine. The hotel offers two- and three-night packages for Vintners' Holidays at The Ahwahnee, Yosemite Lodge at the Falls or Curry Village. This includes lodging, tickets to the Gala Vintners' Dinner, admission to the Meet the Vintners reception and four wine tasting seminars.

FE&S: How do your production facilities support this program?

RA: The equipment and counter space exist here to support this program, but we retool it for the vintners and chefs. We've had to rely on newer equipment technology, such as vacuum packaging and our bank of combi ovens, along with sous vide. On the less sophisticated side, we've created an outdoor broiler that utilizes real mesquite. The setup lends itself to a spread-out format that is conducive to wine tasting.

FE&S: Pouring 200 flights simultaneously while serving a full-course meal must require a great deal of manpower. How is the program staffed?

RA: We departmentalize the program, which includes a reception, dinner and tasting. We have one server for every 18 people, a bar manager and an assistant. When we move into the dining room, we designate a server for each 10-top. In the kitchen, we are staffed with eight white coats. We have an extensive internship program, so it's common that these staff members will come in to help out or watch. In terms of the logistics, we utilize a 40-foot-long table to set up an assembly line. Waiters queue up and serve each of the five courses individually. Each person has their task, and plates are fed to the end, where the waiter picks it up for serving. We keep each course to about eight minutes from serving to removing.

FE&S: This event has been growing for the last 33 years. How has it evolved?

RA: We do a critical analysis at the tail end of each program. Through trial and error over the years, we figured out more efficiencies. This includes spotlighting wineries that attract more guests, to determining which foods are more popular than others. The Vintners' Holidays is always evolving, but that's the nature of our business. We're always looking at how we can make it a little bit better the next time.