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Hosting Dinner Parties: The Winning Recipe

Longtime Napa Valley vintner Paula Kornell learned from her parents how to craft memorable moments. Her father, famed winemaker Hanns Kornell of Kornell Champagne Cellars, was known for his impromptu dinner parties, with her mother Marilouise doing the cooking.

Suffice it to say, the apple doesn't far fall from the tree (or the grape from the vine … )—Paula Kornell has been hosting dinner parties on a personal and professional level for many years and has developed a winning recipe for a fun and memorable evening.

Two Things to Know Before You Get Started

First, most of your money should be spent on wine, cheeses and meat according to Kornell.

General rules of thumb for a dinner party of, let's say, 10 guests:

  • One half bottle of wine per guest: in liquid milliliters, this is roughly the same amount as a can of soda or beer
  • Two to three varieties of blocks of cheeses, preferably locally sourced
  • One serving of meat per guest, plus any meats used in the reception or first course

The second thing to know is that currently, many people have dietary restrictions that may prevent them from indulging in your menu. "You need to ask before they come over," Kornell advises.

Once you've got your wine, cheeses and meat, and any dietary restrictions figured out, it's time for the big night.

Phase 1: The Reception

It's a nice touch and a good icebreaker—especially if your guests do not know each other beforehand—to have a reception before dinner itself. Kornell suggests bubbles—also known as sparkling wine—or a softer white wine such as Sauvignon Blanc, paired with the aforementioned cheeses.

You can also offer seasonable vegetables with dip, or "small bites" like boiled shrimp. Grilled sausages that have been cut up are always a hit, while olives and/or seasonal fruit are popular nibbles as well.

red wine being poured from a bottle into a wine glass
group of friends eating outside and clinking wine glasses
a hand reaching for a charcuterie board on a counter
white wine being poured into a wine glass
a salad and bread set on a dinner table

Obviously, the food and beverages are the main draw of such a gathering, but ambience is also important. Kornell suggests that if you have the space, host the reception in a different spot than where dinner will be served. That way, you can set up and decorate your dinner table in a way that will hopefully be a fun surprise for your guests.

"If you can do (the reception) outside or in your living room, that's the best place," says Kornell. "Then you have that element of surprise as far as your table setting and where people are sitting."

There is one more spot to hold the reception that many people do not think of. "If you can do it in your kitchen so that everybody can be together while you're cooking, that's easy enough," she says. It's always better if you can include yourself in the proceedings so that you can enjoy them as well.

As for how long a reception lasts, Kornell suggests keeping it at an hour. "People start getting antsy. You can see it in their minds," she says with a laugh.

Phase 2: The Dinner

The main event itself has two sub-phases: the first course and the main course.

The first course can be a traditional salad but can also be a soup—seasonal summer vegetables like roasted tomato or pepper are very appealing—or a smaller dish such as sautéed mushrooms on bruschetta. "The season totally plays into it. We are very blessed in the Napa Valley that we have access to seasonal food pretty much all year-round," Kornell adds.

The first course should be accompanied by another white wine. If you have used bubbles for your reception, now would be a good time to switch it up to a Sauvignon Blanc, for example. If you have served a Sauvignon Blanc for your reception, then you could serve a Chardonnay for the first course.

(Keep in mind—as with most things wine-related, there are no "rules" per se … this is just what has worked for Kornell for many years!)

As for the dinner table itself, Kornell suggests some low-sitting flowers as table settings so that you can still see the people seated across from you. If you are serving a "family-style" meal, make sure to keep the decorations at a minimum, because you're going to need room for the serving platters and dishware.

For the main course, Kornell says, it's time to serve up Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon with dinner. She often serves lamb chops, as that's a universally popular dish for the most part. You can also go with beef on the grill or a beef stew.

For side dishes, Kornell recommends being aware of the "balance" of the meal. For example, if you already served a salad for your first course and have a lamb chop on top of pasta or risotto for your main course, do not feel obligated to add broccoli to the plate because you "need" a vegetable.

As with the reception, timing is important to be aware of during dinner, but in the opposite sense. Whereas she tries to keep the reception at an hour, dinner shouldn't really need a time limit. "It depends on how much you like the people," she says with a laugh.

But in all seriousness, if the tone of the meal is jovial and everybody is talking and having a good time, there is no need to rush to the dessert phase. "I always feel like if someone is clearing the plates and serving dessert as soon as I'm done eating, they're trying to get me out of there," she says. So, give it a few minutes between dinner and dessert.

Phase 3: The Dessert

Last but not least, top your dinner party off with a dessert. In general, Kornell keeps dessert itself on the lighter side, such as fruit, a plate of homemade cookies or even another cheese course with nuts and fruits.

You can also offer a dessert wine with this course—or even a Napa Valley Merlot with poached pears—but it is important to remember that the evening is winding down and people need to be able to get home safely. After all, you want everyone to make it back to your next big soirée, right?