By Emily Williams
As the TumTum Tree Foundation works its way toward its 31st annual Wine Auction on Nov. 13, some of Birmingham’s finest restaurants are hard at work creating tasting menus and wine pairings for a Vintner Dinner series.
Dean Robb, owner of Blueprint on 3rd, is preparing for its Nov. 12 wine dinner and recently received the list of wines that will be provided by partnering vintners Senses and Villa Creek-MaHa.
“I know a bit about the winemakers and it’s great juice,” he said. “It’s also very food-friendly wine, from the chardonnay to the pinot.”
Robb and Blueprint executive chef James Huckaby will be creating a multi-course food pairing that will remain delicious after diners pick up their food and later taking part in the virtual dinner.
Robb said he and his restaurant workers spent much of the pandemic mastering the art of the takeout order.
“That was about 1% of our business prior to the pandemic,” he said. “We knew we would have limited seating capacity and would need that as income flow.”
Before reopening after lockdown, the Blueprint team spent about two weeks working on its execution of to-go food and curbside service.
“It’s a challenge … to make something that will be delightful an hour and half later and match the wine,” he said. “But we are going to rock it out, we’re going to nail it and hopefully raise a lot of money for the kids.”
Robb has a long history with the TumTum Tree Foundation, which raises money for children’s charities. He became involved during his 17-year partnership with foundation supporters Frank and Pardis Stitt as the general manager at Bottega Restaurant and Bottega Cafe.
His work later took him to Nashville for a time before he spent five years working with Taziki’s as vice president of operations.
When he opened Blueprint on 3rd in 2018, he was ready to reconnect with the TumTum Tree Foundation.
“Our first year we were open, we did a dinner here. But last year they did them in people’s homes,” he said. “So, I was thrilled that they chose to contact us again about participating in this year’s event, because it’s something I want to do.”
It is important for Robb to give back to the neighborhood that has supported him throughout the years. He’s especially interested in the foundation’s work to support groups that serve children with medical challenges.
“When you go visit the kids in the hospital, it’s hard not to take away the sense of (how) special this is,” he said.
“I couldn’t even fathom turning it down. I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.”
There is always room to give back in Robb’s mind, pandemic or not.
“Everyone has been hurt by this pandemic, there is no doubt about it,” he said. “I don’t think anyone in their right mind is trying to make money right now, you’re just trying to not bleed.”
Focus on Health
At Blueprint on 3rd, the staff has sought to make health and safety for staff and patrons the priority above all else.
“There is always a silver lining,” Robb said. “Maybe we should have turned back toward Southern hospitality long before, making that more of a priority than just trying to pack people in all of the time.”
The restaurant has a patio that offers diners socially distant seating in the fresh air when the weather is in their favor. Indoor workers do as much as is in their power to make visitors feel safe.
A focus on proper cleaning always was a part of the restaurant’s operation, but it has stepped it up.
In addition to existing UV light air purification systems in the restrooms, Robb bought another one for the private dining area with the expectation that it will be a little more closed off during the holiday season.
“It erases 99.9% of bacteria and viruses in the air and on surfaces,” he said. “If I coughed or sneezed, it’s dead in the air in 0.44 of one second.”
The restaurant also has changed the air conditioning and heating systems to outdoor venting so that air is not recirculated in the restaurant.
While the number one objective has changed, a focus on impeccable food and Southern hospitality is something that will always remain, Robb said.
For the Fun of It
Opening its doors to visitors and participating in wine dinners are ways the restaurant also can bring a little joy to people.
“Wine and food are fun. That’s why I have done this for 40 years,” Robb said. “It’s because I really, really do love it and love to do that.”
Wine and food pairings are a fun challenge and a great way to explore, he said.
“Higher acid wines will go with onions and peppers and tomatoes,” he said. “Things with heavier tannins, or more fortified wines, you will want food that has butter or something more rich or more opulent to stand up to it.”
The way to approach food pairings is to taste and get to know the texture of the wine, he said.
“You just don’t want to try to make it that hard,” he said. “If you taste something with a wine, you will know.”
For example, a light pinot grigio will be complemented by something equally delicate such as shellfish, seafood or even small snacks. A cabernet sauvignon requires something sturdier, Robb noted, such as venison or a fatty ribeye.
“The motto around here is that nobody tastes our food until we do,” Robb said. “We don’t take it to chance.”
As the weeks progress, Robb and his team will taste it all.
Participants in the foundation’s vintner dinners will pick up their meals and wine at the participating restaurant in the afternoon and in the evening join a Zoom call on which chefs and vintners will lead the tastings.
Restaurants and vintners participating, in addition to Blueprint, include chef Brian Somershield and Gamble Family Vineyards and Somnium Wines; Automatic Seafood & Oysters with Booker Vineyards and Vineyard 7&8; Ollie Irene and Hirsch and Cruse Wine Co.; and The Essential and Fisher Vineyards and Peay Vineyards. Dinners already have been conducted by Bottega and Holman Ranch; and brick & tin and DuMOL and Donelan Family Wines.
In addition to the vintner dinners, guests are encouraged to buy a charcuterie board to have before the live wine auction is broadcast Nov. 13. The charcuterie board will be prepared by Chez Fon Fon and paired with wines from 2020 honorary auction chair Holman Ranch. The deadline to order the board is Oct. 30 and the cost is $250. The auction is presented by medical Properties Trust.
For more information on the TumTum Tree Foundation or to purchase tickets for this year’s events, please visit tumtumtreefoundation.org or contact Ashley Blomeyer, executive director, at 205-401-8231. Dinners for the fundraising dinners are $500 per couple.