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The Grande Dame of the Biltmore's Cellar Club
The Cellar Club's 10th Anniversary marks an important milestone in food and wine enjoyment and education in South Florida.
By Simone Zarmati Diament
Petite, brunette and lively, with a long mane of hair, Yvonne Roberts, the elegant and polished hostess at the now famous Biltmore Cellar Club events, becomes passionate and willful when it comes to talking about what she created ten years ago.
After ten years of exceptional efforts and successful events which have contributed to put Miami on the map, The Cellar Club at the Biltmore Hotel has become not only a center for fine food and wine, but a social hub recognized by critics and patrons.
Organizing wine maker dinners fit for royalty -- and sometimes frequented by royalty, and wine tastings from boutique wineries from all over the worlds to the best known French grands crus, has raised the bar not only for members of the club, but for all of South Florida. Adding to that the glory of the Tour des Toques program which brought to the Biltmore Hotel, month after month, the crème de la crème of French gastronomy: dozens of Michelin star chefs from the best restaurants of France; the original concept of Interactive cooking class luncheons, and the first important Food & Wine Festival in the region -- The Biltmore Food & Wine Festival she founded and directs, are only some of Yvonne Roberts' endeavors.
On the eve of the Cellar Club's 10th anniversary which will be regally celebrated at a Black Tie dinner, paired with spectacular champagnes and wines - on one long, magnificently dressed table with stunning flower arrangements shimmering under crystal chandeliers, with live music and white gloved service, Yvonne Roberts talked about the beginning of the club, how it developed into what it is now because of the growing exigencies of the public it help educate, and where it going.
Simone Zarmati Diament: I remember when you started.
Yvonne Roberts: I know. The management wanted a wine club. I was thinking 'what do I do? A wine club?' I wasn't sure what they really wanted as far as members' profile other than to bring the right people to the hotel. People who enjoyed food & wine, to have parties, weddings and bar-mitzvahs etc… That was the reason for starting the club. This hotel in 1926 was a social center for Coral Gables and now it's gone full circle as a business property. So it was a very smart reason for the owner to start the Wine Club. However, there was nothing to follow, no model. But it was a wonderful opportunity.
SZD Whatever the initial reasons were, what you achieved here goes far beyond the mere purpose of bringing people here
YR Absolutely. We got started and after 2 years we already had 300 members and we now have over 1300 members.
SZD Did you have a solid background in wine?
YR You didn't need as much wine knowledge as people think to get started. If I had been educated only in one or the other of any of the categories of the things I do, I couldn't do what I do. There are so many different aspects to what I do : pairing of wines, organization, the social life, and tastings, banquets, PR… so many things to coordinate and take care of. So who I was at the time was a perfect fit. And I had the passion. You need passion to do what I do. I started with a basic concept of wine dinner and tastings. So to get the word out, I did a massive mailing for a complimentary wine tasting at the Biltmore. I didn't know what was going to happen, but I got all dressed up and I stood there not knowing how many people would come. Or if anyone would come… It was a fabulous turn out. That evening I got 30 members. From then on it was word of mouth, and it snowballed.
SZD You've managed to create a mystique about it.
YR The important thing was not to make it like another club. I wanted people to have fun at the Biltmore. We all know it's such a gorgeous setting, and warm. And I wanted my tastings to reflect that. So the idea was to create an environment where people would feel comfortable with wine. Not be intimidated. I wanted everybody to enjoy what they were having without being bullied by self-appointed wine experts with so-called superior knowledge.
SZD What you've really done is educating the public on wines for over 10 years now, and making people comfortable with the knowledge of wines at a time when wine is more and more complicated because it's getting better, and it is being produced in more places around the world
YR What I do is a lot is different events for different people and for different reasons. Just to show them different sides of wine. Like the black tie wine dinners, or the walk-around tastings, so people can try different things without being intimidated. It's silly to be intimidated by wines. It's like ice cream. Nobody is intimidated when they try ice cream: like thinking how it's made, where it comes from, why it tastes so fabulous, what you can eat it with or who are the makers.
SZD Well there are no magazines for ice cream, or a Robert Parker to rate them. But tell me about the Tour Des Toques Michelin Guest Chefs Monthly Program
YR We started in 1997 with the idea of bringing Michelin star chefs to The Biltmore Hotel. And the Tour des Toques was ongoing till 9/11. To be honest, it wasn't 9/11 that killed it. If I had that Michelin program in a different city, we would have been sold out all year round with a line out the door. But this is Miami. We went through great expense and a lot of work to coordinate flying those Michelin chefs each moth to Miami. Just start with the language barrier, try to plan the menu, explaining the interactive luncheons. Choosing them was a big initial effort, but soon it caught on and everybody wanted to come, they were calling us. There were different personalities, different laws in each country as far as how you handle the food. The education that our chef at Palme d'Or, Philippe Ruiz, got was invaluable. To work with all these great chefs was a unique opportunity.
SZD. It was like bringing a part of France to Miami. Instead of going to France to eat at the best restaurants, you could actually drive to The Biltmore Hotel and do the same at a fraction of the price you would have paid in France.
YR That program was very good for all of us. But we weren't sold out. We should have been, because it was a unique opportunity
SZD You started the concept of interactive luncheons very early on
YR They are very popular. For $40 you get to have a hands-on cooking class with a famous chef, enjoy a three-course lunch with Champagne, and in addition you get an apron and the recipes. You can't beat that, and so now we have a 50/50 audience of men and women, businesspeople and housewives.
SZD How much does it cost to be a member?
YR. Membership is $ 495 a year, and considering the benefits one gets, it actually pays for itself. Forget the complimentary tastings that we do every month. As a member you get 20% off at the Spa and you get free valet parking... If you come to eat at any of the hotel restaurants about once or twice a month, or have Sunday brunch or drinks, and if you do come to the wine dinners you get almost $100 off. So at the end, it pays for itself. You also get 20% off at affiliated restaurants such as Chispa or Carmen's.
SZD What's your involvement with the Food & Wine Festivals?
YR I am the founder and director of the Biltmore Food & Wine Festival here which this year will be held in April and which has grown tremendously in the past few years. But not only that; we also host important events of the SoBe Wine & Food Festival.
SZD. Where is the Cellar Club going from here?
YR. I see it continuously growing. I am very happy with how the club is now, but I am trying to change the events a bit to keep them more modern and stylized. I always try to renew myself. It's a challenge. There's so much one can do with wine and food; bring new chefs, introduce different types of wines -- like the Austrian wines from the two Austrian winemaker sisters. I am constantly making sure that I'm not too comfortable. I need the change; I change the music, the wines, the concepts. A lot of members who live in New York or Naples have asked me if I'd start Cellar Clubs there. Not for now…I'm too busy. The success of the club is based on steady relationships. The support of people
SZD From the start you had the support of community of wine professionals.
YR. I had a lot of great support. I was very lucky to know a lot of people in the media. I had a lot of help from Chip Cassidy, Fred Tasker, Bob Hosmon, Jim Turner. It was a big help. When I first came here the management wanted me to change the wine list because we had the Summit of the Americas. I didn't know too much about wine but enough to recognize that it was a small and very expensive wine list. I did a lot of studying, real quick and I came up with a three hundred label wine list. It was the most grueling thing I did at the start of the club. I had to make sure the punctuation, the appellation, the spelling was correct, faxing lists back and forth, you know how difficult it can get with the French and German wines….
SZD. The Cellar club has undeniably become a social hub for food and wine lovers in this town
YR. That's where it's changed. At the beginning it was a wine and food club and it turned out to be in addition a social club with that common denominator. Which is lovely. We're attracting a lot of people that don't necessarily know that much but appreciate that it is all done for them. Like when they come to the dinners, the pairing is done for them. The food, the wine tastings are all prepared for them. And they appreciate the comfort of it. That's one of the key things I'm talking about when I say that entertaining is making people feel comfortable and welcome., That's my style of entertaining.
SZD. Since you've started the Cellar Club at the Biltmore other hotels, clubs and now many liquor stores too are doing the same. Imitation is the best form of compliment. Don't you think?
YR. You're right, the Boca Raton Resort has done something similar, The National… and many more. It's flattering, but even more, I know we're doing the right thing here...
SZD How does the management feel about the Club?
YR. The Club's gotten a lot of public relation and attention for The Biltmore. I put together a report of what had been done and covered for the Club. It's amazing. One had to spend millions of dollars in advertising to get all the attention from TV, publications, film, radio, national and international magazines. Forget what the members spent here… So the management is also happy with the club.
SZD. But a club that doesn't allow smoking is not very much of a club isn't it?
YR. We're planning to extend the club on the ground floor of the hotel and bring back the smoking area. I believe in not smoking -- I used to smoke myself. But I can't deny that for cigar smokers it's important to be in a pleasant environment. Because of the law, I couldn't have it upstairs. So now we've created a space downstairs, more accessible to the public and with, soon to come, a smoking section.