When I am at the wine shop, or the grocery store and I’m looking for the magical pairing, I have three questions that run through my head:
- Has it been done before? Is it proven to work?
If I’m cooking foie gras at my house (which I do all of the time, who doesn’t?), I will more than likely pick up a bottle of Sauternes. It’s a match that was discovered many years ago, and a divine combination. As daring and as experimental as I am, in certain scenarios there is certainly no need to reinvent the wheel.
- Do the flavors compliment?
This is one school of thought. If you’re eating sweet food, drink sweet wine. If you’re eating heavy food, drink heavy wine. I think this is the most common thought when pairing, but in my opinion, it’s the easiest to mismatch.
In a past life I spent a few years cooking at a very nice restaurant in my hometown (www.ljsandthekatlounge.com). When I first started in the kitchen I distinctly remember a conversation that I had with my chef. I was terrified because I knew that I didn’t have the palate that he had.
One day I said “Chef, how long will it take before I know what everything tastes like? How will I taste a sauce and say ‘This OBVIOUSLY needs tarragon’? I don’t know one /tenth of the ingredients that you know! I may know something is missing, but I will have no idea what that something is.”
“Joe” he said, “don’t think about ingredients. Ingredients are the last step in the recipe thought process. You’ll drive yourself crazy trying to think of that one thing that is missing. The possible list of things you could add to your sauce is endless. You need to narrow it down. Is the sauce too rich? It needs acidity. Is the sauce too tart? Add some sweetness. Once you know you need sweetness, think about how much you need. If you just need a little sweetness, with a touch of savory, you can think of ingredients that are along the lines of fruit. An avacado will add a touch of sweetness with a rich savoryness as well. However, if you don’t want your sauce to be green, perhaps a splash of red wine. Sweet white wine will add that sweetness without adding acidity. In the end, you’re looking for a flavor not an ingredient!”
That conversation happened about seven years ago, and I remember it like it was yesterday. I revert back to it with every meal I make at home, and with every wine I choose to pair with it. If you have a course planned that is very sweet, a sweet wine may not be your best choice.
- Do the flavors contrast? Or play off of one another?
Another classic combination is sparkling wine and seafood. Scallops have a natural sweetness. If you pour a Moscato, or a sweet Riesling, you will lose that natural sweetness of the scallop. If you pour a Dry Champagne it will bring out the sweetness in the scallop. Oysters and Champagne are another classic combo, but what about the Mignonette? If your bubbles are too acidic, with the acidity in the mignonette, you’ll never taste the oyster. What about a Prosecco? At The Blue Star we pour Zardetto “Zeta” Prosecco by the glass. It’s totally dry but has a creamy round finish. The oyster is semi-sweet, salty and savory, the Mignonette is tart and acidic, altogether it’s missing richness… “Zeta” Prosecco will seal the deal.
I look for wines that will pick up where the food leaves off, or add a component that the food is missing altogether. If I’m cooking vegetarian, I will pour a smoky Syrah so I can feel like I added bacon to my dish.
Every meal has it’s main components. The protein should be used to choose the color and weight of the wine. The varietal and region should be matched with the little extras of the meal. Chicken likes white wine. Chicken with a lemon based sauce or marinade likes a richer white, like a Chardonnay (Richness balances the acidity). Chicken with a rich butter sauce would like a Chardonnay from Australia (higher acidity cuts the richness). Chicken that’s plain with some rice would enjoy body, richness, and acidity, perhaps a Viognier? Or Chenin Blanc?
When push comes to shove, eat and drink what you like, but when choosing pairings, remember three things:
1. It’s already been proven.
2. The flavors match perfectly.
3. The flavors contrast perfectly.
Food and wine pairing is one of my favorite things to discuss, and my favorite part of dinnertime. 7 out of 10 times, I fail miserably; 2 out of 10 times it works. 1 out of every 10 pairings I choose is absolute heaven.
If you need ideas, or want to chat about it, this is the forum for doing so.
Boxed wine has always gotten a bad wrap. I’m certainly not here to defend it, but I’m more than willing to shed a little light on a trend that I expect to gain huge popularity over the next decade. Of course, anyone would be apprehensive about buying 5 liters of wine for the same price as 750 milliliters of wine. What’s the catch?
It’s not the goal of every winery to make as much wine, and sell as many bottles as possible. Grape growing is as much of a business as wine making is a business, as bottling, and marketing and selling are businesses. Some companies have multiple tiers of wine giving them an outlet for just about every grape they grow, or buy. The Robert Mondavi enterprise is a great example. The best grapes from a very specific vineyard make Opus One ($160 retail). The best grapes that aren’t from that vineyard make the Private Reserve ($110). The grapes that aren’t good enough for the Private Reserve make up a lower tier ($50). As the tier quality drops, the production doubles and triples. Grapes that aren’t worthy of the Napa tier will find their way in to the “Mondavi Series.” Below that is the “Woodbridge” line. Every grape that is grown by the huge winery is used in one of their wines, whether it’s in one of the 100,000 cases of White Zin, or in one of the 10,000 cases of Opus One.
Not all wineries have the luxury of bottling every grape. In fact, most don’t, and a vast majority doesn’t want to. Limiting production increases demand. Chateau Montelena wants to make 5,000 cases of their Estate Cabernet ($120) and 15,000 cases of their Napa Cab ($70). When the growing season is less than perfect, they strive for these numbers. In 2007 when the weather was just right, they could have easily upped these numbers by 50%. Why didn’t they? If Topps knew that Micky Mantle’s rookie card was going to be the most valuable baseball card ever made, would they have made 1,000,000 more of his cards? Of course not! A million more cards in circulation makes the card practically worthless. They stay exclusive, and they keep the demand high. It is extremely common for wineries to sell grapes, and juices.
Obviously Franzia isn’t buying grapes from the Montelena Estate vineyards. They are, however taking advantage of over planting all over the western coast. From Temecula to the Columbia Valley of Washington, grapes don’t ever get thrown away. Companies like Castle Rock own a winery, but not vineyards. They make a living buying other peoples grapes and making their own wine. William Seylem does this as well. William Seylem has never made a wine that hasn’t been recognized in Wine Spectator. All this means really is that you don’t have to run a vineyard to make amazing wine.
Your local wine shop probably has a pretty extensive selection of boxed wine right now. Almaden, Franzia, Bota, Block, Black, Hardy’s, Trove, Delicato are all names I’m seeing. If the wines were awful, than this wouldn’t be a growing trend. The fact is: boxed wine is hands down the most environmentally friendly wine produced. Boxed wine quality will last ten times longer than an open bottle. Though I haven’t done the market research, I can assure that the quality of these boxes will continue to rise. A bottle of wine is romantic, so it will never disappear. Corks are romantic, so they will never disappear. As the planet continues striving to be greener, the boxed wine business will continue to grow. And these wines will get better and better. Personally, I’ll wait, but I don’t want that to be discouraging!
View my restaurants’ wine lists:
Wine can easily be one of the luxuries that is nice to splurge on during a big celebration. When P-Diddy celebrates going to the club, he buys a few bottles of “Cristal” to splash all over the bar. When you and your colleagues finally close on that big over seas account, a bottle of “Opus” or “Silver Oak” makes the occasion seem more special. Graduation days are always full of “Moet” and “Veuve”. New Years boasts the most pricey bubbles you can afford. Christmas and Thanksgiving are good reason to crack open the “Caymus”, and “Shafer”. It’s Saturday night, and you have a babysitter, you want to buy a bottle that you’re thoroughly going to enjoy, what are you going to buy? What would I buy?
I’m going to buy a wine that I know my fiancée and I are going to enjoy. I know that she enjoys big bodied spicy reds. She enjoys the rich, and full flavored wines. A special occasion may call for a bottle of Clio, or an expensive Amarone. A normal Saturday night will probably go just as well with a nice Shiraz, or a fruity California Zinfandel. I’m seeking that wine that I know we will enjoy. I’m usually all for taking risks, and I won’t buy something that I’ve had before, but I need something familiar. For example: I know that she likes Orin Swift wines. We’ve had “The Prisoner” about 1000 times, so I’d feel safe buying the recently released “Machete”. I know that I enjoy McClaren Vale Shiraz, “Yangarra” is one of my favorites, I’d feel safe picking up “Jester” by Ben Glaetzer.
The answer to the “babysitter” question should be: “The best bottle that I’m at least 90% sure I’m going to enjoy.” If you just got your tax return, and a promotion, and just won a small amount in the lottery, and won a bundle at the track this morning, and took quite a bit from the casino this evening, a bottle of First Growth Bordeaux could be a REALLY stupid purchase. A $900 bottle of Margaux sounds cool, but I wouldn’t appreciate it. P-Diddy probably doesn’t know a whole lot about great Champagne and the methode traditionelle. His groupies would probably be much happier with a $25 bottle of Moscato d’ Asti.
Drinking expensive wine because it’s expensive is a waste of wine, and a waste of money. If all you normally drink is Central Coast Pinot Noir, you’re going to HATE the Margaux. If light and fruity California Pinot Noir is your everyday wine, I wouldn’t even suggest a Burgundy. If you drink $10 bottles of wine every day, splurging should be (2) $30 bottles. I typically spend $16-$25 on a bottle for everyday drinking. On a special occasion, I won’t spend more $70 on a bottle. I drink expensive wine pretty regularly, and I wouldn’t even appreciate a bottle over $100.
Fact: Wine that YOU enjoy and appreciate tastes better than the other stuff!
Whenever I approach tables and introduce myself as the “wine guru”, they seem to automatically make the assumption that I am the pinnacle of wine knowledge in the world. That couldn’t really be farther from the truth, and in an attempt not to embarrass my lack of knowledge, I’m constantly trying to probe the table to see how much they know. Many circumstances arise that you want to know who you are talking to. Does you waiter know what he’s talking about, or is he just throwing out words he saw on a flavor chart? How about your guest? Did they tour a winery in 1988, so now they’re certified sommeliers? Your sales rep dresses nice, but they described a wine as tasting like grapes? How about someone you’re interviewing for a position that talks about your wine? Here are some questions that may apply to any of the above situations. I, of course, know all of the answers because I wrote the test, but in some instances, one word could be changed in the context of either of these questions, and I would be stumped.
In a perfect world in a wine shop that is full of nothing but your favorite wines with a large stack of spendable money in your pocket, what wine would you buy tonight?
Obviously, there is no wrong answer. I try to ask every one of my tables this. It tells me so much. If they say “2006 Domaine de la Romanee Conti, La Tache” I will back away and let them choose their own wine, they clearly know more than I do. If the answer is “7 Deadly Zins” or “The Prisoner” I know the style that they like, and I have a good idea of how much money they want to spend. I also know that their exposure has not gone much further than a couple select racks at the local wine shop.
More often than not, I’ve never heard of the wine that they say they would buy. So, I
ask them about it. “What is it about this wine that you like?” Do they speak comfortably about it? Does what they’re saying sound accurate? “I loved this Barolo because it was dark and rich! And full of jammy fruit! And even a little sweet.” That would be an incorrect answer in my book. Their response to this can tell you a lot about how comfortable they are talking about wine, and how diverse their wine palate is.
What are the 5 main red grapes of Bordeaux?
This is such a cliché question, but because of how overused it is, no one that claims to know about wine should ever miss it. (My ability to recite these fantastic five varietals to my fiancé’s father was a deciding factor in his blessing for our courtship.) I think it’s silly to memorize every popular grape from every popular region in the world, but when it comes to blends, this is the most used, most copied, and most prestige mixture available. If you’re interested in wine, it’s good to know. Side Note: If you get someone that nails this right away, ask “What are the five first growths of Bordeaux?”
In terms of Italian wine, what are the “Three B’s”?
I don’t like that the majority of wine testing revolves around Old World wine and regions. The fact is that Old World wines have their standards. Those five Bordeaux grapes have been the same for YEARS! Barolo, Barberesco, and Brunello will more than likely always be the only hugely popular wines that start with “B” that come from Italy. New World wines are more subjective, and up for argument. Old World wines are pretty much the same as they’ve always been. Side Note: If you get someone that nails this right away, ask “What are the grapes in these wines?”
The term “Legs” refers to wine that rolls down the side of the glass after swirling, what can be determined from these “legs”?
This is an interesting one for me. I’ve heard the answer to this probably 1000 times. 950 of those times, were before I even started drinking wine. It wasn’t until after I took my level one exam that the answer stayed in my head. After I learned the science behind it, I’ll never forget. Side Note: If you get someone that nails this right away, ask “What are some examples of grapes that would roll slowly? Or fast?”
The Russian River Valley has one immensely popular white grape, and one immensely popular red grape. What are these two grapes?
Bonus points given for “Why?”
The GSM blend is growing in popularity in Australia. What does GSM stand for?
Knowing the blend is great. Knowing where it originates is better yet. Knowing why the blend is so popular (what each grape adds to the equation) is perfect.
What is the most popular red grape coming from South Africa? How about white?
Bonus points for knowing where the red gets its name, and what the white is called in South Africa.
This isn’t meant to be a test, but I feel that any one of those questions can be great to determine the knowledge of whomever you’re talking to about wine. Knowing all of the answers by no means makes someone a scholar, but if you know what they know than you know what to teach them. You know what they could teach you. Many of the tables I talk to have visited wineries in Italy. They probably couldn’t tell me the first thing about the grapes of Bordeaux, but what I know of Italian wines is probably pale in comparison to what they have experienced in their lifetimes. Remember, the worlds most wine savvy sommelier probably only knows ¼ of what he could know.
In terms of wine, “sweetness” refers to residual sugar in the bottle. Residual basically means what’s left. Yeast is added to the juice from the crushed grapes, yeasts eat sugar, sugar turns to alcohol. If the yeast doesn’t eat all of the sugar, what’s left is residual sugar. Riesling, Moscato, Chenin Blanc, and some sparkling wines contain residual sugar. Red wines for the most part contain <1% residual sugar. In two years of tasting wine nearly every day, of the thousands of wines that I’ve tasted, I have had one sweet red wine. Of the thousands of people I’ve talked to about buying wine 30% of them are looking for a “less dry red wine” and 30% of them are looking for a “more dry red wine”. If dry is the opposite of sweet, and <1% of all red wine has any sugar in it at all, where is this strange request coming from?
Many red wines made in the New World style are very easy to drink and very approachable because of the tremendous amount of soft dark fruit that hits the tongue as soon as it enters your mouth. Some good examples would be Menage a Trois (a California Zinfandel blend), 7 Deadly Zins, The Prisoner (a Napa Zin blend), and many entry level Kendall Jackson and Beringer Cabs and Merlots. These wines are designed to be very accessible, and very easy to drink. Kendall Jackson’s entry level wines are meant for you to enjoy at any time, at any place. They want wines that will create wine drinkers. Mondavi’s Woodbridge Cabernet, taste NOTHING like Modavi’s Private Reserve Cabernet. Woodbridge is $6 per bottle the Reserve is $106 per bottle. To taste them side by side, you wouldn’t even guess that the Woodbridge is Cabernet at all. Why? It is their goal with these entry level wines to mask all components that could be seen as undesirable. Tannin is a word that does not exist in this world. Acidity is a word that barely exists in this world. Oak is a term that is seldom used in this world. Are these “Dry Red Wines”? Absolutely.
A lot of Old World wine bottles even come equipped with the title “Dry Red Wine.” Even Amarone is listed as dry on the bottle. The grapes that are fermented for Amarone are set out to bake in the sun before being pressed. The wine is super-concentrated and jam packed full of dense fruit. This fruit is easily mistaken for sweetness, but the wine is still classified as “Dry.”
Fulfilling the request for a “less dry red wine” is not the easiest of tasks for your server. You’d be better off being a little more specific and saying “What do you have that is similar to [insert your favorite wine here]?”
Or, here are some examples of wines that are very fruit forward, and could be seen as “less dry” :
Inexpensive wines from Lodi, California are typically very fruit forward; Zin, Syrah, and Petite Sirah are the most common. Australian Shiraz from $7-$18 per bottle is usually heavy on the fruit. Cabernet Sauvignon from anywhere, under $15 per bottle is pretty fruit friendly. Lately there have been some great deals on Spanish Cabs that are under $10 per bottle (keep an eye out). Merlot can be rather deceiving. Many people see Merlot as the grape that’s too easy to drink, and only amateurs drink it. This is so far from the truth. Inexpensive Merlot can fall into that easy drinking fruit-forward category, but as the price rises, so does the complexity. I find that many $20 Merlots drink much better than some $50 Cabs. Of course, Amarone is pretty heavy on the fruit. The next time you have $70-$80 burning a hole in your pocket, pick up a bottle of Zenato Amarone. It’s impossible not to like!
I guess the moral of the story is: You’re going to have a little trouble finding a “sweet” red wine, or a red wine that is not dry. If you can pinpoint the characteristics (that are not sugar) of the wines that you enjoy, you’ll have an easier time finding wines that are similar. In my opinion, when you can find a pretty general realm of wines that you enjoy, it makes the advancing part so much fun. If you can tell me what your two favorite wines are, or where they’re from, I can pick out what you like about them, and make some suggestions that would blow your mind.
Simply put, Old World wine is synonymous with European Wine. What’s the difference? Why is there such a following for either style? How do the styles differ?
I think of New World wine as music of the now. The music we listen to today, and the music we have listened to for the past 50 years. Think back to your college dorm room, sitting on the edge of the bed with your headphones on. You’re playlist consist of Led Zepplin, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, and Stevie Ray Vaughn. You’ve listened to the same seven or eight tracks on repeat for hours, days even. You know every word, every note, and can play the air guitar as if you were actually back-up for the band. You’re jammin! You’re getting into it! Your head’s moving up and down, feet are stomping on the floor! The volume is up, the room around you could be on fire, and you wouldn’t even know, and wouldn’t care if you did. How many times have you done this? How many times have you heard these songs? Over and over again, you recite every chorus! Your 100th time around that day, Jim Morrison’s voice cracks, just a touch at the very end of “…light my fire!” Would you notice? I wouldn’t. What if on the 100th time around, two songs switched order on your list? I still wouldn’t notice. Loud music, intense guitar and drums, I wouldn’t notice at all.
I listen to a lot of Classical music. When I write, I’m constantly listening to Classical. It keeps me focused because there is nothing to sing along to. I frequently listen to the same playlist that repeats a lot of Chopin, and Beethoven. I enjoy the piano more than anything else, so my lists focus around that. Chopin is great for piano lovers. My playlist is usually anywhere from 10 to 15 songs. Classical songs are typically 7-12 minutes long, so unless I’m writing a novel, there isn’t much repetition. They are, however, all songs I’ve heard hundreds of times. I promise you, if Moonlight Sonata was playing, for the first time of the evening, and Beethoven hit a C flat instead of a C sharp, I would notice. Moonlight Sonata is so soft, and so delicate. Each keystroke is perfectly timed, perfectly pitched, and ever so focused. One simple mistake would be picked up immediately.
I’ll use California as my example for New World, and Burgundy for my Old World. Do you drink 7 Deadly Zins? How long have you been drinking it? If you’ve been drinking any mid-range California wines for a few years, you probably still drink them because they’re amazingly consistent, and always reliable. New World wines are (in general) so fruity, so oaked, so people friendly, you wouldn’t notice even the most drastic changes in the winemaking from year to year. If Lodi California saw a hurricane in 2007 the wine would taste the same as it did in 2006. If they switched wine makers in 2008, it would taste the same as it did in 2007. If popular demand was going crazy, and they were forced to increase production by 300% in 2009, you’d still think you were drinking 2008.
Burgundy is the complete opposite. When someone speaks of a good vintage in Burgundy, it’s pretty significant. Weather in France drastically affects production. A year that is unusually high in rainfall could easily result in ½ the production. The wine that is produced, could lack concentration. A year that doesn’t have enough rain, would have the complete opposite affect. Too much sunlight could result in over ripening, and loss, as well as super concentration on the wine that is made. Some Burgundy producers make wine from a dozen vines that they inherited. 12 Vines!! A hungry dog in the vineyard could result in 10% less yield. Old World wines, tell the story of the harvest, and the growing season. 20 years from now, a wine maker in Burgundy could sit with his peers and have a bottle of 2006, they would remember the weather patterns, and that random dog. Just as the next time I heard Moonlight Sonata, I would think “I hope he doesn’t miss that note again.”
Follow me closely here, because this one isn’t going to come naturally to most.
How much do you know about football? Do you know how the game is played? Do you have a favorite team? How many players can you name on your team? How many players can you name on other teams? How many coaches can you name? Am I talking about college? Or the NFL? What if I’m talking about both? How many players’ 2010-2011 stats can you rattle off without doing some research first? Have you ever noticed, that regardless of how much you know, there’s always that guy that knows SO MUCH more than you do?
Football season is great because Monday morning when you go to work, you have something to talk about with people that you wouldn’t normally talk to. On the elevator, you may talk to a complete stranger about how good the Broncos game was. At a table, you may comment on the hit that put your team’s QB out for the season. It’s a subject that everyone seems to have at least a little interest in and always has something to say about it. To me, wine is like that. I know very few people that have no interest in wine. Obviously, the vast majority of them don’t want to get in to it like I do, but just about everyone has something to say about it.
Have you ever watched a Bronco’s game and watched Champ Bailey play? You watch in amazement as he is having the game of his career. You can’t wait to go to work and talk about it because you know everyone else is watching the same plays. When you get to work the next day, you see Charlie at the water cooler:
“What a game! Did you see that hit Bailey put on Randy Moss?” Thinking about the game, and that hit has your heart pumping again! You’ve been waiting for 18 hours to talk about it! Now is your time! It’s your chance to show off your football knowledge, and confirm your masculinity to yourself, and to Charlie! (Maybe that’s just me).
“Yeah! CRAZY game! I can’t believe Moss walked away from that!” he says, sharing your excitement. Then he starts to get a little deep “I can’t believe the Broncos pulled it off. The last time they played, remember? That offsides penalty with fifteen seconds left, that put them out of Field Goal range? They lost their playoff chances because of that play!”
Whoa! You don’t remember that game. You’re not even a Bronco’s fan, why would you have seen that game? What is he talking about? What if he gets deeper?
“And that hit, it was nothing special. Remember when he played for the Redskins? The game against Dallas when he ended their tight ends saeason? How about when he played for Georgia? Do you remember the interception he returned for a touchdown? When he ran over that Ohio State QB and ended his football career? He had nine sacks per season in college, as a cornerback!!”
What is Charlie talking about? How could anyone remember all of this? You were so excited to talk to Charlie, and he made you realize how little you actually knew about the game. What a disappointment. Next time you’ll talk to Jessica about the game.
Wine is the same way. I’m in a position now where I taste amazing wines from all over the world all of the time! I want to talk about it with people that will relate and enjoy the conversation. I’ve tried looking for wine discussion forums on random websites. I want to talk about the Continuum wine dinner that I just hosted. The wines are a few hundred bucks a bottle. I should fit right in, right? Nope! These forums are all people talking about the Petrus they drank the night before:
“Last night I opened one of my bottles of 1997 Chateau Petrus. It was good, but didn’t compare to the ’82 Margeaux I had the night before.” I can read their snooty noses through their text. I love T-Vine! If I even whispered a breath of T-Vine in a forum:
“Ugh! Silly under-appreciative American palates! They’ll never understand the complexity of great wine!”
No one wants to hear that! That’s why I don’t talk to Charlie about football! I’m going to comment on how good the game was, and he’s going to reminisce on a penalty that happened in an NCAA game 35 years ago that ruined the career of a potential Pro Bowl offensive lineman.
The fact is, as much as you know about wine, there is someone that knows 100 times more than you. For every expensive bottle that you’ve had, someone has used it for cooking wine. For every stat you know about Peyton Manning, someone knows his high school stats, and can’t wait to impress you with them. I’ll never know everything about wine, just as I’ll never know everything about football. The trick is, I’m always willing to learn, and I don’t focus on what I don’t know. Learning about wine is fun. Keep doing it. Taste thirty different wines today! It’s education! It’s just like learning about football without the concussions.
Also coming soon:
Wine Event at Nosh – March 17, 6PM – 8PM – Wince Cru Spanish and Portuguese Wine Tasting