By Randy Kemner, Proprietor
Samantha Dugan, Bennett Traub and I recently attended one of the most important trade tastings of the year at a highly touted restaurant in Beverly Hills. The wines were primarily bright young white wines from Austria and Germany with a smattering of reds.
Midway through the tasting it was time to give our palates a rest—German and Austrian acidity is among the most daunting in the world—and the Grüners and Rieslings were taking their toll. So we made our way over to the food table.
As so often happens when purveyors book a trendy restaurant for a wine tasting, the chef wanted to showcase some dazzling appetizers to their guests who are largely made up of restaurant and wine professionals—strutting their stuff for their peers, so to speak.
The trouble is, curried cream puffs, buttery radishes and vinegary rice cracklings, which are delicious to eat on their own, aren’t designed for wine. Nor are foods like spicy ahi, teriyaki chicken, chili-soy-ginger fish balls—all of which have been served at other wine tastings I’ve attended.
They are wine killers. The next half dozen wines one samples after such assaults on the palate will be thwarted, in some cases completely discombobulated.
If I’ve written it once, I’ve written it a hundred times—what grows together, goes together. Grapes and chilies don’t grow in the same places, so why do we expect they’re made for each other? They’re not.
Fine wine—as much as you love it, as much as you have passion for it, as much as you crave it and need to drink it—will lose its specialness when you serve wasabi, Tabasco, Sriracha, kim-chee, hot and sour soup, chili verde and too friggin’ much cayenne. Aside from compromising your taste buds, hot spices make your tongue burn so the acid in wine feels like you poured iodine on an open wound.
If you still persist in drinking wine with hot peppers, you’ll need to water down the acidity of wine by adding ice cubes or a little water to retain the winey taste while your tongue is burning. Of course it’ll make your wine simpler and blander. Do you want to do that with a prized bottle? Only if you have no respect for it or its producer.
Sweet stuff also screws with wine. How many times have we been asked to pair wines with mango salsa, maple-glazed chicken, port-wine reductions, bing cherry sauces and duck à l’orange? Too many. I love those foods and hate nearly all wines when they are served with it. How about finding a wine that’ll shine with scallops and orange slices?
Once I consulted for a summer society dinner to raise money for a charitable foundation in the community. The gourmet dinner featured a watermelon salad with balsamic and feta and they insisted on finding a wine to pair with it.
“Why?” I asked. There’s already loads of juicy fruit in it!”
“Because it’s customary to serve a wine with each course. People will be expecting it.”
“But it doesn’t make culinary sense,” I protested.
The food committee was unmoved. The best I could offer was an Italian Brachetto, a delicious, fruity, low-alcohol, lightly sweet frothy red wine.
The pairing was a disaster. Worse, we made no new fans for the charming wine, which was rendered irrelevant and unnecessary by the sweetness and juiciness of the watermelon. Here is a classic case where form was dictating function, not the other way around.
Here is a better idea if you want to serve a wine with each course: as a prerequisite, get a salad that tastes good with wine first, then find the right wine to drink with it.
Neglect is the Order of the Day
A few months back, importer Kermit Lynch observed that his beloved bistros in France are veering away from traditional wine foods in favor of fusion influences. While this may be exciting food to eat, it wreaks havoc with traditional wine.
Sometimes chefs get it right, as Chef Walter at Lawry’s The Prime Rib proves once a year at Rudi Wiest’s annual German wine trade tasting each June. Chef Walter puts out a spread of traditional German foods like schnitzel, smoked trout, herring, red cabbage, bratwurst, weisswurst, potato pancakes and other delicious nibbles that are traditional Riesling foods.
What makes this chef’s offerings so exceptional are his foods make German Riesling shine first, and Riesling adds an essential fruitiness and acidity to those traditional foods. That is the objective, isn’t it?
But it’s much more common that neglect is the order of the day. I’ve attended many wine dinners where the chef and the person selecting the wines seemed to work in opposing universes. The wine pairings can be so awful it it is obvious nobody tasted the wines with the dishes beforehand. Once, at a trade event designed to sell wine at the now defunct Mondavi Center, I ate a seared ahi accompanied by a Mondavi Pinot Noir. On paper, the pairing seemed O.K., but in execution, the ahi was served with a spicy sauce that murdered the wine, resulting in no orders for Pinot Noir that day.
I don’t want to speculate on the reason there is no more Mondavi Center, but killing your Pinot Noir might be one of them.
Some Free Advice to Cooks
So what’s an adventurous chef to do? It’s a tough world, but ya gotta show some discipline. Savory foods for fine wine—spicy foods for wine coolers and sangria.
And don’t serve sweet wine with dessert. Ever. Not if you really care about wine. Serve an appropriate cheese with sweet wine instead. The saltiness will amplify the special character in a sweet wine. Sweet desserts will swamp the sweetness in a delicately sweet wine.
Above all, pay attention to how your wine performs with what you are serving. If they taste good together, it’s working. If your wine tastes astringent, out of whack, oak and bitterness stomping out the fruit, well then, you’ve just screwed the pooch.
Remember that when you peel away all of the folderol and hype, wine is essentially fruit juice, not some magical mystery fluid. Its function is to lubricate the palate and to add fruit and acidity to the dish. If there is already fruit on the plate, wine becomes redundant. If there are heat spices, wine will be rendered simple-minded. If there is sweetness on the plate, wines will be stripped of their sweetness. And high alcohol—that’s over 14% for most wines—will mean your wine will taste like there’s vodka in it and you’ll feel the burn on your tongue instead of savoring the beauty in your wine. That’s O.K. if you’re into whips and chains, but it’s perilous if you want to get the most out of your wine, no matter its cost.
Experience has taught us that certain foods make our beloved wines taste bad. We’re in the wine business and it hurts us when the wine we sell is made to taste bad by a careless choice. But people who fret about wine pairings and think about such esoterica as what wines will taste good with braised leg of lamb in a rosemary-infused reduction are in the minority.
So here’s a reality check: who cares?
A lot more folks don’t give a whit about all this pairing stuff and just want a good glass of wine with their meal. Restaurateurs know it. Just check out most wine lists in this country and see how food-oblivious their offerings are. Since there is more profit serving Solaia than sangria, most restaurant owners are focused on popular brands than food-appropriate wine, even as their chefs create wine-killing foods. They’ll invoke “personal choice” when they offer you a telephone-book-sized menu filled with highly rated, recognizable wines. It’s very American to think that a lot of something is a good selection.
There are few right answers in wine that apply to all people, and that includes wine pairing. No two palates are alike, and no two people’s expectations are identical. That’s why wine pairing is so hard to do for large groups, let alone two couples out to dinner together ordering four different dishes and one wine. Most of us end up eating what we want to eat and drinking what we want to drink, and the consequences of culinary conflicts don’t matter. We’ll order Silver Oak and be happy to be eating our favorite foods while drinking our favorite wine.
As for those of you who care what’s on the plate before making a selection, what’s a wine lover to do when the restaurant specializes in maple flavored short ribs and honeyed salmon ragu?
You could shoot yourself in the head.
Or, pick a big-ass Syrah and screw the food. That’s what most people do anyway, including way too many wine pros.
Then again, you can always cook up a simple, savory chicken dinner at home, invite some friends over, select a good wine and share it all with your guests. You might even achieve profundity.