A friend of mine once told me, "Good food and good wine work best together." While this approach may seem simple and obvious, I believe it hides deeper shades of meaning.
A large part of a sommelier’s job is pairing food and wine. When I work, I try to keep in mind the broad implications of my friend’s philosophy. First you have to ask yourself, "What is good food?" Then, "What is good wine?" And finally, "What does it mean to work together?"
A couple of weeks ago a guest at Restaurant Michael Mina in San Francisco asked me what I thought about the dishes he had selected to accompany a bottle of 1994 Harlan Estate. He was having a trio of crudo (raw fish), followed by roasted turbot. Inside, I was asking myself, "Is this a joke? Am I on Candid Camera?"
Clearly though, the guy was sincere, and I didn't have the heart to tell him that he should have a white Burgundy. Instead, I brought him a glass of Riesling for the crudo, and suggested that I have the chef change the preparation of the turbot to suit his wine choice. The new preparation featured a pork belly garnish and a rich red wine reduction. It was delicious, and allowed the man not only to have the Harlan that he so wanted, but to enjoy it more because it connected with the food. That sort of wine pairing happens all the time, even behind the scenes. It's not genius, just good engineering.
A great wine can be destroyed by a great dish that does not work with it, and vice versa. Which is why this sort of engineering or wine pairing begins to happen well before I ever get to your table. When I'm at the restaurant, I taste all the food. Michael Mina and I have a collaboration; he's the star (his name, after all, is on the building) and it's my job to make his food look good. But he respects my palate. When we taste dishes together, I might tell him something like, "This dish won't work that well with wine, it needs more acid." And to his great credit, he'll change it to work with wine. It's one thing about Michael's greatness--his openness and lack of egomaniacal pretense. He cares most of all that every dish be as good as it possibly can be.
One of the reasons we work well together is because I too am a chef, having graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., before beginning my wine career. I believe that a lot of my proclivity for pairing wine and food comes from my time in the kitchen. In fact, I would go as far as saying that an understanding of food is just as important as an understanding of wine. The understanding of wine comes from lots and lots of tasting, while the understanding of food comes from cooking. If you want to become better at pairing food and wine, learn how to cook.
Now from the basic to the sublime. I believe good pairings are made not just through the elements of acid, spice, alcohol, sweetness, etc., but also in the soul. I believe that the traditional wines and dishes of certain regions go well together for a reason and that even a single drop can make the difference.
I offer you an example: Last year we did a blowout dinner at a friend's house in Portola Valley. The theme was a comparison of those iconic extremes from Burgundy, the wines of Henri Jayer and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. As usual at these things, the cooking fell to me. I remember using a tablespoon of both wines to finish a sauce. Wow, what a difference it made when we tried the wine with the quail (and the magical quail jus finished with Henri Jayer Richebourg 1978). I know it sounds absurd, but the point is that, well, good food and good wine work best together.
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — May 30, 2007 3:49pm ET
Chad Turben — Bentonville, AR — May 30, 2007 8:11pm ET
Gregg Smith — Atlanta/Georgia — June 1, 2007 2:42pm ET
Steve Dunn — phila, PA USA — June 1, 2007 9:57pm ET
Steve Dunn — phila, PA USA — June 1, 2007 9:59pm ET
Jonathon Wagner — San Francisco, CA — June 4, 2007 1:25am ET
Rajat — June 8, 2007 1:13pm ET
Steve Dunn — phila, PA USA — June 10, 2007 6:03pm ET
Steve Dunn — phila, PA USA — June 16, 2007 11:07am ET
Alberto Alfaro — Arizona — February 22, 2008 7:53pm ET
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