Without fail, the chefs make the most popular segment of the Wine Spectator Wine Experience weekend. Chefs Emeril Lagasse, Mario Batali, Charlie Trotter and Wolfgang Puck—I need not name their restaurants—every year do battle with Wine Spectator executive editor Thomas Matthews over who can pick the best wine with their dishes. Everyone seems to love it because, first, they make such great food. Also, I think some of the good feeling comes from having to actually drink the wines with the food instead of spitting, as we do for most of the "serious" tastings.
The format always offers two wines to taste with each dish. The chefs and
Matthews discuss which works better, and the audience votes with a show of
hands. Sometimes, I find that a wine selected for one of the other dishes can
be better than those actually paired with a specific dish. At this year's
seminar in New York on Saturday, for some reason, that was true with every
That doesn't mean those who picked the wines got it wrong. With every dish, the "official" wines were just fine. But it was uncanny how some other wines always seemed better. That's where serendipity fits in.
This time, instead of the chef who created the dish picking one wine and Matthews the other, one of the other chefs got the random assignment to pick a wine for one of the others. So, for example, Batali picked a wine to go with Puck's wild boar braised with black olives. Trotter chose something for Lagasse's Bay scallop gratin with corn, chorizo and tomato in a Manchego cheese fondue, Lagasse picked one for Batali's porchetta with fennel, and Puck found something for Trotter's jerked goat with artichokes and eggplant.
All the dishes were made in gratins, which made them easy to prepare and easy to eat, although the food mostly cooled to room temperature before we got to them. That may have affected the wine matches, but the gratins were absolutely delicious anyway. Also, no one got to taste the actual dish before picking a wine. It was all done on the description, which is exactly how you and I usually pick wines when we are in a restaurant. It's a guess.
On my scorecard, however, I was a little disappointed in the lack of excitement generated by either Terlato Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2007 (Trotter's choice for Lagasse's scallop dish) or Avanthia Godello Valdeorras 2008 (Matthews' selection for the scallops) with Lagasse's dish. I thought the unoaked clarity of the Spanish wine was better than the Chardonnay with the dish, but the winner was found in the next pairing: a generous, zappy Lorimer Grüner Veltliner 2007 from Austria was friendlier to the dish and held its character best.
On the other hand, the Chardonnay turned out to be the best match for Batali's porchetta, splitting the difference between Matthews' pick, the Grüner, which was a bit too vivid, and Lagasse's pick, Gamba Zinfandel Russian River Valley Moratto Vineyard Old Vine 2007, which lost its suppleness with the dish.
For Trotter's jerked goat, Puck chose Morlet Syrah Bennett Valley Bouquet Garni 2007, a rich red that got a bit sharp with the food. Matthews' Spanish wine, Descendientes de J. Palacios Bierzo Pétalos 2007, a lightish red made from the Mencia grape, swirled around the dish better. But even better was the Zinfandel with Lagasse's dish.
Finally, Puck's wild boar sent the chefs off in unusual directions. Batali went for a Madeira, The Rare Wine Co. Historic Series Charleston Sercial, which had a light sweetness, nutty flavors and tangy acidity that was fine with the boar but didn't do so well with a Roquefort tart perched atop the grain. Matthews, not to be outdone by a Madeira, went for Fonseca Vintage Port 2003, which did fine with the tart but was way too sweet and rich for the gratin. Best for me was the Syrah, meant for the goat but which found an ideal balance with all the elements in the boar dish.
Despite their sometimes off-balance descriptions, all of these dishes wove together soulful flavors seamlessly. They were balanced and wine-friendly. Truth is, almost everything tasted just fine with the dishes, and the choices were not obvious. In the showing of hands, most dishes came out about even on the audience preference. But that's only part of the story.
The secret was serendipity.
Brad Kanipe — GA — October 26, 2009 7:32pm ET
Tim Sinniger — Bend, Oregon — October 29, 2009 1:55am ET
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