When I heard that Shirley Sarvis died last week at 77, it brought back memories of when I first started to investigate wine and food connections. It was the 1970s and not many of us were writing about it. Wine writers sometimes commented briefly on good matches when they came across them, but seldom tried to explain why they worked. Fewer food writers ventured into writing about wine.
Sarvis was one of the rare kindred souls who had sound grounding in both camps. I arrived in San Francisco in 1977, with six years of experience as a food writer and a passion for wine. She had been writing for 20 years, and was part of a gourmet crowd that gravitated toward other like-minded souls at the Stanford Court Hotel. General manager James Nassikas rolled out the welcome mat for James Beard and other nationally known writers and chefs, and encouraged Sarvis to lead tastings of wine and food that aimed to tease out just why some matches seemed to work better than others. She also wrote on the topic for Sunset and Gourmet magazines and the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper food section.
Nassikas would set up a lunch, invite a cadre of foodies, and have her pick four or five different wines to taste with each dish. Later she made a cottage business out of conducting similar tastings in restaurants and wineries around the Bay Area. As food and wine editor of the San Francisco Examiner, I followed Sarvis' format for my own forays into matching food and wine. To this day, my preferred way to experiment with food and wine is to taste a variety of wines with a specific dish and analyze how and why each one works, or doesn't.
Sarvis had a knack for homing in on the key flavor in a wine that made a link with something in the food. Her obituary in the Chronicle last week, which described her as "a pioneer in food and wine matching," noted how her fine-tuned palate impressed one notable chef. Annie Somerville, the chef at Greens, San Francisco's groundbreaking fine-dining vegetarian restaurant, employed her to help create the restaurant's award-winning and unfailingly appropriate wine list.
Sarvis believed that flavor affinities drove food and wine matches. I did too, until it gradually became unmistakable to me that texture mattered at least as much. Softness, tannic grip and acidic bite, I realized, need to be in the right range before the fine-tuning details of flavor affinities can work their magic. But the way I got to that realization was to follow her smart and analytic approach: First determine what works best, then figure out why.
My friend and Wine Spectator colleague James Laube, who participated in more than a few of Sarvis' food-and-wine sessions in those years, said that examining and challenging traditional food-and-wine matches "opened doors to a much broader acceptance of what goes with what," adding, "We now know there are fewer restrictions than we once believed."
Amen to that. Thanks, Shirley.