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james laube's wine flights

A Day of Red Wine and Greens

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Aug 28, 2007 4:23pm ET

Ed Anderson was beaming. As he accepted congratulations for winning Mac and Lil’s Greens Cook-off on Saturday in the Russian River Valley, a young couple filming the event for a documentary approached me to discuss how the entrées paired with the wines.

The Greens Cook-off is Mac and Lil McDonald’s annual affair, where friends and friends of friends get together and prepare greens entrées, which are then judged by professional chefs and other foodies. (The McDonalds own Vision Cellars, where some of California's best Pinot Noir is made, and the couple lives among the vineyards close to the Russian River.)

Anderson, a resident of Fremont, Calif., won this year’s event, with a fried cabbage dish, with potatoes, carrots and diced pork. He had competition from two of Sonoma’s top chefs: Josh Silvers of Syrah Restaurant and Jeff Mall of Zin Restaurant & Wine Bar. Mac’s entry, a mix of greens cooked with pig fat from North Carolina, was tasty but didn’t sway enough judges despite having the home-field advantage.

After the entrées were judged, they were all served in a buffet-style lunch, which allowed everyone to choose their favorites. The camera crew asked me, among other questions, whether these dishes paired well with any of the Vision Pinot Noirs, or the richly flavored Dry Creek Syrah I enjoyed from Running Tigers cellar.

Few experiences are as heavenly as the perfect food and wine match. But one of the most overrated and oft-repeated myths of wine is that certain foods and wines conflict, and bitter greens, such as chard or spinach, are thought to be one of the toughest dates for fine wine because they have a bitter edge.

I gave them my stand-pat answer, which I borrow from my colleague Harvey Steiman: Most foods and wines work just fine together, and most of the time it’s not worth worrying about whether the pairing is perfect. As Harvey says, you eat food and drink wine in separate acts. That is, you take a sip of wine and then a bite of food, or vice versa. You don’t take a bite of food and then a drink of wine and swirl them together in your mouth.

Everyone at Mac and Lil’s party seemed to doing just fine, washing down the greens with Pinot and Syrah, with nary a thought about whether or not the food and wine was the perfect marriage.

John Miller
Windsor, CA —  August 30, 2007 6:07pm ET
I have to say I am a little shocked at this. Harvey said that food-pairing is "most of the time not worth worrying about"? This from the guy who created a whole food and wine pairing menu on your website? I think it is a reckless oversimplification. Of course there is such a thing as overzealousness in pairing. You won't see me looking over the picnic table at a barbecue with my glass of syrah in one hand and Harvey's food and wine pairing guide in the other, but disregard for complementary flavors can be ruinous to both food and wine. I don't get the "separate acts" statement either. So the idea is that as long as I swallow my oyster on the half shell before taking a swig of my Cab, all will taste fine? I don't think so. I am sure Harvey would think this is an oversimplification as well, but this is an issue that sticks in my craw. As you know, WS editors are very influential and I just think you should be more careful in making sweeping statements like some of those above. Modern society, particularly in this country, is too eager to look for excuses to be lackadaisical, in our manners, in our dress, and in our choice of what we put in our mouths. The last thing we need is a prominent wine expert giving us permission to further our disregard for all proprieties.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  August 31, 2007 1:51pm ET
Let's clarify. I tell people to be comfortable with the idea of drinking the wine they like with foods they like. Even if they clash, the worst case scenario is that you drink a nice wine and enjoy some good food, except you just have to take a sip of water between them. And most of the time, the wine and food will be fine together.

What Jim means by "separate acts" is this. If you watch people at dinner, they pick up a glass of wine, take a few sips, maybe drain glass No. 1, pour another. Out comes the food. They take a bite, maybe take a sip of wine, maybe take a few bites before the first sip. You have, what, a dozen bites and a maybe a half dozen sips of wine, and there's still some in the glass. You finish it, pour another. In the end, most people consume most of the wine on its own.

But we who love wine want to fine-tune the match, and the pursuit can be rewarding. When wine and food harmonize, they can sing a great chorus together. Along the way we all learn what worked for us and what didn't, so we can make better choices in the future.

Bitter flavors tend to make wine less appealing than it would be on its own, which is why I wouldn't open a great bottle to go with them. But a fruity Zin or Syrah might taste just fine. Sauvignon Blanc maybe better.
James Zalenka
Pittsburgh PA —  September 3, 2007 10:20pm ET
We've had the good fortune of meeting Mac and Lil at Zin in Healdsburg and seeing them again at an event in Pittsburgh. Great people with a great story to tell and awesome pinot noir. We only wish we could get more of their wine out here in Pennsylvania.

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