My cousin, coffee guru Shawn Steiman, agreed to try three different wines with three distinct kinds of coffee with me, to compare how both beverages might reflect where they were grown and how they were made. I chose a fresh white wine, a lighter style of red and a full-bodied red, and Shawn used three different coffees in three styles: drip, full-immersion and espresso.
We did the tasting at Daylight Mind, his year-old coffee bar, roastery, coffee school, café and restaurant in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. A few coffee farmers and regular customers joined us. We tasted the wine first, talking about grape variety, site and winemaking. Then we tried what we thought might be a parallel style of coffee, discussing its origin, roast and technique.
Tasting back and forth, it quickly became clear that neither beverage harmed the other, even though we started with the richest, so the barista could join us after making espressos for the group. Daylight Mind's house espresso blend is 50 percent Sumatra, the rest divided among four other regions, including a small percentage of the much lighter Kona.
Bookwalter Conflict 2009 (94 points, $55 on release), a Cabernet Sauvignon blend grown in Conner-Lee Vineyard in Washington's Columbia Valley, showed rich black fruit and cranberry flavors. I picked the wine in part because my original tasting note mentioned espresso and chai tea on the finish.
The espresso was smooth and rich with complex layers of earth, bittersweet chocolate and hints of dark fruit flavor. Going back to the wine, those earthy, coffeelike flavors had receded and the fruit had come up, making the wine more vibrant and alive. An even denser wine would have fit even better.
Lightly sweet, Trisaetum Riesling Ribbon Ridge Vineyard 2010 (92, $24 on release) had plenty of racy acidity to support green apple, kumquat and lime flavors. Dripped through a paper filter, a light-roast coffee from a single farm in Kona was delicate and fragrant with citrus. Going back to the wine, I tasted more peach and apricot than citrus. The sweetness also intensified, suggesting that a lighter, drier style of wine would make a closer parallel.
Soter Pinot Noir Yamhill-Carlton Mineral Springs Ranch 2008 (93, $48 on release), a fragrant, polished style, jazzy with raspberry and hints of leather and pepper, came closest to perfectly matching the character and texture of the coffee paired with it. A full immersion, in which the grounds remain in hot water until they are filtered through fine-mesh stainless steel, brought out an earthy flavor in the richer Sumatra (the same medium-roast coffee that was used in the espresso blend). After a sip of that, the wine's tannins softened, the leather character dimmed, focusing more on fruit.
We both agreed that wine and coffee both reflect the aromatics and flavor components that come from the place where they were grown and the process used to produce a beverage. These coffees showed a range of body, richness and transparency.
We also destroyed a common myth that coffee ruins wine. In all three pairs the coffee's delicate bitterness brought out the wine's more charming aspects.
Shawn and I enlisted Daylight Mind's chef to use coffee, including its fruit, in a unique way. How would that affect some pretty great wines? Look for that in Part II.