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2008 California Wine Experience: Celebrity Chef Food-and-Wine Matching

Mario Batali, Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck pit their wine-pairing skills against Wine Spectator executive editor Thomas Matthews

Robert Taylor
Posted: October 20, 2008

One of the most entertaining seminars of Wine Spectator's annual Wine Experience, the Celebrity Chef Food and Wine Tasting, hosted an enthusiastic crowd on Saturday, all of whom were anxious to taste new creations from chefs Mario Batali, Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck, as well as witness the good-natured sparks that fly at this informal competition.

For the first time in a half-decade, the seminar was back to three chefs as Chicago chef Charlie Trotter was unable to attend. Wine Spectator executive editor Thomas Matthews, who was moderating the event, began by ribbing Trotter for his absence. "You'll notice on your plate that we've offered you a memorial roll in his honor," he announced at the start, drawing a laugh from the audience.

This year's seminar had a new twist, pitting the chefs against Matthews instead of each other, with the crowd voting for their favorite wine matches. "Earlier this summer, I asked each chef to prepare a dish, as I always do, and I asked each chef to select a wine to pair with it, as I always do, but this year's aberration is that I would also select a wine, without tasting any of the dishes, so I have to ask for a handicap, like a golfer," Matthews quipped.

Clockwise from top: Puck's lasagna, the infamous roll, Batali's duck-thigh braciola and Lagasse's spice-cured duck breast.
Kicking things off was Batali, who this year received his first Wine Spectator Grand Award, along with restaurateur Joseph Bastianich, for their newest Italian restaurant, Del Posto, in New York. "¿Cómo está?" Matthews asked Batali, whose Public Television series Spain … On the Road Again with Gwyneth Paltrow recently began airing. "Muy bien!" replied Batali, who noted that, although he's known for Italian food, he actually lived in Spain for a while growing up.

Batali served a braciola (thin slices of meat rolled with cheese and bread crumbs) made of duck thigh, with toasted pine nuts, tomatoes and orange zest. To pair with it, he selected a wine from Sicily, made from the local Nerello grape varieties, the Tenuta Delle Terre Nere Etna Calderara Sottana 2006 (90 points, $48). "This is a Sicilian wine that doesn't drink like a Pinot Noir but has a very Burgundian quality," Batali said. "It complements the richness of the meat and the acidic tinge of the tomato."

Matthews "took a page out of Emeril's book" from seminars past and selected an off-dry white, the Albert Mann Pinot Gris Alsace Grand Cru Hengst 2006 (90, $37). "Each of these wines brings out a different aspect of the dish. The tannins of the Sicilian wine bring out the gaminess of the duck. The red is more supportive, while the white smooths out all the elements of the dish but is more dominant," Matthews said. "If I were a chef, I'd choose the red. If I were a winemaker, I'd choose the white." The crowd appeared evenly divided on which was the better match, but Matthews declared the Sicilian wine the winner.

From left: Marvin R. Shanken, Mario Batali, Thomas Matthews, Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck.
Lagasse served spice-cured duck breast with currant tapenade, chanterelle mushroom mousse and savory olive oil cake. "This is one of the greatest uses of olives and flour I've ever tasted!" exclaimed Batali. Lagasse's wine pairing was the Aston Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Clone 777 2006 (90, $65). The light-bodied but complex Pinot's acidity matched well with the light sweetness of the olive oil cake and was declared the winner over the smoky Spanish Tempranillo selected by Matthews, the Baron de Ley Rioja 7 Viñas Reserva 2001 (93, $65).

Puck, who said he chose the wine first before deciding on the dish, gave Matthews a hard time (as usual). "At first I was going to make a mixed green salad with canned anchovies because you won't know the difference!" Puck teased. "But as you can see from the Pinot Gris [he chose], he actually knows a little bit about wine." Puck ended up making a "lasagna" (sans pasta) of braised veal cheeks, sweetbreads and porcini mushrooms, with a touch of pomegranate juice, and his unorthodox selection of the Tommaso Bussola Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2004 (not yet rated, $NA) was ultimately successful. "If you open [Amarone] six hours before, it goes so well with food," Puck said. The crowd concurred, as the Amarone was a near-unanimous choice over Matthews' selection of the vibrant, fruity Luca Malbec Uco Valley 2007 (93, $35).

As usual, the chefs' pairings got audience members talking, as they debated their preferences among themselves. "My favorite pairing was the Amarone with the porcini and veal lasagna," said Susan Jones, a San Diego-based realtor attending the Wine Experience for the first time. "Wolfgang Puck did a fantastic job."

Even Kevin Vogt, wine director for Lagasse's Delmonico Steakhouse in Las Vegas and one of Lagasse's advisors when it comes to wine, agreed. "Tom's Pinot Gris selection was great, but the Amarone with the veal lasagna was singing."

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