Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Speaking Another Language....

The language of wine is such a fascinating and richly accented thing to watch and listen to. Each dialect a little different, each regional preference lending its drawl, its inflection its belief that theirs is the proper or correct accent. So many varying voices, so many angles each dialect sweetly attached, fiercely protective and lovingly argumentative…sometimes not so lovingly and willing to take little nips out of the ankles of those who dare question of disagree with their findings.

You have the technical camp, these folks are very precise. They can spend hours reading and talking about vine age, slope exposure, brix, drainage, punch downs, lees, Phenolic ripeness, levels of sweetness, (not the perceived…actual) I could go on but seeing as I am not of this group…I don’t exactly have my drawl down.

You have the wine and food camp, these people are equally as dorky, (I can say that as I am half this camp). They can wax rhapsodic for eons about texture, acidity, oak interference, heat and Riesling.

You have the wine as seduction camp, these folks tend to be wordy and sensual…or just horny, (I can say that too as this is my other half). They groan more than actually talk but when they do talk there is lots of, “mouth feel” and “length”…that and they touch the bottles a lot. Like I said, they might just be horny.

You have the don’t give two shits I just wanna drink wine camp, these cats look at the others with suspicious brows and rolling eyes. They either don’t care or can’t tell and they are fine with that. They have no interest in hearing that Oakville Cabernet might not taste that great with their oyster platter, they like both and are going to have them. These people have the rare ability to cause those other camp’s heads to implode.

“Can I help you find anything” I asked the young couple wandering aimlessly around my French department. “Um, yes we are looking for this brand” this soft spoken gentleman told me while handing me a torn scrap of paper. I looked at the neatly folded scrap and read, “Vieille Vignes” I took a deep breath and treaded carefully. This is one of those tricky situations for a retailer, don’t wish to sound condescending or teachery but…I knew I was going to have some explaining to do and you just never know how that is going to be received. The couple in question was fine with hearing that they were asking for a wine made from old vines, not a brand. “We heard they were better so that’s what we want”…more explaining on my part. I walked around the department pointing to various wines that were produced from old vines, told them a little about each and then asked the question, “So, what’s this for?” They then told me it was for a birthday dinner for one of their fathers, they wanted to serve the best wine. Well okay, now we’re getting somewhere.

“What kind of food are you having?” I asked, “Chinese” they responded…this was when my wine and food camp brain started feeling the pressure of my skull tightening. “So you want and old vine French wine for Chinese food. Let’s narrow it down a bit, what kind of Chinese food?” I pushed further. “Mostly fish and vegetables” they chimed…tightening. I went to Alsace, showed them a few Pinot Blancs and Rieslings, (see told you) and then moved on to Rhone. I showed them some Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc and that was when I got, “Isn’t red wine better? We really want the best”…sigh, tight melon, sigh. “Well, the best for what? The best for the meal or the best as in scores…not quite sure what you mean by the best” I responded. “Just the best” the super cute girl said with a giggle. I just wanted these people to be happy so we spent some time, (after some conversation about the fact that white might really be better for the meal) in Bordeaux, Burgundy and back to Rhone.

I was pointing out wines, going over flavor profiles and that was when I was hit with the final blow, “Oh it needs to be from an odd year”… “I’m sorry?” I enquired. “The wine needs to come from an odd year; 2003, 2005, 2007 something like that” I swear I was looking for Alan Funt as I mopped my grey matter off the floor.

“Nope, none of these work” was my response this afternoon while sitting in on a panel of people picking dishes and wines for a charity function. The salad was comprised of watermelon, Heirloom tomatoes, (food dork was going nuts…these are both out of season. Was thrilled to hear the event was not until summer when they would be) feta cheese, pistachios, balsamic reduction and orange vinaigrette. We went from wine to wine and finally I had to say it, “This dish doesn’t need wine. The fruit is already here…these flavors…all of them, while fine together are not at all welcoming to wine”…I don’t remember taking a poo on the floor but I might as well have.

“This event is about pairing wine and food. We need to have a wine there” I was reminded. “Well how about we pick another salad?” I said wearing my biggest, shiniest how-can-I-spin- this face. I finally broke down and told them that with some dishes there is never going to be a perfect pairing, may not even be a passable pairing. This salad was just such a dish, in fact there may be some kind of cocktail that would sing with this but wine, not so much. “Unless you are trying to teach this group what not to pair with wine I would stay away from this dish” I said it and we moved on. Yummy salad, refreshing and what not, (I will say I thought the balsamic was out of place…seemed like eyeliner on the Mona Lisa) but it just didn’t belong at a wine and food pairing event unless, like I said, it was an example of what not to do.

Driving home from that exercise in palate and tummy fatigue I got myself spun into this conversation…yes, with myself, about language. Wine language, food language and what it is we are trying to say and do. In the two situations I’m talking about here we had people trying to force a wine into a place or idea….not ideal if we want more people to drink wine. Telling anyone that an old vine Bordeaux from 2003 is, “the best” for a Chinese meal of fish and veggies or forcing some poor wine on watermelon and balsamic salad at a wine and food pairing event just makes the whole thing look, and taste like bullshit.

Do we need to be tight-assed and restrictive? Fuck no but we should be willing to toss in the wine towel once in awhile. Wine is NOT always the answer, not always appropriate and frankly in some situations it’s just not right. Look, we have so many diverse cultures adding to our food experience now…Thai tacos, Miso broth with Brie noodles, our melting pot has brought us some truly amazing food. We have chefs fusing all kinds of foods and flavors…it’s fun, it’s often delicious but just because the food sounds, “fancy” doesn’t mean we need to have wine.

I am all about breaking rules, hell I break em’ all the time….I said poo on the floor in a wine post and ask people about their peeing experiences. I’m not bound or married to crusty old ideas about proper pairings, I have been known to drink Sancerre with grilled rib-eyes, (okay I might be feeling the need to defend myself but I always say, “Serve Sancerre with anything you might squeeze lemon on”…I like lemon squeezed on my steak) but just as one might turn up their nose at drinking Cactus Cooler with Coq au Vin, we should also be willing to sneer at any menu that pairs; Chinese five spice rubbed short ribs in Zinfandel and coffee reduction served over Pernod braided fennel with edamame with Russian River Pinot Noir.



Sara Louise said...

The carrot in the picture is freaking me out a little.

I love my wine, I don't pretend to know very much about it except that I know what I like, and what I don't like (I can't do reds from Chile) but for me, when I'm eating Thai, Chinese or Indian, I usually go for beer, unless it's been a bad day, then I'll order a bottle of something, but that has less to do with the food and more to do with my mood.

Did the young couple end up buying anything?

Samantha Dugan said...

Ha, I think the waffer cookie skeeves me out most in that picture.

Your comment is perfect Sara, something about certain foods just scream, "something else" the mood thing, that's a whole other deal. For that I go for Champagne. The sweet young couple, and they were so sweet...they bought a 2005 old vine Bordeaux for thir meal...sigh.

Michael Hughes said...

I love your description of interacting with the couple because I totally feel ya. You want to give them a great wine "experience" as well as the most important thing which is a great customer experience. Because when you boil it down we are just in the service business & I think that gets forgotten.

Poor poor poor wine/food pairing. If they were trying to pair that watermelon salad with wine I can just imagine what the rest of the menu looked like.

Sometimes fusion just equals confusion.

Thomas said...

Geez, Sam. Why didn't you recommend Riesling with the salads???

Oh, you want a nerdy response: Riesling with residual sugar (Auslese, maybe) does ok next to balsamic.

Riesling with steak; Riesling with hotdogs; Riesling with chocolate moose--never with chocolate mousse; Riesling with popoff corn; Riesling with long, sensuously sliced carrots...

Samantha Dugan said...


Helping that couple was such a mine field. They were really sweet so that made it easier but trying to cram a wine into that idea was just never going to give them a great wine experience. I had to just give them a great wine store experience.

It was interesting this deal with the caterer. These people while not wine people er se, were into the idea and honestly tasting each wine with each course...they were great to deal with. We were given a menu and we picked a few wines we hoped would go, got together at the caterers and tasted everything. Most things we nailed which I was so happy about but that salad...

So funny thing about language. When we got the menu the first thing that hit my eye, "Red Miso Broth with Green Onion Frappe, Brie and Sweet Soy Sauce noodles Finished with a Chili Capsule"...I swear I read that and thought,, "Fuck you". I was that one dish that had me freaked about the whole deal, just had no idea what it would taste like and what the hell is a Chili Capsule?! We went with Reisling, (told you) and I have to say, that soup was the single finest thing we tasted all day. So delicate and subtle...savory, fresh, clean and not too hot, the Riesling was stunning with it. But the thing that really got me thinking about this whole language deal...chefs using far too many buzz words or lisiting each and every thing in a dish which can just look silly and never really tell yo anything about what you are about to taste. That soup that made me flinch....divine. That salad though...

As a matter of fact we did try some Rielsing with the salad...not good, not good at all. All those flavors just ended up robbing the wine of anything pleasurable. Oh and I did forget to mention, (as you so beautifully demonstrate) some of us are in fact bilingual.

Derrick said...

Your watermelon/wine story reminds me that a couple months ago I was at some winery dinner tied to an event. They were pairing their wines with the dishes (all of which -- the dishes -- were quite good).

Things were going fine until the dessert, a chocolate-banana bread pudding with an orange-caramel sauce (I think).

The winery paired that with their jammiest, heaviest Syrah.

It was one of the worst pairings I've ever tasted. I kept thinking that the winery should have a) not served a wine with the dish or b) served firm cheeses, perhaps or c) said "Hey, our friends down the way have this great dessert wine, and we wanted to share it with you." Instead, whenever I see the winery's name, I'm reminded of how awful that syrah tasted next to the dessert.

Annie Browne said...

Ohhhh dear. I'm with Sara...sometimes it just doesn't work and you have to go with a martini or a cold beer! Wine is almost always great with food, but sometimes food is way too finicky and foofy. Sometimes I just order the wine I want and then worry about the food as an after thought...sometimes I just don't care and I drink Cab with macaroni and cheese cuz that's the kind of day it was.
I think people (the sweet confused couple) try a little too hard to create a wine/food magic when there just isn't any.
Anyhooo, sounds like you rocked it! Cheers!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

My Gorgeous Samantha,

My old boss at Pacific Dining Car used to say that he was tired of going to restaurants where the descriptions of the food on the menu were better than the food itself. Somewhere along the line restaurants developed the Parker Syndrome of writing elaborate, florid menu descriptions perhaps to make themselves seem fancy. Doesn't work.

In real life, we cook and then we go over to the wine rack and see what might be pleasant and not completely offend the meal. Nothing fancy about that. Like Derrick, I can remember some amazingly awful pairings. Once, at a winemaker dinner I organized, the chef insisted on a Bleu Cheese Cheesecake with a Dessert Riesling. I thought the customers were going to have a Circle Puke. The room smelled like athlete's foot. Funny how we remember the worst pairings as well as the best.

Meanwhile, I definitely fall into the horny camp when it comes to wine descriptions. Surprise!

I Love You!

Your HoseMaster

John M. Kelly said...

Sam - did you see Steve Heimhoff's post on Demystify This! back on 2/4? Tim Hanni says there is some oddball wine pairing out there for every food! Actually I'd like to sit down with this guy and pick his brain for a while to see if there is any "there" there (probably better than picking his nose). Yep, your experiences here remind me of why I don't miss retail - better you than me, for your customers' sake.

Samantha Dugan said...

Welcome. If I keep getting all these fancy pants writer here I might end up looking all legit. I can think of few things that would trigger my gag reflax sooner than banana and Syrah. Amamzing thing about that is that they did in fact create a memorable experience but not likely the one they were hoping for.

Very well said girlie!

Ron My Love,
Sounds like your old boss was a wise man, had to be...he hired you didn't he? I think bleu cheese cheescake is simply nasty and exactly the kind of foofing that must stop...vile. You?! In the horny camp?! Get the fuck oudda heah...

John My Dear,
I did read that and thought they guy was off his rocker. There may in fact be a not horrid pairing for everything but a good pairing for everything...doubt it.

TWG said...

Hey they could've asked for pied franc.