I think I may have mentioned, like a couple seventy times, that I simply adore getting my hands on a menu and getting my wine dork swerve on. I absolutely dig the rush, the tingle really, of sorting through the onion skinned pages of my mental taste and textural dictionary…picking things up, taking a sniff, a virtual bite if you will, trying to click together the Lincoln Logs of a menu and wandering around the shop trying to find a wine that will best match, or better yet, frame that meal and give that, “Please help me” customer the best possible combination of weight, acidity, flavor and structure. This is a service that The Wine Country offers that no other stores in the area do, this not only makes me proud it pushes me even harder. My goal always being that anyone that comes in looking for food and wine pairing advice walks away feeling as if they were heard, their dish taken seriously and with bottles they can feel confident will not only be to their liking but will be harmonious with their meal. It’s what we do and it is one of my favorite parts of the job. That being said, there are times when this particular challenge, well it’s more like a mission impossible….
Now I know people are kind of in love with the idea of food and wine dinners, the romantic notion of a wine perfectly paired with each course. I get it, hell I have those notions myself but the fact of the matter is perfection in anything is rare and with food and wine, well magnify that rarity by like a thousand. There are only a handful of times that you will find that absolute perfect pairing and more often than not, it’s when there are the least amount of ingredients involved. Oysters and Muscadet or Sancerre, roast chicken and white Burgundy, goat cheese and Sauvignon Blanc, aioli and Provencal Rose, French fries and Blanc de Blanc all simple and stunningly beautiful together but add one thing; a little cocktail sauce on that oyster, a spice rub on that chicken or fruit chutney on that goat cheese, no matter how small the change might seem it does in fact change the wine options, often dramatically.
“I need a wine to go with chicken” or “I’m looking for something that will go with pasta” well those things tell us nothing really, I mean unless you are actually going to eat plain chicken or a plate of sauce free pasta, we need to have all the information to make the best possible suggestion and even then, well sometimes there just isn’t a wine up to the task. As versatile as wine is there are times, when no matter how badly you want it to be, there is no way wine and food pairing “perfection” can be attained, often…with the menus that I have come across as of late and the rather trying trend of piling on of “more” ala Emeril and Bobby Flay well wine is downright unwelcome. Trust me, kills this wine geek to admit that, to concede that no matter how much we tout wine and its place at the table that there are some tables….some dishes where wine just doesn’t have a place.
So what do we wine geek, pairing freaks do in such situations? Well much to the annoyance of some of our “Help me” customers we are brutally honest…okay not brutally, it’s not like we stand there saying, “Dude, are you high?! Why in the hell would you want to serve Moroccan spiced lamb with mango chili chutney with a side of blue cheese grits?! An actual course for a menu we were brought last week. Not only does that sound hideous to me, those two things on one plate but we could not think of one wine that was going to do anything good to that mess. When the customer was told, flat out, that there was no wine that was going to taste really good with that, that the flavors there were all pretty….um, aggressive and they might want to consider a “lighter beer” for a match to them, we were met with a shrug and a, “we want to do a wine pairing dinner not a beer pairing dinner. So whatever wine you think would be an okay match is fine” that kind of shit right there just baffles the hell out of me.
So you want to do a wine and food dinner but you pick foods that are in no way wine friendly and then try and bend a wine to fit into this crazy mixed up bag of flavors…..well no wonder there are people out there that think pairings are a load of horseshit. Kind of like the couple that kept me tied up for a solid half an hour teaching them about French wines, which they admitted they knew nothing about and after explaining harmony at the table, balance and texture they told me, “Okay so we want a Bordeaux (they had heard Bordeaux was the best French wine…best for what I don’t know) that will go with a Chinese buffet of mostly fish and vegetables. Oh and it needs to be from an odd year”….head imploding. Or the woman that was doing a big company dinner and needed a Cabernet Sauvignon for New York steaks and grilled sea bass, (they were serving both you see) and when told that there really wasn’t a Cabernet that would be great with grilled sea bass told me, “Okay. Well just pick whatever Cabernet you think would be best with the fish then”…..picture my scrunched face here. When these things happen I get all bunched up, twisted and irked. Stomp around after they leave pointing my finger and bemoaning the fact that they “don’t get it!” but it occurred to me a few months back…sometimes it’s me that doesn’t get it.
Many of these people just don’t care. It’s the doing of the dinner, the planning the menu, the having friends over, the mere idea of it all that pleases them. It’s fun and for some, makes them feel kinda fancy, the actual balance of flavors….well that’s not the point for these cats, (I mean c’mon, Moroccan spiced lamb, fruit and chilies AND a side of blue cheese grits?!) and no matter what we dorks say, how often we tell them that Opus One and oysters is a bad pairing, it doesn’t matter. It’s what they like and honestly, we have no business telling them anything different. For someone that preaches balance all the time it became very clear to me that I needed a little of my own. So what if our Stella Rosa, (a sweet sparkling red that tastes kinda like marshmallows) customers drink that wine with their steak or spaghetti and meatballs. It may give me the gag shivers but they dig it and putting a bottle of Barbera d’Alba or Cotes du Rhone in their hand, while a better match for the food…is not a match for those people and all that’s gonna do is turn them off wine, not the smartest move for a store that relies on return customers right?!
So while these pairing deals are a favorite part of my gig they can, at times, be little more than a head cracking dance of frustration and bewilderment. It’s a fine line between offering assistance and just being an ass and for all my talk about harmony and balance there is nothing more harmonious than watching a customer walk out the front door, bottles in hand, grin on their face because their local wine merchant actually listened to what they wanted. Oh I’ll still offer my suggestions, tell them why I think that Petite Sirah they have in mind might be a “Little much” for the Bacalhau dish they are making and suggest something more along the lines of Pinot Gris or Pinot Blanc….try my damndest to get them to take both and experiment for themselves, (which is how I snag em’ and end up with return “please help me” customers) watch them leave with my fingers crossed that the little switch will go off for them when they have an actual pairing moment.
Teaching not preaching…..rough but if it brings more people to the wine drinking table, I’m all in. Baby stepping our customers into the world of food and wine pairing, explaining the wine should be a component to the dishes on the table and not some afterthought or accessory. This too is a service that The Wine Country offers, that no one else in town does, and for the ten people that shrug off our recommendations there are fifty that willingly take our suggestions and have faith in our years of figuring this shit out. Good odds and the more we handle these “food fights” with grace and not dogma….well the more people will come to trust that we like know what we’re talking about and junk.
Now if I could just get those chefs and “Food & Wine” writers to quit making my job so goddamn hard! Fuckers…..