Gil Kulers took an appreciative sip of the dark purple juice in his glass, leaned back his head and said, "This is a great wine to taste without anything."
"That's how I feel about wine in general," answered Bob Townsend.
"I liked you up to this point," laughed Kulers.
"Don't get me wrong," countered Townsend. "I really like a big-[expletive] wine to drink. But to me, beer is much more food-friendly. Wine just freaks my palate out."
"I knew we'd come to blows," joked Kulers, who instead opted for a nonviolent protest by taking a bite of his Berkshire pork chop and then another sip of his Pinot noir. Townsend went for a Belgian ale.
Kulers, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's wine columnist, and Townsend, its beer columnist, had never met before this evening at Muss & Turner's in Smyrna. They had long exchanged e-mails, hoping to meet sometime for a meal and a glass of ... well, some libation to be decided.
People may not be breaking out their nunchakus over which beverage goes better with food, but the question is out there like never before. Sam Calagione of Delaware's Dogfish Head Craft Brewery and sommelier Marnie Old of Manhattan's French Culinary Institute even turned the discourse into a recent book, "He Said Beer, She Said Wine: Impassioned Food Pairings to Debate and Enjoy —- From Burgers to Brie and Beyond" (DK Publishing; $25).
Ten years ago, taverns had good beer lists and the kind of greasy absorption fare that eased the way for a second or third pint. Restaurants served wine to pair with food and kept a couple of six packs of Heineken and Amstel Light in case any beer drinkers came knocking.
But now we have a new generation of restaurants where the owners put as much thought into the beer selection as the wine list. Chefs think beer. A few even agree with Townsend that maybe their best dishes really want a tall one.
Consider the beverage sheet at Muss & Turner's in Smyrna. One side of an oversized page lists cult wines that would encourage a few geeks to pick the bottle before considering their food. But then you turn it and find on the reverse side an equally long list of bottled and draft beers, as well as encouragement to try beer instead of wine because it "can be more complex ... and often pairs better with food." Fighting words!
The AJC drinks duo decided to order up a striped bass, then a pork chop and finally a braised beef short rib. They uncorked a large number of bottles (many of which they had brought in, with the restaurant's consent).
They enjoyed the overheard polite conversation of parents whose kids are facing off in a soccer tournament. ("Madison can really hustle!")
"Loved that beer, it goes much better with the bass," Kulers gallantly said.
"But I like both wines better than this beer with the pork," Townsend responded.
They were talking specifics. This wine. That spice. Avoiding the bigger question.
"Do you know what's the best thing to drink with oysters?" Townsend asked. "Guinness."
Kulers blinked. "Did you say oysters?"
"It's a question of affinity," said Townsend, launching into why a double bock would be the ideal match for the pork dish. "The sweetness comes from the malt and it's a natural sweetness against the food so. ..."
"A-ha. So it's a contrast you're looking for," responded Kulers, jabbing the air with his fork.
As the conversation turned in and about, two favorites —- one from each column —- emerged. Kulers brought a Cusumano Nero d'Avola —- a purplish Sicilian red wine with spice, sweet fruit, a little funk and enough acidity to recommend it to dish after dish.
Townsend brought what he called a "freaky" beer —- the Signature Ale, a collaborative effort between American brewer Tomme Arthur of Port Brewing and Belgian Dirk Naudts of Proefbrouwerij, which was both sweet from its secondary fermentation and bitter with hops, with a crisp and incredibly lengthy finish. It, too, ingratiated itself with various dishes.
How? To my palate, by holding its own in contrast against the flavors of the food.
The wine was more sinuous —- curving around the flavors of the food, focusing the saltiness against acid, and brushing tannin against fat like velvet on skin. The brown butter on the fish pulled out a wisp of smoke in the wine, and the garnish of fried collard greens underlined its exotic spice.
Then again, I'm a wine guy, so I probably saw more in the wine.
What, you thought I didn't have a dog in this fight?
> Muss & Turner's, 1675 Cumberland Parkway, Smyrna. 770-434-1114, mussandturners.com
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