This past Sunday, four of Atlanta’s most talented sommeliers and I put on a fabulous show for a fabulous cause. The cause was Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign. The fabulous show was that us five sommeliers worked with five Atlanta chefs to create a one-of-a-kind dining experience for about 350 people. Proceeds of the dinner and auctions funded after-school and summer food programs for disadvantaged children in Georgia. (We raised over $110,000!)
Leading up to the dinner, a curious, young whippersnapper asked me: “How do you do the wine pairings for something like that?”
The question kind of floored me because as I started to reply, I realized the answer is not a simple one. In fact, it exceeds the bounds of this column.
So, Lucy, here’s your condensed guide to amazing wine dinners.
Wine pairing vs. wine dinner. A simple wine pairing, where you have a dish and you whip out a tried-and-true friend from your cellar, is fun and a whole lot easier than preparing for a wine dinner. Wine dinners require the sommelier to acquire and prepare dozens if not hundreds of glasses, prepare all the wines and find amazing bottles in sufficient quantities. The wines should progress so the current wine does not step on the toes of the wine in the previous course. “The wine you’re drinking should never leave you longing for the one you just had” is an important axiom to keep in mind. Sometimes, this may run afoul of the carefully laid plans of the kitchen.
Chef plays a huge role. Not an uncommon conversation: “Chef, can we please move the pasta course ahead of the quail course? And can we lose the sweet potato souffle?” Beyond refusing to shuffle the menu to accommodate the progression of the wines, the chef can turn a great wine dinner into a “bleh” wine dinner with a flick of his or her fingers … literally. Most sommeliers can reluctantly deal with sweet items on a plate (or progress with different wines), however, we have no control on the final seasoning of the dish. This almost always comes down to the amount of salt the chef uses. Underseasoned dishes, at best, dull a wine’s flavors or, worse, create unintended, unpleasant clashes.
White wine only with fish? Puh-leeze! Sorry, Lucy, but there is no “playbook” for wine pairings. It is more accurate to say that a decent wine will go with any decently prepared dish than it is to say there’s only one wine or a class of wine for a particular dish. I’ve paired a particularly crisp California pinot noir with tuna tartar (a revelation to me), and I’ve served a luscious white Burgundy with red meat. I’m not opposed to serving red wine before white wine, either. Courageous? No. Open-minded? I’d like to think so.
OK, Mr. Kulers, How ’bout a couple of suggestions? If there are a couple of guidelines I follow, they are these:
1.) Power with power. I never want the wine to overshadow the food and vice versa. I cannot think of a situation that allows a delicate, light-bodied pinot grigio from Collio, Italy, with a grilled cowboy rib-eye. And even if you did sign off on this choice, aren’t you disregarding dozens of other, better choices?
2.) Don’t reinvent the wheel; get your wine where your food is from. Not too long ago, I found myself in Rome, Italy, and in front of me was a plate of the simplest pasta dish known to man, cacio e pepe (cheese and black pepper), and a glass of Frascati, a white wine made in the hills 30 miles southeast of Rome. I’m pretty sure this is served in heaven at least once a day.
I won’t bore you with why this classic Roman dish went so spectacularly with this classic Roman wine. It just did. Food and wine from the same region possess a certain magic. Muscadet Sevre et Maine and oysters. Riesling and German sausage. Medium-bodied Spanish garnachas and tempranillos with paella. Truffle risotto and nebbiolo wines, both found in relative abundance in Italy’s Piemonte region.
Lest you think that the New World is left out of the place-with-place mix, think about plank-roasted salmon with Oregon pinot noirs. Grilled beef dishes with Argentine malbecs. Some of the best carnitas I’ve ever had were at a northern California winery famous for its red zinfandel.
Lucy, my best advice is to taste and smell everything and develop an opinion. This means time and effort. Sorry, no top-five wine cellar hacks here. If you ask my colleagues at the No Kid Hungry dinner (Caleb Hopkins of Atlas Restaurant, Clarke Anderson of No. 246, Joon Lim formerly with Rathbun’s now with Vine Vault and Linda Torres of The Ritz-Carlton Buckhead), they would tell you there’s no substitute for experience and hard work. (To contribute to No Kid Hungry, go to www.nokidhungry.org.)
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Gil Kulers is a sommelier and maitre d’ for an Atlanta country club. You can reach him at email@example.com.