Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Food Fight

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 vault…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…..


Anonymous said...

Laughed out loud at your closing. You, my adorable smartass, are the master of those.

I'm going to take your advice and hunt down some Blanc de Blanc for my lunch today.

On second thought, maybe I'll just skip the fries. Simple is better, and you can't go wrong with a one-ingredient meal, right?


Samantha Dugan said...

Another Day of Crazy,
Get your bubble on girlie! Do find the fries though, crunchier the better and none of the sweet potato bullshit either. I will envy you as I am scarfing my plain chicken breast and washing it down with....water. Boo. Might have a new plan for dinner though....

John M. Kelly said...

Right on, girlie! These days I'm spending some time to move our customers toward the idea that the "perfect" pairing is so elusive as to be nearly mythical. I tell them that there are way more pairings that work well enough than ones that don't work at all - it's easier to remember the ones that don't work. ("No, you don't want to serve my Syrah with beef; think pork, the fattier the better." Etc.) Finally, I encourage people to pick their wines first, and then build their menu around them - rather than the other way around. SO much easier!

Samantha Dugan said...

I'm with you on the wine first deal. If serving a special wine I plan the menu around that, not the other way around. So many of these chefs and dinner groups just go over the top with the food...really kind of ruins the whole wine portion of the equation. People think chefs get it, have a knack for flavors and whatnot but when it comes to, not so much. I had always felt that way and then after reading a piece recently where the very talented, and dead sexy, Eric Ripert, master of seafood and elegance drinks Bordeaux, red Bordeaux with everything....well it pretty much confirmed my feelings about that.

Valerie said...

Teaching - not preaching - I like that. And the closing - classic. People that have you & Wine Country in their hood do not know how lucky they are. xo

Sara Louise said...

I can't even imagine showing up at a dinner party and being served Moroccan spiced lamb with mango chili chutney with a side of blue cheese grits. That's just nasty.
I like my wine and I like my food but I'm not super anal about it. I have more rules like when I ditch the wine for beer; like with pizza, Mexican or Indian, I have to have beer.

Samantha Dugan said...

Awe...I hope some of those that partake of our services know. We really do take that stuff seriously and see picking a wine like being a part of that special meal...gawd, we are such dorks.

Good for you girlie. That's the way it should be. You would be amazed at some of the "demands" via requests we get for pairing recommendations. "I need a wine, red wine that will pair with seared scallops in a fennel kissed caramel sauce. Oh, and it needs to have a penguin on the label"....scrunched face. And that dish still gives me the yucky kind of goose bumps when I think about it...ewe.

Thomas said...

Blue cheese grits? It's a good thing I have a steel stomach or I would have seen my breakfast hit the keyboard.

I've spent countless hours and years "teaching" people about the subject of wine and then the subject of wine with food. I've learned two major lessons from my work:

1. you virtually cannot teach someone who has not asked to be taught or at least comes at it with an open mind.

2. most people go through life using a minuscule amount of the talent with which we are equipped; one of those talents is the ability (desire) to explore and to accept new experiences.

Ron Washam said...

My Gorgeous Samantha,

You've hit the nail on the head. Which is better than the opposite. Most folks, especially those with only vague wine knowledge, see the pairing of wine and food as a party game with the winner receiving the admiration of the gathered crowd. They're basically right, it is a party game most of the time.

When the food and the wine work together, it's magic. But much of the time it's more like Magic Johnson--which I like to think I have. The old meat compass pointed directly at due Wine Country. What am I talking about?

I love wine and I love food. I loved my Dad and my Mom, but together they were often terrible. Therein lies the joy of being human. Wish I were.

I love you!

Joe said...

As much as I loved the ranting, I was proud to see you put on the brakes and admit that what the customer wants is most important. It KILLS me to hear broad-brushed declarations from friends like "I only drink red", or "I hate all Sauvignon Blanc". They're perceptions based on extraordinarily limited experiences, many of which were probably underwhelming.

But I have to step back and accept that some folks just don't care about it, and that's the way they roll. To that point, I know it drives some people up the wall that I really don't give a shit about a clean shave every day or that I'm not investing my money in the places with the most potential for long-term ROI.

Sorry, I don't give a f*ck about the prospectus on Janus Twenty. You may have more money than me, but you drink like a hobo :)

Samantha Dugan said...

Truly vile no? Blue cheese is a love of mine but sure as shit not in grits...blech.

Ron My Love,
Gawd I love it when you talk about your Magic Johnson...such a perv, thankfully. It is often just a party trick but when it does in fact really work, well that is magic and I dig the hell out of that. The goal for me, rather than perfection, is trying to make sure that both the dish and the wine taste as good or better than when they are on their own....far easier that and the right combination and it can get my "Johnson" going...

Yeah it can be tough when you discover that this thing, this thing that consumes your thoughts, time and money...that other people think it's either lame or simply doesn't care to spend any time thinking or talking about it. For me it can be twice as hard as wine is not only my passion it is the way I make my living, kind of consumes really big chunks of my waking thought. Oh and kid, I have to tell you that what you said about this blog over on the awards nomination site, well it truly melted my heart. You are a sweetheart Joe and I absolutely adore you. Thank you so much....made me blush and junk.

Thomas said...

Speaking of blogger awards, shouldn't the Hosemaster and vinofictions receive awards for being quiet?

I implore every reader to nominate Hosemaster and vinofictions for their silence. It's the least you can do for the blogging world.

Sam, start a movement on Sans Dosage. Ron and I would do it ourselves but, as you see, we are silent.

Samantha Dugan said...

Good idea and I think even in your silence you and Ron are far cooler and smarter than most of the crap out there. I would nominate you guys but I am trying to just stay away this year. One of my readers/friends has alerted me to any nominations I have received, (how I found out about Joe's sweet comments) she is a sweet soul but as many times as I tell her the reality of those awards, well she doesn't seem to get it. Took me getting squeezed out of the running by Chronic Negress for me to get it. Don't get me wrong, don't think I should have won or anything but saying that blog contained better writing than Ron's, Alfonso's or even my silly bullshit....well that was total horseshit. Not sure what kind of deal they got going over there but I wanna just steer clear of it...

Do Bianchi said...

great... GREAT post... and I'm with Thomas when he asks "blue cheese grits?"

loved this one... that's all... :)