Friday, July 12, 2013

Everybody Was Kung Food Fighting

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…..


Ron Washam, HMW said...

My Gorgeous Samantha,
Yeah, that food and wine thing is mostly about valiant attempts with the occasional home run. Sommeliers (was I ever really one?--hard to remember some days) get asked those pairing questions all the time, too. And after a lot of thought, and a lot of questions about the food and exactly how it's prepared, and a final couple of recommendations, comes the questioner's casual remark, "But I really just like Pinot Noir." I used to always wonder why they bothered to ask me when they already knew what they were going to drink, appropriate to the meal or not.

And yet if it's Pinot Noir that makes them happy, so be it. You've got all that right, as you always have. People are magic. It's our place, I guess, to just shake our heads in amazement.

I love you so!

Romes said...

So what red wine should I have with my bits of chocolate for dessert?

Romes said...

Heeeee heeeeee heeeeee, I crack myself the fuck up! Might be that I'm downing a bottle of rosé on an empty stomach after just giving up on work for the day -started at 8:30?

Thomas said...


Banyuls is the answer, for most of us.


Yes indeed, you have to just let them be. Took running a tasting room to figure it out--fast. First week, a woman announced that she drank only Riesling with everything that she ate. I asked if that included steak and tomato sauce; she asked, "Why wouldn't it?"

Sonya C said...

Great article Sam. It took me a long time to admit that you just can't find the perfect wine for every dish. Imagine my heartbreak when I had to admit that kimchee just wasn't meant for Burgundy, white or red.

Marcia Macomber said...

I was making plenty of scrunchy faces here just reading your descriptions of mis-matches! But you said it in your post - some folks are primarily interested in the interaction with YOU, the expert, and less cognizant of whether or not their kooky food selections will pair perfectly. They love the experience of seeing what you come up with -- good or not quite so fabulous.

The picture of the burger with nearly the whole kitchen sink on top was it in a nutshell. Beer!

The fun part is that food/wine pairings are endlessly entertaining, fun to explore and challenging in a good way to see what mixes well, fantastically or was a disaster on the palate. Smile! You provide a great service that people seek out!

Samantha Dugan said...

Ron My Love,
You and I have discussed this a bunch of times and you know, better than most actually, how much I stress and love the whole pairing thing. I fucking love the challenge and the reward when it does work and my customers are thrilled. Gawd, I am such a dork....remind me again why it is you love me? I love you too!!

Asshole. That being said Thomas is right, if you MUST have wine with your chocolate I recommend Banyuls although for your joker ass I should say Fino Sherry.

We do what we can and just have to be happy that people are drinking wine right?

I miss you!!! And yes, kimchee is a wine killer but, damn I love it so.

Beer is often the best wine for the job but there are always people that insist on having wine, no matter how inappropriate. Not much I can do there other than shrug and smile and try and find the least gross pairing. Mostly though, when they are like that, I will just fine the best "X" and just give up on the whole pairing thing...then everyone is happier.

Sara Louise said...

I'm still trying to figure out what would possess someone to serve blue cheese grits with Moroccan spiced lamb. Color me baffled.

bodyworkerart said...
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bodyworkerart said...

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