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Let’s Play Somm!

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Back from Party in the Hangar, the big Monterey County Growers and Vintners Association’s annual event, where I moderated a couple of public tastings. On Saturday night, one of the best restaurants on the Peninsula, Aubergine,  invited me to dine there, an offer I couldn’t resist despite a very full belly, so I walked the few blocks from my hotel (in total darkness. Question to Carmel-by-the-Sea: Can you not afford streetlights?), where I was greeted by a staff impeccably groomed and friendly. I ordered the four-course menu, with matching wines, and of course the waitstaff brought over plenty of amuses-bouches.

We began with mousse of white corn, mixed with mussel frost, fried mussel and basil, paired with a 2010 Selbach Riesling Spatlese, from the Mosel. The mousse was delicious, sweet and creamy, with little kernals of corn providing a pleasant crunchiness. I’m not sure the occasional lumps of sherbert helped or hurt; at any rate, they seemed unnecessarily fussy, but the drizzle of Ossetra caviar certainly was richly welcoming. The slightly-sweet Riesling perfectly hedged the sweet, spicy and salty elements of the dish.

Next came Maine diver scallops, with umeboshi, sea lettuce and alba mushrooms, paired with a 2004 Vina Valoria Crianza, a white Rioja. Right off the bat I could smell that the wine was oxidized, almost fino-like. Too old. Yet that was precisely the choice of sommelier Marin Nadalin, as my server explained. All right, I thought: this wine, in and of itself, would not have gotten a good score from me, but it’s my philosophy in fine restaurants to place myself in the hands of the sommelier. So, even though I initially recoiled from the wine, I emptied my mind of all preconceptions and decided to allow this creative pairing to dazzle me. It was, I figured, a bold, controversial choice. The wine and scallops didn’t exactly clash–there was no overt incompatibility–but rather, I inferred, it was a sommelier statement that the traditional pairing of wine and food–like with like–need, in the most creative instances, be disregarded, in favor of higher values–values that, perhaps, require greater openness on the diner’s part. So I lingered long over that course, and thought hard about it.

The wine would not have been my first choice. Old, after all, is old, although when it comes to old white wines, there’s a fantastic range of preference on the part of wine lovers, and perhaps old white Rioja is an acquired taste. But surely, I thought, there have to be other wines that would pair better. When my server asked what I thought, I told her I could see what Marin was trying to do, but nonetheless…she asked if I could think of a better pairing. I said, “Since Marin has determined that an oxidized wine is best for this dish, maybe a Manzanilla or fino sherry might be better.” That is, oxidized and fresh, instead of oxidized an old. She smiled and returned with a Manzanilla (Aurora) and another serving of the same dish. The sherry was punchier and more alcoholic, of course, than the Rioja, and perhaps too strong for the dish’s subtleties; but there was a case to be made for it, and I could see a daring sommelier convincingly selling it. Yet neither the sherry nor the Rioja quite worked. I would have next wanted to try something else–a Sancerre, maybe, or an off-dry Riesling–but the next course was beckoning, and we couldn’t play that “Let’s try something else” game all night.

I would love to have the experience, though, of having my pick of dozens of wines to pair with that particular dish. The sommelier, in theory, does have that opportunity, but in practice he has to make a decision, and it is based on what he has available in his cellar. He may change his preferred pairing at any time, of course, if he comes across something more suitable.

On a larger spectrum, though, is what I wrote about earlier this month, on my piece about sommeliers, when I asked, “Anyhow, how hard can it be to come up with a satisfying food and wine pairing?” Not very, in my opinion. Yes, we have those classic pairings (foie gras with Sauternes, Bordeaux with roast beef, Sauvignon Blanc with goat cheese, sherry with consommé) and they are do work; but with these new plates of extremely complicated foods, where sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami all find themselves working in perfectly tense tandem, the art of pairing becomes considerably less precise, and the somm has far greater latitude. I wonder how much the sommelier’s enthusiasm and belief in the pairing influences the diners’ experience of the pairing, along the lines of “If our sommelier says this is an excellent pairing, then it must be.” And then, maybe there are no more perfect pairings. Our foods are not as direct, linear, simple as they used to be, back in centuries past. We have access to the world’s pantry: anything can go with anything else, across transnational boundaries. Because of that, these foods are more accepting of the wines to drink with them: one wine may bond with this element, another that that element, a third provide contrast, a fourth similarity. The point, I guess, is to get the diner to think.

  1. Bill Geofferys says:

    You are being too kind to the somm in question. Presenting oxidized wine as interesting and usefull is but one bit of d-baggery in the modern somm’s bag of tricks. A whole generation of wine “professionals” fooled into thinking any trace of fruit in wine renders it inferior

  2. Christopher says:

    No comment on the wine pairing part of the article, but apparently not having street lights is a “thing” in Carmel, along with not having any addresses on the houses.

    Makes driving at night and trying to avoid pedestrians fun for everyone!

  3. Christopher, I agree. I suppose it is a “thing” but it’s dangerous, inconvenient, insulting for tourists and downright stupid. I wonder if there have been any lawsuits by people run over by cars or simply tripping on cracks on breaking bones.

  4. I am a total wine-geek, but I don’t mind an “old” wine. It might not taste perfect, but it is rare and weird and fun to drink, and interesting enough to inspire a blog post. If he had paired Sancerre with that dish, you would not have stopped to think about it. And any wine novice can pair a white Bordeaux with scallops. You go to a restaurant for a dining “experience”, and that seems to be what you got. So while the wine not might have been great, I think the choice of wine was pretty good

  5. Saw the movie Somm last week which is a documentary about four young friends, Brian McClintic, Dustin Wilson, DLynn Proctor and Ian Cauble who are attempting to pass the Master Sommelier exam. The thing that struck me was their studying seemed to be entirely about wine knowledge and the ability to identify a wine in a blind tasting. The important subjects of wine pairing, good taste, wine service, and culinary knowledge never appeared in the movie.

    It is one thing to know a lot of facts and trivia about wine. It is another to have aestheticism and discrimination in wine and food. The latter come from experience and cannot be learned from flash cards. It is one thing to be theoretical, intellectual, and adventurous about wine pairing, it is another to find things that just taste good.

  6. I was at the Party at the Hangar on Saturday afternoon and enjoyed your sparkling wine presentation. So, I’m amazed at how quickly you were able to write such a descriptive and insightful review. I’m a novice wine columnist and it can some times take me a week or two to put something together. Appreciate your candor and knowledge – keep up the great work!

  7. Hi Bev, I’ve learned a lot over the years how to produce quickly, accurately and creatively. Thanks.

  8. Theory and blind tasting are very important–like an athlete training by working out and studying film–for the somm to be able to perform well–don’t put the cart before the horse. Make no mistake, service is what the sommelier profession is all about (And a darn hard part of an exam!)

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