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With food pairing, the highest scoring wine isn’t always the best

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The conventional wisdom in wine-geek land is that the highest scoring wines, including Cabernet Sauvignon, are often not the best ones to drink with food, because the wine overpowers the food. I think this is a valid point.

I’ve given extraordinarily high scores this year to Cabernets from Shafer Hillside Select, Marita’s Select Private Reserve, Flora Springs Hillside Reserve, Freemark Abbey Sycamore, Clos du Val JG’s Joie du Vin and others, but if I were cooking dinner at home (or ordering in a restaurant, for that matter), I’d have to think long and hard about what to pair them with. Notwithstanding the fact that all these wines are tannic and need age, the problem is that they’re so potent in themselves–almost a separate food group–that any pairing runs the risk of not doing justice to either the food or the wine.

The 2009 Shafer, for example, is one of the most massive Napa Cabs I’ve ever reviewed, which would count against it were it not for the fine balance of acids, tannins and oak, all of which gives it a sense of wholesome completeness. The default pairing for a wine like that is grilled steak; you can’t go wrong. The wine’s tannins will stand up to the meat’s fatty richness, while a smoky sweetness extends from charred protein to the fire-roasted oak barrels the wine was aged in. But beyond this simple steak recipe, I’d be hard pressed to come up with something more elaborate that wouldn’t rob the wine of its complexities. Of course, you could always slather the steak with gorgonzola cheese, which would amplify the Cab’s fruity sweetness, but that’s not really making it more complicated. It’s just making it, well, cheesier.

Now that I’m only days removed from our Thanksgiving feast, I think I would never have put that Hillside Select on the groaning board. We had all the usual stuff–roast turkey with sausage stuffing, homemade cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, buttered sweet potatoes, green beans, Brussels sprouts with crumbled bacon, and a fantastic arugula, fig and blue cheese salad with Sherry vinaigrette. It was as delicious as could be, but quite frankly the Shafer would have been a minor disaster in that setting. It would have been pulled this way and that, like a galaxy being torn apart by a black hole, with the various sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami tastes of the foods making the wine clumsy and stripped of its glory. Its center of gravity would have been discombobulated. That’s no disrespect to the wine: it’s just saying that these pairing decisions matter.

What did work? A Hendry 2011 Block 24 Primitivo, bearing a Napa Valley appellation. In itself, this is not a great wine. There’s plenty to find fault with. It’s too fruity. It’s too alcoholic. It’s overripe. Compared to the Shafer’s tailored power, the Hendry is rustic. It’s not the sort of wine that does well in a tasting, and so does not earn a high score.

But on that Thanksgiving table, it was ideal. Everybody liked it. They want something they can enjoy with whatever is going into their mouths, and the Hendry did exactly that: it provided yeoman’s service. In fact, most of the foods on the table made it taste better, not worse, as they would have with the Shafer. The sweet foods echoed its fruit. The rich foods tamed its tannins. The creamy foods mitigated its super-ripeness. Throughout it all, the wine was strong enough to preserve its identity. It went with the punches, so to speak. When I practiced traditional Wado karate, we were taught the concepts of nagasu, inasu and noru. Briefly, these refer to the fighter constantly shifting his position, moving out of the enemy’s way, deflecting his attacks, parrying his thrusts, all while remaining in control, looking for eventual dominance. It’s fair to say that the Hendry exhibited this sense of countering everything the food threw at it, and remained harmonious and centered. It ran no risk of losing its center of gravity, because it doesn’t have a center of gravity. It’s all free-floating, a shape-shifter whose protean character made it be friends with just about everything it encountered.

The irony of all this is that a rustic wine can often perform better under such circumstances than the most exquisitely refined wine. Still, I feel comfortable giving higher scores to wines like the Shafer, whose very extraordinariness makes them rather less versatile at the table. The score refers to the wine, in and of itself. What you do with it is another matter.


These days, a man’s place is definitely in the kitchen

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But it wasn’t always.  If you came of age before the era of Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay and Mario Batali, you might be surprised to learn that, until comparatively recently, men were considered genetically and temperamentally unfit to cook.

That was certainly true when I was a little boy. Mom’s place was in the kitchen. Dad’s place was in front of the T.V., there to remain until Mom announced, “Dinner’s ready.” The only time dads were allowed to cook was in the backyard, over the barbecue.

I was reminded of all this when I bought a book in one of our great used bookstores in Oakland. “Cooks, Gluttons and Gourmets” was written by Betty Watson and published in 1962–well before the modern era of cooking began. Fifty one years ago, “cuisine” in America meant French food, snootily served in restaurants with heavy red leather banquettes. Italian meant lasagna, Chinese meant chop suey, Jewish meant corned beef, and that was that. It was the age of iceberg lettuce and frozen T.V. dinners. And nobody had ever heard of Julia Child.

In the 1960s that began to change, albeit quite slowly at first. “It was the popularity of outdoor barbecues that led most American husbands to take an interest in cookery,” Watson writes. “While the kitchen had come to be regarded as woman’s sphere from frontier days onward, cooking out of doors was different. It reminded grown men of Boy Scout days when they roasted hot dogs over campfires. [!!!] Building up a good fire in the charcoal grill was thoroughly masculine. So was the cooking of a steak.”

We’ve come a long way, babycakes! Building a good fire always makes me feel more masculine.

Yet Watson, in her research for the book, was “astonish[ed]…to learn…that cooking in ancient Greece was regarded as an art and cooks were men of stature.” For emphasis, she adds, “Men, yes–note that.” Citing Athenaeus, a second century Greek writer, she refers to his masterwork, Deipnosophistae, in which he “mentions by name twenty authors of cookery books and not one by a woman.”

(Incidentally, here’s one of Athenaneus’s recipes, for Gastris, a sweet nut cake:

Ingredients: 100g each of poppy seeds, ground walnuts, ground hazelnuts and ground almonds; 100g of dried and stoned dates and dried figs; 150g sesame seeds; 75g clear honey; 1/2 tsp ground black pepper; Olive Oil .

Chop the dates and figs then place in a pan with 30ml of the honey, 4 tbsp water and a little olive oil. Bring to a gentle simmer, cover and cook for about 10 minutes, or until the fruits are soft. Take off the heat and allow to cool, then turn into a mortar and pound in the ground poppy seeds, walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds and black pepper until your have a smooth, thick, dough-like paste. Turn into a pan and cook until the dough is thick and of a consistency that can be rolled out. Roll out the fruit and nut paste and cut into squares. Heat the remaining honey in a pan, dip the fruit and nut paste in this then coat in the sesame seeds.)

Men were the chefs to royalty for most of history, and even royalty took a turn in the kitchen. Peter the Great “would often go into the kitchens to knead bread dough with his own hands or pour cheese into molds,” Watson writes. Thomas Jefferson was as interested in food and cooking as he was in wine. Watson tells us he introduced spaghetti into the Americas, was “the first to serve French fries with beefsteak” (and we can imagine that at one time French fries were considered special), “the first to use vanilla as a flavoring,” and “learned to make ice cream while in France, writing down the recipe in his own hand…He imported olive trees” and grew “many rare vegetables such as broccoli and asparagus.” Once in the White House, he “personally supervised the planning of state dinners.” Can you imagine a modern U.S. President being a foodie? He’d be mercilessly mocked, especially by Fox News.

When did men drop out of the kitchen? It seems to have been a by-product of the Industrial Age and of the rise of American capitalism. The man was expected to leave the home early in the morning, work all day, and come home, late and hungry. The little woman was expected to remain barefoot and in the kitchen, and have dinner ready for her man. (See almost any episode of “Mad Men” with Betty Draper in it.) This model remained the dominant one throughout the first half, even the first two-thirds of the twentieth century.

By the 1980s, it definitely had changed. Why? Historians of American culture will have the last word on that. Certainly the re-entry of the man into the kitchen paralleled the rise of the boutique winery movement in California. I can’t prove it, but I suspect the two were related.


Top value wines for today’s everyday fare

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Wine Enthusiast released our Top 100 Best Buys in wine of 2012 last week. They’re all below $20, and represent the best value for the money you can find in today’s market.

It’s particularly important in these tough economic times for a wine magazine to identify good values. When I’m in the position to designate a wine in this special way, it makes me happy. Unfortunately, California wine prices seem like they’re creeping up, so this year, only eleven wines I reviewed made the Top 100 cut:

90 Kendall-Jackson 2010 Avant Chardonnay
89 Pomolo 2011 Sauvignon Blanc
90 Annabella 2010 Chardonnay
88 Gnarly Head 2010 Pinot Grigio
88 Snap Dragon 2010 Riesling
89 Napa Family Vineyards 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon
90 Firestone 2010 Riesling
90 Cameron Hughes 2009 Lot 271 Pinot Noir
90 Leese-Fitch 2010 Sauvignon Blanc
90 Black Box 2009 Merlot
90 Liberty School 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon

Still, that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of additional California wines that represent an excellent quality-price ratio. Here are some others. All are wines I reviewed since last February and gave Best Buy status to:

89 Kendall-Jackson 2010 Vintner’s Reserve Sauvignon Blanc; $13
88 Avalon 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon; $12
88 Chalone 2010 Chardonnay; $13
87 Mirassou 2011 Chardonnay; $12
87 J. Wilkes 2011 Pinot Blanc; $12
87 Oak Grove 2011 Reserve Pinot Grigio; $8
87 Double Decker  2010 Pinot Grigio; $10
87 Smoking Loon 2008 Pinot Grigio; $8
87 Clos La Chance 2011 Estate Sauvignon Blanc; $11
87 Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi 2011 Sauvignon Blanc; $8

I’ve said before and I’ll say it again, please don’t dismiss a wine just because it scores below 90 points! Don’t forget, 87 points is a very good wine–not just good, but very good. These may not be wines to drink with your finest cuts of meat, expensive seafood entrées, pricy cheeses and elaborate sauces, but then again, who among us eats that kind of fare every day? I don’t. For instance, I love a simple dinner of pesto pasta with garlicky shrimp–give me one of those Pinot Grigios anytime! I’ll wok up a bunch of veggies and poultry or fish in garlic and ginger, dress it in sesame oil, tamari, fish sauce and rice vinegar with a sprinkle of brown sugar, toss it with toasted black sesame seeds and happily wash it down with that K-J Avant Chardonnay or the J. Wilkes Pinot Blanc. That Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon is rich enough to drink with a grilled flank steak and roasted potatoes. I love a buttery, creamy bowl of polenta with green peas and shredded chicken or chunks of crab, topped with razor-thin shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano, then liberally sprinked with black pepper, with which almost any of the above white wines will be fine. Even a simple salad of bitter greens, ripe tomatoes, red onions and roasted red peppers, maybe with some ripe avocado, tossed in a little EVOO and red Balsamic, will be happy with the Leese-Fitch Sauvignon Blanc. Roasted chicken is versatile enough to drink with any and all of these wines.

“Simplify, simplify!” Thoreau said, for which our modern day equivalent is K.I.S.S. It’s a good lesson to apply to our cluttered, overwrought lives, which also tend to be overweight these days! The best everyday food, for me, is the simplest, made with fresh ingredients, low in fat, high in nutrition, prepared quickly but lovingly, and savored for sheer deliciousness. These are the kinds of meals to enjoy with inexpensive wine, which, fortunately, today’s marketplace abounds in.


Pork ribs, Napa’s eastern mountains and a top Syrah

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Dinner last Saturday with Maxine and Keith featured barbecued pork ribs for the main course. Spicy, sweet, fatty, smoky, meaty and succulent. What to drink them with?

Maxine thought a white, but I vetoed that. I’m sure there’s a white wine somewhere in the world to pair with pork ribs (maybe an oaky Grenache Blanc or even Sauternes?), but all we had at the time was Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and sparkling wine, and I didn’t think any of those would work. I had earlier tasted some miscellaneous reds, so we had a pretty good selection to try out: a delicious Merriam 2008 Windacre Merlot, a fine Courtney Benham 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon from Stags Leap, Krutz 2009 Krupp Vineyard Malbec, a spicy Kenwood 2010 Jack London Zinfandel, Krutz 2009 Stagecoach Vineyard Syrah, and another Merriam Windacre, this time the 2008 Cabernet Franc.

Which wine do you think paired best?

First, I should explain that the side dishes were Israeli cous cous with black beans, grilled zucchini squash and Brentwood butter and sugar corn grilled in the husk, so sweet it needed neither seasoning nor butter. But grillmeister Keith’s ribs dominated the room like Bill Clinton working a crowd.

I thought, intellectually, that the contenders were the Merriam Cab Franc and the Krutz Syrah. The Cab Franc struck me for its spiciness, and the way the fusion of cherries and oak had a jammy, brown sugary sweetness that would echo the sweet flavors of the ribs. As for the Syrah, well, it was so outstanding on its own, full-bodied and layered, and so smoky-sweet that it seemed like a no-brainer. When the actual taste test went down, the Merriam Cab Franc was okay, but  the Krutz Syrah beat it by a mile. A brilliant pairing, really, in which the wine brought out the intensity of the ribs, and the ribs brought out the sweet depth of the wine, which had the volume to stand up to–but not be dominated by–the ribs’ fatty richness.

This Stagecoach Vineyard has entered my consciousness over the last several years as one of the most noteworthy in Napa Valley, which is to say in all of California. I’d long known the name from the many wineries that vineyard-designate it, but only visited the vineyard for the first time two years ago, when Dr. Jan Krupp, of the owning Krupp family, toured me for an article I was researching on the Atlas Peak appellation. I learned that the vineyard necessarily qualifies only for a Napa Valley AVA because just 30% of it is within the Atlas Peak boundary. The rest of it spills over a kind of canyon that leads to Pritchard Hill, on which another 30% lies. At that time, I had only an imprecise vision of Pritchard Hill (the October 2012 issue of Wine Enthusiast will have my big story on it) and the quality of its wines, but with my focus on it since last Spring, I’ve now realized what great real estate Pritchard Hill is, especially for Bordeaux varieties and Syrah.

There are differences between Atlas Peak, Pritchard Hill and the land inbetween, but the fundamentals still apply: mountain intensity, purity of focus, intense minerality from the rocks. Here’s something I hadn’t known: Dr. Krupp told me it in 2010, so I don’t know if it’s still true today, but “Atlas Peak has more vineyard acreage than all other Napa Valley mountain AVAs combined.”

The fact that Stagecoach qualifies “only” for the basic Napa Valley AVA is another proof that what counts in California is not the legal appellation on the label, but the vineyard name and, behind that, the quality of the viticulture and enology practiced by the producer. Years ago, I wrote an article on California’s greatest vineyards. Stagecoach wasn’t in it. Were I to write that article today, it certainly would be (and some of the vineyards I included would come off!). Cabernet is Stagecoach’s forté, as evidenced by wineries inlcluding Paul Hobbs, Krutz, Conn Creek, Sequoia Grove, Charles Creek, Krupp, Palmeri and Miner, but as we have seen Syrah can be spectacular. If all Syrah were that good, Syrah would have an honored place in the pantheon of California varietal wines, a place it does not current enjoy.


Inside the somm’s mind: pairing 18 wines with 22 courses

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Mark Bright is co-owner and wine director of Saison, which he founded three years ago with his friend and business partner, chef Josh Skenes. The restaurant has lately become famous for being the most expensive in San Francisco, despite its location in one of the city’s edgiest neighborhoods, the Mission District. A 22 course tasting menu, featuring 18 wines, will set you back $498. I wondered how Bright, a Bellagio alum who came up through the Michel Mina empire, and who calls Rajat Parr his “mentor,” goes about pairing wines under such complicated and challenging conditions. Skenes may change a course recipe in the middle of an evening, adding an ingredient that completely changes the directional compass of a dish, thus forcing Bright to quickly come up with a new wine to pair it with. We had a nice little chat about all this yesterday. Here are excerpts from that conversation, in what you can think of as a tour of a sommelier’s conscious mind.

First, Bright on that $498 price tag. “You have to realize, the ingredients are so expensive. We have a fulltime forager on staff! It’s not a price we aimed for, it just fairly covers our costs. Take the caviar course. The caviar itself is $20-$25 per serving, and that’s just one ingredient for one dish, plus there’s 21 other courses. Some courses have 40 ingredients in them. So it’s about us giving the diners everything we’ve got.”

Which comes first, the wine or the food? “It always starts with the food. I’ve worked so closely with Josh for so long that, when he explains what direction he’s going, I get a preliminary style of wine I think will work. Josh will tell me the dish’s components, I’ll taste them, separated on their own, to see their acidity levels, flavors and textures, and I’ll have it down to 2 or 3 wines at that point. If he changes something suddenly–which happens all the time, many things can happen in a kitchen, maybe he just wants to try something new–I’ll taste just the component change, not the entirely prepared new dish. It’s not a given that the wine has to change, but if the dish changes dramatically, then you have to change the wine. The thing is, every wine brings out different things in a dish. One wine might bring out the food’s earthiness, while another brings out the high tones and a third brings out the acidity. There’s no right pairing; there are a lot of amazing pairings, but you can never say there’s one perfect pairing with a dish. As long as both the food and the wine are enhanced, you’re doing something right. Also, wine grows and matures in the bottle, so in any given dish, if the ingredients remain the same over time, at some point that wine will take itself out of the running.”

Do we collectively get too precious and stressed out over perfect pairings? “You know what? A lot of the time, that does happen, and you know why? I see people doing wine pairings just to be creative and outlandish, completely forgetting the one important fact: it has to be delicious! More than it has to be creative. When I see people do that, I’m like, Wow, what are you trying to prove? You can’t force a good pairing. It just has to be delicious.”

What does Bright eat and drink at home? “Ice cream sandwiches! But honestly, I eat a lot of fish, because my fiance’s Chinese. I love Indian food. An earthy, meaty Syrah works great with it. Cornas, amazing, mind blowing. But I also keep a lot of beer in the fridge. When you’ve been drinking wine all day, there’s nothing better than a cold beer.”


Random notes on a dinner at Saison

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Last night’s dinner at Saison really was a tremendous experience. I lost track of how many courses were served. The official menu lists twelve, but there were more than that, especially with the desserts, which just keep arriving, one after another.

This seems like a lot of food, but in reality, it’s not: most of the courses could literally fit into a teaspoon. In fact, I was still hungry at the end, so much so that I made myself a bacon sandwich when I got home.

The point of an experience like dining at Saison, then, is not to fill your belly but to appreciate, on an intellectual and esthetic basis, what the kitchen is capable of doing. While I took notes on each course, they were of necessity incomplete: when I asked our server to tell us about a course listed simply as “caviar,” he got as far as saying it was from American white sturgeon, on a grilled bread gelée, and there was something about chicken, but then he stopped himself short and said that, if he were to explain every single ingredient, and how it had been cooked, he would be there forever. I wrote, concerning that caviar course, “It tastes like one thing,” while in reality it was many different things, all put together so seamlessly that it had the purity and simple beauty of, say, a bite of lobster or of a ripe, plump pear.

And so it was with every course: the pea and parmesan broth, which was actually a custard, the tiny, succulent scallop plate, the vegetables–harvested or foraged in San Francisco, although no one in the restaurant would tell me exactly where (from some hill someplace, I would think: Bernal Heights?), the brassicas, mustard-style bitter greens, also foraged, a rich morsel of rabbit, lamb, a farm egg. The word that kept occurring to me was umami, which to my way of thinking means so much more than merely savory. These are bites of food that stun: your first reaction is OMG, and then you experience the brief ecstasy of such pleasure, and finally your last reaction is a repeat of OMG, and then the server shows up with yet another course.

I liked Saison’s ritual of having a different chef present each course, although I wish the restaurant would hand out little prepared pages of information on each food, instead of the chef stating rapid fire what it was. So much information, so little time to absorb it, or to even hear each word distinctly, with the noise of human conversation and rock music all around.

The service was impeccable, the staff charming and well-informed, the dining room smallish and warm. Saison’s location is a little edgy: at Folsom Street and 17th Street, a few blocks south of the blossoming Valencia Corridor, in a neighborhood that’s as gritty as when I lived there, 25 years ago. Just in front of Saison, I met, by sheer happenstance, an old friend, Amy Cleary, who used to work at the University of California Press when they published my two books. She lives in the neighborhood and told me that that stretch of Folsom Street is rapidly gentrifying. (I kind of figured that out when I saw the new Mission Bowling Club, an authentic bowling alley with restaurant and bar, a block from Saison.) I wonder what the denizens of the Mission District will do, where they will go, as their rents soar and they’re squeezed out. Still, walk along Mission Street, between, say, 16th and 18th, and it remains a riot of bodegas, thrift shops and dive bars, the sidewalks choking with individuals of colorful, if questionable, appearance, the scent of pot everywhere, beggars sitting on the curbs, staggering drunks, young kids on stoops listening to Mexican music on the radio, the Spanish language as common as English, shopkeepers pulling down burglar-proof metal doors on their furniture stores as the business day comes to an end, young mamas pushing baby carriages, old people pacing their way carefully along the crowded sidewalks, carrying bags of bananas and mangoes and bread, police cars routinely patrolling this high-crime area, and all the hipsters, pouring into the clubs and bars as soon as their workday is over, starting their drinking early. Speaking of which, try the Venetian Coast cocktail at Bar Locanda. Tequila, luxardo bitters, lemon, cucumber and salt. A magnificent achievement, and the bartender is pure Nureyev, without the tights. I had one right before the Saison dinner commenced, at 6:30, the perfect way to begin an evening of pleasure (as was the bacon sandwich the perfect way to end it).

 


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