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It’s not the points, it’s the pairing

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I have never heard of a wine critic who didn’t try to educate the public that the higher scoring wine isn’t always the best one to drink with the food.

I’ve tried to get this point across since forever. Sometimes, the principle is proved in dramatic ways. Marilyn made lamb shanks with roasted polenta on Saturday night. This is a rich dish, being at once creamy, sweet, smoky, spicy, fatty and meaty. It obviously called for a red wine, but which variety?

I immediately ruled out Pinot Noir, for obvious reasons. But that left many other possibilities. In the event, here are the wines I opened (my reviews and scores will be in future editions of Wine Enthusiast):

Mayacamas 2007 Merlot. From Mount Veeder, it had alcohol of 14.5%.

Corison 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon. With 13.6% alcohol, this was a typical Corison Cab, dry and rather austere.

Hunter III 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, with ABV of 14.5%.

Clif Family 2009 Gary’s Improv Zinfandel. The alcohol was 14.5%.

Sanguis 2009 The Prophet Syrah, alcohol at 15.7%.

Sanguis 2008 The Ballad of John Henry Red Blend, alcohol 16.3%.

Can you guess which wine was the perfect match?

The Mayacamas Merlot, good as it was, was simply too lean and tannic to stand up against the food, which made it taste and feel even drier and harder than it already was. Ditto with the Corison.Very lovely wine, ageworthy, but too aloof for the food.

Regarding the two Sanguis wines, I had high hopes. I personally have no problem with high alcohol in California table wines if they’re balanced, which Sanguis wines always are. I’ve been reviewing them for a couple years, and I get off on that heady richness.

I figured, intellectually, that a big, rich, high extract, high alcohol wine was just what the lamb-polenta dish needed, but I was wrong. Oh, the match was okay. I wouldn’t have thrown a hissy fit if you’d invited me to your home for dinner and paired either one. But neither of the Sanguis wines really fully meshed with the food. It was like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

Then we came to that Clif Family Zinfandel, and badda bing! Perfection. It wasn’t just the complementarity of flavors–spiciness, smokiness, sweetness–or the wine’s rich tannins, which cut marvelously through the greasiness of the lamb. It had also to do with the wine’s weight in the mouth. Yes, the Sanguis wines (I’ve been trying throughout this entire post to avoid pluralizing Sanguis as “Sanguises”) were full-bodied and dense, as was the food, but they [the wines] were too full-bodied and sweet and hot. The lamb dish, rich as it is, had an earthiness that was perhaps from the herbs Marilyn added, or the charring of the meat before she braised it, or the polenta’s slight corn starchiness, or a scattering of root vegetables she had put in there; and with these elements the Sanguises (there, I said it) failed.

The Zinfandel by contrast was perfect. Element for element, there was perfect complementarity. The dish itself is slightly rustic, which is just the kind of food Zinfandel loves. It also was less expensive than most of the other wines, and the score I assigned it was lower than for the Sanguises, although not by much. The point being that score alone is simply not enough information to consider before deciding what to pair with what at the table.

So what does point score reflect, anyway? It reflects the success of that bottle relative to all other bottles of that type in the taster’s experience (which is why tasting a whole lot of wine over a long time makes one a better taster). It reflects the reviewer’s impression of that success, or lack thereof. Put into another context, it reflects the degree to which the wine “has texture and pleasure,” in the simple, cogent words of Michel Rolland, as quoted to me by Screaming Eagle’s Armand de Maigret. Point score reflects all these things (and a good deal more), but what it does not reflect, and never cab, is how well or badly a wine will accompany any particular food.

So we’re back where we started. Buy wine for the pairing possibilities, not for the points. That’s the single most important lesson score-obsessed consumers should remember.


My Christmas at Marilyn’s

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There were only 5 of us at the Christmas table, not counting various kids who were on the computer and a 13 year old who piloted a foot stool all around the house as if it were a hobby horse. But it was festive. After all kinds of appetizers–cashews, salami, cheese, crackers–Marilyn served her own homemade honey baked ham, with stewed fruits, oven roasted squashes and potatoes, and a salad of bitter greens, candied pecans and feta cheese which she criticized but that everyone else seemed to enjoy. She’d bought a gigantic chocolate layer cake for dessert, bedizened or should I say festooned with candy canes, sugary elves, garish Santas and little reindeer (FD&C red dye #40), which really added insult to the injury after all the food; and when everyone had ate their fill, and half of the cake was still left over, Marilyn tried to convince someone, anyone, to please bring it home with them. No takers.

Wines? We kept it simple. I brought along a bottle of JCB non-vintage Brut Rosé, a great buy for only $20, rich, delicious and clean. Everybody liked it, even Marilyn’s son and daughter-in-law, who profess to dislike sparkling wine. They made such a fuss over it that the teenaged kids asked for a sip, which they duly received–a tiny one. I personally think our drinking age laws are anachronistic. I do recognize we can’t just let kids drink alcohol anytime they feel like it, but surely we can respect the European tradition of letting them have a little, at the table, in the company of civilized adults, so they don’t end up thinking drinking is just for getting smashed.

What else did we drink? I also brought a bottle of Jarvis 2006 Estate Cabernet. Now that, my friends, is a helluva wine. I don’t know if Jarvis routinely appears on the list of Napa Valley “cult” Cabs. I myself have never prepared such a list, although I suppose if I had to, I could. But I’d be embarrassed; such a silly, pandering thing to do. Anyway I brought the Jarvis, even though I knew it wasn’t the ideal wine for the ham (which Marilyn had told me beforehand was the main dish), because I like for people to love the wines I bring, and I knew that everybody would adore that wine. And they did.

We had a couple Pinot Noirs, and a bottle of Chardonnay, and lots of sparkling water. Marilyn’s brother, Bud, who would be the first to admit he’s not a wine guy but likes to drink anyway, bought a bottle of Barefoot Sauvignon Blanc, which he drank on the rocks. Lest you think dinner with Steve necessarily implies wine snobbery of the highest order, keep that image in mind!

When everyone had gone home, Marilyn and I watched the 2008 documentary, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. (He’d been a favorite of mine from way back in the day, and I like to think the New Journalism he helped to inspire has had its influence on my writing in this blog.) The dogs cuddled up with us, little Annie with Marilyn, her mommy, Gus with me, and Maisie, Marilyn’s big, goofy Golden Lab, curled up snoring by the fireplace. It was cold in Pacifica, and the fog was rolling in as thick as mashed potatoes, but inside it was toasty warm and peaceful, as Christmas evenings should be.


Food Network chef smackdown: Bourdain v.s Deen

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There’s a hissy fit going on in celebrity chef TV land that makes the occasional sparring between wine bloggers seem like a love-in. Seems that Anthony Bourdain gave an interview to TV Guide, in which he called Paula Deen “The worst, most dangerous person [in] America,” accused her of having “unholy connections with evil corporations” and, as if that’s not enough, added the ultimate putdown for a chef: “her food is f—ing bad for you.”

Then Anthony told us what he really thinks about the Food Network’s Guy Fieri. “I look at Guy Fieri and I just think, ‘Jesus, I’m glad that’s not me.’” But wait, there’s more! Anthony on Rachel Ray: “Does she even cook anymore? I don’t know why she bothers.” And, last but not least, the Bourdman on Sandra Lee, also a Food Network star (whose boyfriend happens to be Andrew Cuomo, the Governator of New York). “Don’t mess with her…I hate her works on this planet…”.

Meow!

It didn’t take long for Frank Bruni to get his two cents in. The New York Times’ restaurant critic slammed Anthony for his “gratuitous schoolyard-crass putdown[s]” and accused him of  “moralizing and snobbery,” because he [Anthony] is a “self-appointed sophisticate” who thinks the Food Network cooks are “rubes.”

The whole thing is funny. For once, I’m glad I’m not involved. Been there, done that. But it does raise important issues, since obesity is a huge [no pun intended] problem in the U.S. Anthony is essentially saying the Food Network is the television version of a greasyspoon diner whose cooks show an already fat nation how to get even fatter. Whereas he, Anthony, is more of an Alice Waters kind of guy–eat healthy and green. There’s certainly truth to that. The main problem, of course, with Anthony’s elitism (if we can call it that) is that it costs more–a lot more–to eat along an Alice Waters’ line than to eat Paula Deen’s bacon cheeseburgers between two donuts. That was the essence of Frank Bruni’s criticism of Anthony–that Anthony was insensitive to poor people. (Incidentally, Anthony kinda-sorta apologized to poor Paula yesterday in this radio interview. Also yesterday, Paula Deen, who seems like a real nice southern lady to me, finally fired back at Anthony. He “needs to get a life,” she told the New York Post’s Page Six.)

Well, there is a split between the Whole Foods crowd and the Penny Saver shoppers when it comes to food, and we have the same kind of split here in the wine industry. It’s only to be expected, because we have that split in America with any consumable good. If you’re a Paula Deen person, you drive a Chevy or a Ford pickup. If you’re an Anthony Bourdain person, you drive a BMW, or maybe a Prius. Rachel Ray’s people drink Two Buck Chuck; Anthony’s look to Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. That’s just the way it is–but at least we in the wine biz don’t get down in the mud like Anthony did. We’re much too civilized for that!


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