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The somm’s evolving role in today’s modern restaurant

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I experienced an interesting approach to wine-and-food pairing the other day at Hakkasan San Francisco, which opened recently in the Financial District.

The somm staff invited me to participate in their weekly tasting. This is where they take 5 or 6 wines they’re considering for placement on the wine list. Then, the kitchen prepares a dozen small plates of menu items. The team tries each of the foods with each of the wines; everybody gets a chance to voice an opinion, and, eventually, a decision is made as to whether or not the wine in question is versatile enough to go with the food.

Indulging in this kind of exercise seems like a lot of fun, and it is: Hakkasan’s Asian-inspired food is fantastic. But it also underscored the complexities of coming up with perfect pairings. For one thing, not everyone agrees about everything. What works for me might not work for you. Also, the kind of food they serve at Hakkasan is very complex. Each diner doesn’t just have one plate of food, like a steak or broiled salmon. Instead, there’s lots of little things, and I assume parties share their plates with each other. So everybody’s eating and drinking all kinds of stuff, which kind of makes the concept of “the perfect pairing” obsolete.

We were asked to rate each wine and food pairing on a scale of 1-5, where 1 is “undrinkable” and 5 is “thrilling.” I had only one five: a sake made from red rice with braised pork belly. (The other somms seemed surprised I had only a single five.) I had no “undrinkables,” but  I did have a bunch of 2s (acceptable). These were mostly for a Kabinett Riesling from the Nahe. I found it too sweet for most of the plates, which again surprised the somms: they loved it. To me, sugar in a wine should never dominate the food, but with this Riesling, it did. For example, the jasmine tea chicken had an earthy, flowery bitterness that the wine’s sugar clashed with. In theory you might think that a slightly sweet Riesling, with its natural high acidity and low alcohol, would go well with Chinese food, but for me, it didn’t.

The most surprising wine was a Wynns 2011 Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon, from Coonawarra (13.5% alcohol). Cabernet with Chinese food? Absolutely! I wouldn’t have known that before the tasting. It went well with almost everything, from the har gau (shrimp dumplings) and puffed daikon to the vegetarian chicken, tofu aubergine clay pot and Champagne cod.

Another wine that was tremendously versatile was a Chardonnay-Roussanne, made privately for Hakkasan by Qupe from Bien Nacido fruit. It was so balanced that it seemed to find its sweet spot beside almost everything. Another red wine, a Chateau Unang Grenache-Carignane from the Côtes du Ventoux, was fine with some things (scallop shumai, crispy duck salad) but disturbing with others (the har gau brought out its tannins, while its fruit overwhelmed the daikon puff).

The more I hang out with sommeliers the more interesting I find their job. I asked them what their biggest problems or hassles were; I thought they’d say impolite, pushy customers but, no, it was merely the organizational and logistical difficulties of being on the floor during dinner and having so many things happening at the same time. Lots of juggling. You have to multi-task to be a somm (or server, for that matter).

Thinking about perfect pairings, there are really very few of them, especially with Asian fare, which can be mild, savory, sweet, spicy and fatty, all at the same time—plus packed with umami. It’s not like 100 years ago, when you drank Yquem with the foie gras or red Bordeaux with the beef—simple pairings that made sense because they didn’t have this fantastic array of international ingredients available. Nowadays, a wine has to do double- or triple-duty, pairing well with a myriad of things, and if there are 4 or 6 people in the party, it has to be as nimble on its feet as a Cirque du Soleil acrobat. The somm’s job is to find those wines and then help the customers understand them. (Of course, they also have to work within a financial framework so that the wines they buy make business sense.) I find myself continuing to be fascinated by the evolving role of the sommelier in today’s modern American restaurant scene.


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.


The somm: now more than ever, or endangered species?

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Eric Asimov’s retelling of the sommelier-customer experience in a restaurant (the somm “stands between us and humiliation” and inspires “doubt and dread…to make cowards of us all”) was written with the tongue-in-cheek style he’s known for. In lesser hands this language would be hyperbolic bloviation, a bad writer’s attempt at columnistic color. In Eric’s keen control, it exists on some meta level of shared irony.

On to what I take to be his main points: “Sommeliers can be your best friends” and “No guests want to appear cheap…”. I think of a sommelier (or wine director, or whoever is the most knowledgeable wine person on the floor) as someone of potential use in an expensive restaurant. In the affordable ethnic restaurants I eat at a lot–Ethiopian, Vietnamese, Indian, Mexican, soul food–you don’t need anyone to help you, nor would you get much help if you asked, nor is the “wine list” (such as it is) worth considering. Beer, from the country whose cuisine the restaurant prepares, is the ticket.

But at what I call the white tablecloth dining experience (although white tablecloths seem to have gone out of style in all but the snootiest French places, replaced by zinc, steel, natural stone, wood or even marble) it’s a different story. You generally want a nice wine. But, as we all know, the wine list can be daunting. Eric is entirely correct when he tells people to be upfront with the somm and tell him what kind of wine you like and how much you’re prepared to pay. That leads to Eric’s second main point: No one wants to appear cheap.

Isn’t it a funny aspect of human personality that this is so? It has to do with our peculiar attitudes toward money. We like money, but we’re secretive about how much we actually have, even, sometimes, with our friends and relatives. Does anyone know how much you actually make a year? Maybe your accountant and your spouse. Part of human nature is to want to be seen as happy to spend money, even if we’re not. It’s not that people don’t want to appear to be cheap, it’s more that they want to appear to be nonchalant about spending. It somehow seems big-natured. It’s churlish to be seen as overly concerned about spending; it makes the person seem materialistic and shallow–or so the argument goes. So even someone who’s pressed for money may find himself shelling out more than he’s comfortable with on a bottle of wine, especially if he thinks he has to impress the people he’s with.

Should a good sommelier–which is to say, not just one in charge of her list, but one who’s also sensitive to human needs and emotions–be able to pick up on such psychological nuances? I’d argue yes, but I’ve never been a somm, and anyway, the pressure to upsell the customer has always to be there. My favorite type of upscale restaurant is one with a small wine list, not the gargantuan Manhattan telephone book doorstoppers that win wine list awards. I enjoy browsing through those monsters, because I like seeing the names and regions and prices. But, far from those lists being helpful to me, they’re actually a turnoff–and they make me feel that even the best sommelier can’t be aware of every bottle and how it goes with every item on the menu. I actually breathe a sigh of relief when I go to a restaurant that has 20 or 30 good wines on the list: a bubbly, a rosé or two, a few lighter-boded reds, full-bodied reds, crisp, dry whites, light, floral, off-dry whites, and something white and oaky. Makes me think more highly of the proprietor–that he gave careful thought to choosing a handful of perfect wines for his food, instead of throwing everything on there including the kitchen sink.

I’ve always thought that we make too much of the wine-and-food pairing thing anyway. Too fussy, precious and pretentious. I remember an event, years ago, at Fetzer, when the Fetzer family still owned it. They had (and maybe still have) a fabulous organic garden outside of Hopland, up in Mendocino County, and their farmer was growing a bunch of different basils. We had a tasting: the object was to determine which of a range of Zinfandels went best with each kind of basil. It was fun, but I thought that if a home cook had to go through this whole megillah every time she entertained, she’d go nuts.

If you want to make a tomato sauce with basil and drink Zinfandel with it, does it really matter if the basil is purple or green, licoricey or sweet, lemony or cinnamonny? I’m a pretty zealous home cook and, like most of you, I enjoy putting together fairly complex dishes and then pairing them with wines I think will go with them. But at some point, this whole thing hits the tipping point, because after the first sip, hopefully you and your guests will forget about the dilettante aspects of pairing and get down to the serious business of enjoying the food, wine and conversation.

Anyhow, how hard can it be to come up with a satisfying food and wine pairing? Marilyn came to dinner yesterday and for an appetizer had I planned a mozzarella, tomato and basil salad, to take advantage of the last of the season’s Heirlooms. Then I realized I didn’t know what to drink with it, so I asked my Facebook friends. I got scores of suggestions: Champagne, Sardinian Vermentino, Chianti Classico, Barbera d’Asti, Gavi di Gavi, a Czech or German Pilsner, Chardonnay both oaked and unoaked, Bandol rosé, Gruner Veltliner, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, vodka. I bet any of those would be a pretty good pairing with that salad. After all, my Facebook friends, like my blog readers, are some of the most food savvy people in the world. They may not have “M.S.” after their names, but they know what tastes good with what.

So what did I have with the salad? Nothing! Before Marilyn came, I suddenly became ravenous for–you guessed it–mozzarella, raided the fridge and ate the entire container. So potstickers had to substitute for the salad, and with them we enjoyed Deschutes Inversion IPA which was really good.

The future of the sommelier, in my opinion, is to evolve into more of an all-service floor guide for the wine, beer, spirits and food, rather than a wine-oriented specialist. Sort of a maitre d’. Someone who can converse about everything concerning the dining experience: the restaurant’s architecture and interior design, history, philosophy, and the cultural matrix in which the Chef’s cuisine exists. It would be much more comfortable to interact with that person than with someone who made you uncomfortable.


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.”


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