an almost magical element to wine dinners done right. You take a sip
of wine, and then you take a bite of food, and then you taste them
together. Trying them separately, they are delicious, but when tasted
together, they become sublime.
The food and
wine elevate each other, and it seems as if each bite, each sip, is
more perfect than the last.
At the Mason
Street Grill’s Wagner Family Wine Dinner, chef Mark Weber made a
corn-crusted summer sand dab, served over cucumber
"linguine" with a touch of preserved lemon in the mix. He
also blended a bit of anise in his sauce, which played to the
sweetness of the fish and in turn matched the brightness and the
minerality of the 2012 Mer Soliel Silver Chardonnay. The unoaked
chardonnay is aged in cement fermentation tanks instead of oak
barrels. Diners audibly sighed as they tasted the tender fish and
sipped the delicate wine.
"We had a
lot of fun pairing these foods and wines together," says Weber,
who worked with sommelier Jessica Barger. "Did the cucumber
work?" His admiring audience answered with a resounding
work appeared effortless and more than a bit charmed, that kind of
culinary alchemy doesn’t just happen — there’s a lot of work
done behind the scenes to achieve that perfect pairing. For this
particular dinner, Weber was already familiar with the Wagner
portfolio of wines, but he tasted 15 of them before he and his team
settled on the five they chose for the dinner.
picks out aromas or flavors from the wine and then plans dishes to
match those aromas. For example, to match a 2013 Bel Glos Dairyman
Pinot Noir, he braised beef cheeks, but he served them with
chanterelle mushrooms and smoked his potato puree to match the earthy
and smoky aromas from the wine.
Tasting — and
more tasting — is where many wine dinners start, and sometimes, it
continues until the actual dinner. "Sometimes on the day of the
dinner, we’re still tweaking the sauce of a dish," says Patty
Robinson, who owns the Union House in Genesee Depot with her husband,
dish and wine is tested way ahead of the dinner, sometimes the
winemaker brings a different vintage, and sometimes, a dish doesn’t
quite work as well as planned. At a recent all-Shiraz dinner, Patty
originally had intended to serve a sparkling Shiraz with a bittersweet
chocolate cake and caramel fennel cookie, but "the cookie really
killed the fruit in the wine," she explains. Patty instead
developed a dark sauce for the cake and eliminated the caramel all
With a good wine
dinner, the food and the wine bring out the best in each other, says
Jessica Bell, certified sommelier and owner of My Wine School.
"When I do a wine dinner, I’m always looking for a ‘one plus
one equals three effect,’ that is to say, when the wine and food
come together, they are greater than they are separately. That is a
To get that
great pairing, you have to understand both the food and wine elements.
For the Robinsons, they start by looking at the tasting notes on the
wine — from both the distributor and the winemaker — but Curt also
scours the Internet looking at other tasting notes from sommeliers,
wine sites and wine sellers. If all the notes, for example, highlight
a eucalyptus aroma, then he’ll make note of that when he tastes the
wines. After the research, the Robinsons and their chef, John Mollet,
sit down and taste the wines together and brainstorm about flavors and
matches. "The key is, you want to make the wine shine," Curt
says. "I’ll tell you a secret. If you make the wine taste good,
then the food tastes even better."
If you overdo
the food, even if it’s really amazing cuisine, the pairings don’t
work, Curt points out. He and his wife were guests of Gina Gallo at a
fancy wine dinner in downtown Chicago once, and the wines were amazing
until they tasted the food. The chefs had obliterated the wine’s
aromas by making dishes that were too strong. "They killed every
one of the wines," Curt says. "It was really sad — they
didn’t play the food to the wines. Instead, they said, ‘The food
is the star.’"
Weber says that
he often spends time pondering the wines and the foods, and he then
comes up with a rudimentary menu, which is then tested and tweaked.
The night of a wine dinner, he does a tasting of each course with the
wines for his staff so they understand how the foods and wines work
comes down to understanding what flavors there are in both the foods
and wines," Bell says.
For example, if
a wine has a peach aroma, you might want to add peaches to the dish.
That’s a simple way to match flavors. But a good chef or sommelier
will look to incorporate herbs or spices that marry well with peaches.
"Rosemary, for example, goes well with peach," she says. A
fruity wine might also pair well with a nutty dish, as nuts and fruits
go well together.
wine and food, Bell says that when designing dishes and building
flavor upon flavor, look to the wine as an actual element of the food.
"I tell people to look at your wine as the last ingredient in a
recipe," Bell says.
desserts, Patty says to never make the dessert sweeter than the wine.
"If the dessert is too sweet, you lose the fruit in the
wine," she says. For a chocolate dessert, that might mean
changing milk chocolate to bittersweet or adding more cocoa powder to
adjust the sweetness accordingly.
During most wine
dinners, guests compare notes and jot down favorites, and guests vote
for a favorite pairing. At the Wagner dinner, an informal poll had
guests divided between the beef cheeks and the sand dab as to which
dish was the best pairing.
very interesting after the dinners are over, and we are at the door
meeting the guests as they leave," Patty says. "At this last
dinner, everyone had a different favorite. Some people loved the
venison and kangaroo, saying it was the best they’d ever had, but
others loved the dessert match."
venison and kangaroo were served with a chipotle mac ‘n cheese and
paired with a 2008 Henry’s Drive Reserve Shiraz, and the chocolate
cake was paired with a 2012 Paringa sparkling Shiraz.
The bottom line
is everyone has different tastes, Curt says. "Order the wine you
want and the food you want," he says. "Don’t be a slave to
pairings just for the sake of pairings. If someone says a wine goes
really great with headcheese, but you don’t eat headcheese, then
order something else."