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The perfect pairings
Attend a wine dinner and taste how food and wine together are tantalizing for the taste buds

Photos by Dan Bishop

January 2015

There’s 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 "Yes!"

Though their 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.

Weber usually 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, Curt.

Though every 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 together.

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 magical pairing."

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 together.

"It really 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.

With pairing 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.

In pairing 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.

"It’s 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."

The grilled 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."

This story ran in the January 2015 issue of: