Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Myth of Wine Pairing

Now there's an attention-grabbing headline.

First, what I'm not saying: I'm not saying that there isn't a technique to finding wines that match well with foods that you're eating. I believe that whole-heartedly.

What I am saying: I'm saying that this isn't an elusive art, it's not particularly difficult, and that it is a profoundly inexact science. It's an opportunity to have a good time, not the secret to infinite pleasure and divine knowledge.

When pairing wine with food you're dealing in broad strokes. Here are the basic principles that I use:

1. Work as I would with food. How do come up flavors on the plate? You look for complimentary or supplementary flavors. Acid cuts through fishiness: lemon juice with salmon. Sweetness offsets spicy (and vise versa): jalapeno cornbread. Earthiness compliments creaminess: smoked salmon and cream cheese.

What does this mean? It means I'll usually go with a dry tart white wine with most seafood-centric dishes. Italian and Spanish whites are usually good bets. I'll go with a lighter varietal for lighter food. Grilled salmon gets a nice robust muscadet. Braised squid gets a vermentino or arneis. Chicken and pasta in cream sauce? A medium-bodied earthy red like a southern Rhone or a Nero d'Avola. Spicy food (particularly east Asian or Indian cuisine) will almost always get an off-dry gewurztraminer, riesling, or similar Alsatian/Northern European white varietal.

2. Like doesn't always treat like. Just because you have a butter sauteed scallops doesn't mean you need to have a buttery chardonnay. A steak doesn't always need to take a big meaty red. It's more important to focus on the flavor profiles of the dish taken as a whole then on the characteristics of the central ingredient. If your scallops are seasoned with earthy, aromatic herbs you might find that a light, fruit-focused red would work well. A steak broiled with salt and pepper and topped with a little horseradish might lend itself as well to pinot noir as to cabernet or zinfandel.

One break from this rule? Generally speaking the wines of a country or region pair best with the cuisine of that country or region, especially when we're talking Old World. The wine and cuisine of Europe have been inextricably tied to each other in a co-evolution for centuries if not millenia. Burgundy takes to northern French food. Bordeaux takes to western French food. Muscadet takes to the shellfish-heavy cuisine of coastal France. You get the picture.

3. Start with the wine. If I'm cooking at home I'll sometimes decide on a wine I want to drink first and then figure out what I'm going to eat. A nice wine that you're familiar with will benefit from your being able to fine-tune the flavors of your dinner. The wine is a fixed thing, nothing's going to change how it tastes. Dinner is infinitely malleable. Got a nice off-dry gewurz? Steam up some curry mussels and call it a party. Nice minerally syrah? Stew some rabbit.

4. It doesn't really matter. While you will encounter that occasional brilliant wine pairing (in the same way you'll encounter a transcendent entree instead of food that's just good, or even great), that's more a product of circumstance and serendipity than skill and knowledge. Most of the time you'll be happy with whatever wine you choose as long as you pay attention to your basics. Besides spending money on food and wine you like is more important than trying to play some abstract game of chess with your palate.

One final bit of advice that I can't stress enough: the more wines that you taste and become familiar with the better you'll be at pairing them. If you limit yourself to California's Big Five you're cutting out 90% of your pairing possibilities. And remember, a good wine list at a good restaurant will have scores of unusual wines that will work wonderfully with their food, even if you haven't heard of the varietals.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

A Wine List

I've often written in reviews about a wine list being "good" or "bad." Actually, I don't think I wrote about a wine list being "bad," but I could if I want to. I swear. I think I did call Stokes' wine list lackluster or some such. I could check the archives of my own blog, but that would involve opening a new window or tab. That would be an abuse of technology.

So, do I determine the quality of a wine list? What should you look for if you want to be like me?

Here's what I look at, in this order:

1. Breadth
2. Price
3. Appropriateness for the cuisine
4. Recognizability

What's breadth? It's just that. How many different varietals, how many different countries, regions, and to a lesser extent, vintages. A lot of bad wine lists, mostly found at moderately expensive restaurants in the suburbs and tourist destinations, are heavily loaded with chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and zinfandel. At some you're unlikely to find even a handful of wines that aren't from California's Big Five.

Sure, throw in the obligatory California chardonnays but also give me a breadth of white burgundies. But then there's that whole issue: wine lists at some of the finest restaurants will be limited entirely to California, French, and Italian varietals. This is not so much a bad thing, because these three regions obviously offer a huge variety of flavor profiles. But, that doesn't mean that wines from Spain, Austria, Germany, and South America are somehow unworthy of such lists. A selection of wines from outside the world's Big Three is another indication of a list's quality.

Moving on to price. It's not the lowest priced wine or the highest priced, but the mode of prices. The largest percentage of a wine list's selections should be within a range of 1.5-2 times the average price of a menu's entrees. So we're basically talking $30-$40 bottles at most restaurants. And then 80% (inclusive) of the total list should be within 20%-30% of that mode ($25-$52, roughly). You then have a nice chunk of space to work with ultrapremium wines. Be wary of a wine list with a lot of statistical outliers, too. If most of a wine list is sub $40 and the only oddballs are super-priced cult wines or well-known champagnes, we're dealing with a fairly inadequately developed list. Point is, offer a nice moderately priced selection, throw in a couple bargain wines and a premium selection smoothly increasing in price. It's a front-loaded curve, not a bell curve.

So then, what about appropriateness for the cuisine. This is a given on most lists, it's also a bit difficult to determine at a cursory glance. Just look for general clues--is it a seafood-focused place? Then there should be a lot of higher acidity wines (think Italian and Spanish). Is it spicy Asian or fusion-y food? Look for aromatic and off-dry selections (Alsatian varietals, for instance). Basically look for glaring absences from wine list to cuisine.

And then there's recognizability. I think poorly of wine lists that both pander to the big names of a region and to those lists that deliberately don't. Every wine list should have some wines from wineries, winemakers, or negociants that would be recognizable to the modestly savvy diner and winetaster. This goes for varietals too--a wine list should have a wide selection of varietals and styles but should also offer a significant selection of the most popular varietals and styles. Think populism without pandering.

There you have it, answers to a question you never asked.



Time to hit the topic of wine one more time. I mean, I'll hit the topic again. I'm not saying this is the last time. I just mean that here, once again, I will discuss wine.

Why are people so hung up about ordering bottles of wine?

In a recent post, Michale Bauer discussed the problem with "stale" wine at restaurants and wine bars. That is, wine that has been open for too long. The fact is, wine by the glass programs are in general bad for consumers, restaurants, and winemakers. Consumers get poorly handled wine, restaurants lose inventory, and winemakers suffer damaged reputations from the improperly handled wine.

A resturant should offer, at most, 4 glasses of red and 4 glasses of white (slightly different depending on cuisine) and then have a nice diverse list of reasonably prices wines by the bottle and, when possible, half-bottle.

Going back to the question though, what is the harm in ordering a bottle of wine? Unless you're dining alone it's not an obscene quantity of wine (there are only for or so restaurant-sized glasses in a bottle). Nor is it particularly expensive (same price as four glasses of wine, cheaper than four [or even three!] cocktails. And when you order a bottle you know that wine hasn't been oxidized. It is also more likely to have been properly stored (bottle wines are often stored some place out of the way whereas glass wines are out in the bar where temperatures can get pretty damn hot).

I think Americans are hung up on being perceived that they are drinking a lot. Having a glass of wine is medically acceptable, splitting a bottle is not. Nevermind that those same people go home and have another glass and a shot of Jaeger before bed.

I had an excellent (and expensive) dinner in LA and the owner told me that he was able to maintain an exquisite (and reasonably priced) wine list because he only offered wines by the bottle. He eliminated pouring cost and virtually eliminated lost inventory. The trade off? Consumers can't hedge their bets and taste a wine before committing. Who cares? A good restaurant is going to have a good wine list. Put your faith and trust in that. And if the wine truly sucks you can always reject it. Losing two bottles a week in returned wine is better than losing two bottles a day in overpours, changed minds, and complimentary tastes. If a restaurant has a quality half-bottle selection, then both the solo diner and the light drinking couple can enjoy the benefits of a fresh bottle. No room for excuses.

A fresh bottle of wine with a good meal is a beautiful thing. Spend the money and drink the wine. You'll be a better person for it.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

HFF's Recent Hits

I haven't been any place recently that warrants an entire review, plus I think restaurant reviews are kinda passed their relevance anyway.

That being said, what's been going on lately?

Most recent standout? Scott and I dropped in at Absinthe near civic center after we left the symphony at intermission. John Adams' new opera blows goats. Anyway, Absinthe was great. The best duck confit I've ever had (and I've had a lot). Crispy skin, gooey fat, moist meat. The skate wing was moist and crispy as well. We also had a smoked salmon appetizer with cucumbers that was excellent and a straight forward but tasty creme brulee.

Recent trip to Deep Sushi over in Noe Valley was disappointing. Awkward staff and disappointing food, especially for the price.

This month's Gregoire menu is pretty bad ass. In addition to the apparently "legendary" pecan gorgonzola burger is the equally legendary, as far as I'm concerned, smoked Maine shrimp sandwich. Also, braised lamb in lavash and a pork loin with apricot chutney. Tasty.

Cafe Fanny continues to impress in its simplicity, though the service is definitely not in a hurry. At all. Christ, the staff is so freakin' stoned. But, egg salad on toasted levain with sundried tomatoes and anchovies is pretty f-ing fantastic.

Pomelo, also out in Noe Valley, is a spot that has grown on me. There's nothing exceptional about the food in terms of the quality of ingredients or even the preparation, but the dishes themselves are clean, fresh, and well balanced. Grilled mahi mahi with cheddar polenta, mushrooms, and snap peas. Pancit with chicken, chinese sausage, and prawns. Quinoa cakes with ancho chili, roasted pepper coulis, onions, and avocado with rotating fish of the day. Sure the fish is overcooked sometimes but the whole plates are well-balanced and not too greasy. It's nice.

There'll be more.