Some 20 years ago, I attended a luncheon put on by a French wine group to show how nicely Alsace wines worked with properly chosen foods.
It was a disaster. The chef of the haute cuisine Beverly Hills bistro created such amazingly unhappy pairings that none of the wines worked with any of the dishes.
A couple of years later, at an upscale Orange County restaurant famed for its wine cellar, the main dish, pork loin, was almost impossible to match with wines. We had many wines from which to choose, and nothing worked. (The fact that the pork had jalapeno jelly in it may have contributed to the problem.)
In desperation, one winery owner left the restaurant and returned with a take-out hamburger.
These are just a few of the pratfalls I have experienced when a chef creates a dish that sounds interesting but simply has no reason for being on the same table with the wines that are offered. Ideally, the chef doesn’t just “wing it” and hopes that the flavors are compatible.
Years ago, I worked with two chefs — one in Long Beach and another in Riverside — who created wine dinners around wines I had selected. I arranged for the chefs to try the wines first, and both created fabulous pairings.
But the missteps are almost hilarious.
Once at a fancy Napa Valley fundraising dinner, the main-course red wine was a very expensive local cabernet sauvignon. It was supposedly matched with lamb. Problems: the wine had almost no fruit character that resembled cabernet and had such low acidity that the lamb simply overpowered it. And the wine (with probably 16 percent alcohol) actually tasted a little sweet. I got more of the aperitif wine, a sauvignon blanc, and had it with the lamb. (Oddly, the cabernet wasn’t bad later with the chocolate mousse.)
Among other gaffes: a chicken dish with a famed and very rich chardonnay. The chicken had been marinated in a sauce laden with vinegar. With the chardonnay, the pairing was terrible.
A steak served with a Dijon mustard sauce was so strong that any wine, except maybe port, would have had no chance.
Pinot noir often is recommended to go with salmon. One chef prepared a most succulent, light and delicate salmon. However, the pinot served with it was high in extract, dense in color, and tasted like syrah. With its tannins, it obliterated the flavors in the fish.
Many books have looked at food and wine pairings over the decades. Some do a good job explaining what goes with what. But generalizations such as “pinot noir with salmon” are too vague to be meaningful.
Equally important are how the food is to be prepared, the age of the wine, and how it was stored.
Wine isn’t supposed to go with asparagus and artichokes, for instance, but if the wine is a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, then the pairing could well be sublime.
Pairing wine with food isn’t, as they say, brain surgery, but it’s nice when a chef understands how tricky it is to match things up correctly and creates a perfect pairing.
Wine of the Week
2007 Mill Creek Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley ($30) — Handsome aroma of strawberry, plums, and definitive spices from the Dry Creek appellation. The color of this wine is lighter than some, but there is classic fruit and texture. Easy to match up with many meat dishes.
Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.