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Maria Helm Sinskey

Maria Helm Sinskey, co-owner and culinary directory for Robert Sinskey Vineyards, writes about wines, and has published two cookbooks.

Can you give us a nutshell explanation of the benefits of biodynamic farming? 

Maria Helm Sinskey: It’s holistic – it looks at the health of the whole environment instead of focusing on one thing. If focuses on the ecosystem of the vine, particularly the health of the soil, integration of plants and animals and biodiversity in the vineyard. 

People tend to fixate on the voodoo elements, but it’s really rather practical. It’s based upon where the planets are in relation to the earth and the cycle of these different planetary pushes and pulls. It makes sense when you think of agriculture. The toolbox for the viticulturist is based upon nine different biodynamic preparations. It’s proactive rather than reactive farming. 


Tell us about your wine for the pairing for the Sinskey Marcien wine. Is there a story behind the name? 

Sinskey: Marcien means “Of the planet Mars,” which we felt is appropriate because if you were to compare Marcien to other Napa Valley wines it might as well be from Mars. We think of it as a bridge between Old and New World styles, or a Saint-Emilion (a merlot-based Bordeaux blend) with a suntan. 


Most Bordeaux blends in the valley are grown north of Carneros. What’s the strategy there? 

Sinskey: When we planted Bordeaux varieties in the Carneros our neighbors warned us that they wouldn’t ripen. We ignored the warnings and for good reason. The early-ripening merlot loves Carneros and, though a little more site specific, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc can provide superlative fruit if planted in the right pockets around the northern foothills of the region. If Napa is the Bordeaux of California, then upper Carneros is the Right Bank of Napa. The similarities include its proximity to the ocean with a river dividing the larger region creating “right” and “left” banks, clay-based soils and heat summation. In addition, the long, cool growing cycle helps the grapes develop complex flavor at lower brix while maintaining their natural acidity to produce a wine with a brighter character and lower alcohols than what has become the norm from the warmer Napa Valley to the north.


How would you characterize you philosophy in the kitchen? 

Sinskey: I favor seasonal, local and organic ingredients. Start with the best ingredients and you have the greatest chance of success. Or better said, “You can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. But you can slice it thinly, season it and fry it until crisp and it will be delicious.” 


What kinds of dishes are the most fun for you? 

Sinskey: Braises and one-pot meals in the winter and slow smoking in the summer. Anything I can put on and forget about. All this fussy stuff where you’re stuck in the kitchen and don’t get to talk to your guests  —  I’m so over that. Everybody’s going through all these contortions and they’re not having any fun. I used to do it because I thought that’s what people expect. But then I went to someone’s house and we just had a good soup and salad —  it was so relaxing. I love roasting vegetables instead of sautéing them. I just toss them with some olive oil and salt and forget about them. 


What’s your philosophy when it comes to pairing food with wine? 

Sinskey: I hate to use the term “pairing.” Food and wine is about enjoyment, NOT about the perfect pairing. It’s so heavy —  it’s like there’s a contest you have to win. As you know, really, truly wonderful pairings don’t happen that often. We love to remember them to recapture that great experience but they’re rare. 

It has so much to do with mood, the person you’re with … I like to think about what I am cooking and then imagine what I would like to drink with it. Sometimes it’s great,  sometimes not so much. But I always have the option of drinking the wine without focusing on the match and just enjoying myself.

It’s also helpful to look at the provenance of the wine and the historical foods of the region, for instance the chardonnay and pinot noir of Burgundy. For white, I look at rabbit in mustard or white fleshed fish, snails. For reds, roasted rabbit, chicken, roosters, duck. All these are regional dishes and fit with wines made from those grapes.


Chefs often think the wine should go with the dish. In your work at the winery you probably have to create dishes to go with specific wines. What kinds of challenges does that present?

Sinskey: Wine has been such a part of my life that it’s become instinctual. I shy away from dishes that are too sweet, spicy or vinegary for the sake of balance. If the flavors of your dish are balanced they have a greater chance of working with wine. It’s kind of a chicken and egg thing because Sinskey is making wine for food and I’m making food for wine. 

I love cooking ethnic foods, things with spice, but I don’t usually serve them with wine. If you’re having Thai or Mexican food people always say “Have rosé.” but I think with some foods, just have a beer. Why does wine have to go with everything?


Why do you think this pairing works so well?

Sinskey: One reason is its age — we’ve just released this 2006 vintage. People don’t bottle age so we purposely hold back the Marcien for the five years it takes to come into its own. The long braise is rich from the breakdown of gelatin and collagen in the shanks; the acidity of the wine is very clean with restrained fruit that helps to cut through that richness. The lamb has a lot of flavors that mimic the wine — the citrus works nicely with the caramelized meat, vegetables and red-wine scented broth. I chose the Castelvetrano olives because they’re buttery and fruitier than most olives.  


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You remarked on acidity and subtle use of oak as factors in making a good match. Can you explain a little about why a solid acidity helps with pairing? And about why heavy use of oak might be a detriment?

Sinskey: Acid provides balance to the alcohol, fruit character and tannins in a wine. Without a balance of these four elements, the wine can be off kilter. Restrained fruit character usually indicates a wine with lower alcohol and higher acidity because the fruit is picked earlier. Once you get into big jammy fruit, alcohol levels climb you have to add acid to make the wine fresh; you start to get into unbalanced territory. Too much wood can dominate the flavor of a wine and also add tannins that can overwhelm the texture and dry out your mouth. 


Do you pick the grapes earlier than most local producers in order to get the alcohol and acid where you want them? 

Sinskey: We pick earlier than most, but we don’t pick unless the grapes are ripe — usually between 22 and 24 brix gives a nice alcohol. The way we farm the vines helps us to get seed and stem maturity as the sugar rises. We don’t like to add acid but we don’t criticize those who do if it makes better wine — in the old world they add sugar. 


If you couldn’t get the Marcien, what other styles of wine would be good with it? 

Sinskey: This dish pairs so easily with reds — a nicely balanced Bordeaux style blend from cool regions that aren’t over ripe or made with a heavy hand. Chianti, Barbera, Barolo or Barbaresco from Italy will have a nice fruitiness and high acid that would be nice. There’s a ton of very good Bordeaux wines at very good prices that would be amazing with the dish.


What kinds of foods, in general, go well with the Marcien?   

Sinskey: If you don’t want to cook anything just serve a full-fat cow’s milk cheese like cheddar. Any kind of roasted meats. I love it with herb-roasted chicken, pork, wild mushrooms and truffles. High-fat foods and red meats roasted with herbs or lighter meats that take on the flavor of how they’re cooked, like chicken and pork paired with roasted mushrooms. They work well with Marcien because of its restrained fruit, kiss of cedar and vanilla from French oak, moderately high acid and relatively moderate alcohol. 


Anything to add? 

Sinskey: Never worry about the pairing. Enjoy the food. Enjoy the wine. Enjoy your friends and family. That’s what it’s all about.

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