It was the oddest combination--a glass of fine red Bordeaux with a mellow, buttery avocado--but it worked.
This unconventional first course set the tone for a dinner that paired red wines with monkfish, steamed chicken wrapped in romaine, a mixed lettuce salad and banana bread, all dishes you would not expect to go with such a forthright beverage.
The wines were from Chateau Prieure-Lichine; the menu was composed by Konstantin Schonbachler, executive chef of the Hollywood Diner, and the innovative combinations made one thing clear: The old rule that red wine goes with meat and white wine goes with poultry or fish is no match for modern California cuisine.
So how does one choose wine to accompany goat cheese salad, beef with raisins and peppercorns, grilled duck breast, foie gras with black pepper sauce, lemon-flavored pasta and all the rest?
The task is not as easy as one would hope. To achieve a perfect match of wine and food involves repeated tasting, some risk and, occasionally, failure. Even the best match may not be appreciated because palates differ. One wine lover's delight can turn to acid in the mouth of another.
The recent Santa Barbara County Vintners' Festival offered a case study in this elusive art. The yearly festival includes a marathon of wine-maker dinners designed to show off the wines through dishes that complement their attributes.
Post-mortem critiques with the chefs produced not only guidelines in choosing wine but reassurance that even the experts might do it differently the next time.
All agreed that it is important to sample a wine before pairing it with a dish and then to taste the two together.
"Sit down with some friends, taste the wine and talk about what flavors come to mind," said Scott Douglass, executive chef of the Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort at Solvang. "If you are not overly experienced, go with your first reaction. Let the wine stand out, and try not to use more than three primary flavors in the dish."
Douglass spent one month planning the menu for a dinner featuring wines from the nearby Gainey Vineyard. First he went to Gainey to taste the wines that were to be served. Then he rehearsed the dishes at home, testing them with the wines.
The tryouts led to a switch from veal to fillet of beef with a 1983 Cabernet Sauvignon. "The veal didn't have enough flavor to stand up to the Cabernet," Douglass said. To complement the pepperiness of the wine, he added green peppercorns to the sauce. To accent its fruitiness, he added cassis liqueur and a reduction of the Cabernet itself. For color and additional flavor, he garnished each serving with pink peppercorns and golden raisins that had been soaked in Cognac.
The dinner, held at Alisal ranch, started with gravlax (salmon) marinated with tarragon as well as the traditional dill. Both herbs suited the clean flavor of the accompanying wine, a 1985 Sauvignon Blanc, Douglass said. Asparagus, which Douglass had intended to serve, was eliminated because it made the wine taste bitter.
One would have expected a red wine with the next course, squab with a sauce that included foie gras. However, Douglass matched the squab to a 1985 Chardonnay and used the wine to deglaze the pans in which the birds were sauteed. "The Gainey Chardonnay has such nice, full, fruit flavor that I thought it would be strong enough. It was a little bit of a risk, but I thought it came out exceptionally well," he said.
Matching Salad and Wine
The toughest job was matching salad and wine, but Douglass scored there, too. The wine was a fruity, slightly sweet 1986 Johannisberg Riesling. The salad was composed of goat cheese, pear and a mixture of lettuces dressed with Dijon mustard, honey, walnut oil and Champagne vinegar. The goat cheese had to be young and fresh, Douglass said. An older cheese would have been too sharp for the wine.
Gainey's 1985 Special Select Late Harvest Johannisberg Riesling is an intensely sweet, honeyed wine. Douglass paired this with a layered dessert of genoise cake, raspberries and peach mousse topped with caramelized powdered sugar and accompanied with raspberry sauce and creme anglaise. "I wanted a dessert that would provide natural fruit flavor but not be too sweet," he said. "A chocolate dessert would not have gone."
Gainey wine maker Rick Longoria favors lowering the alcohol content of wine to make it more compatible with food. "Alcohol is fatiguing," Longoria commented, and wines that are high in alcohol tend to overpower the food as well as the drinker. The Gainey late harvest dessert wine contains only 7.4% alcohol, barely above the minimum 7% alcohol required to classify a beverage as wine.
For another dinner, chef John Downey of Downey's in Santa Barbara designed a menu to go with the products of four wineries. The dinner was hosted by wine maker Robert N. Lindquist of Qupe winery, whose wines dominated. The other wines filled the gaps in his line.