As director of the Beringer Vineyards-sponsored School for American Chefs in Napa Valley, Madeleine Kamman has thought about the interaction of wine and food a lot. As a naturally analytical Frenchwoman, she takes every question very seriously.
Bottom line: Ask her about combining food and wine and be prepared for a lecture; there are no short answers. But a couple of shortcuts can make the melding easier.
The biggest trick, says Kamman, whose revision of her landmark "The Making of a Cook" (Atheneum, 1978) will be published in 1997, is cooking to the wine, rather than trying to pick the exact right bottle for a certain dish.
"When you combine food and wine, the wine is a given; you cannot change it," she says. "Most of the time it is the way you season what you have cooked that will be the bridge between the wine and the food.
"If you understand how to work with a few fundamental tastes--sweet, sour, bitter and salty--you'll be a better cook.
"Taste your food first, and season it the way you like it. Then taste the wine. Some foods that are sweet naturally will need a little lemon or salt to be re-balanced to match with wine. Some people also like a bit of bitter. Foods like sweet potatoes and ham that everyone in America eats during the holidays are really difficult to match--their intense sweet and intense saltiness. I like Gewurztraminer with those, or an American Riesling with a little residual sugar."
For big, broad-shouldered red wines, Kamman recommends roast meats that have been basted with both salt and soy sauce.
"You need to have salt that has bonded with protein as well as regular salt," she says. "If you want to show off a really big Cabernet, you need to do something to the meat that will bring it closer to the wine. With roast beef, reduce soy sauce and wine together and make a sauce with that from the pan drippings. That will make a perfect match with those very strong, very opulent Cabernets."
The other common demon of wine-and-food matchers--big oaky Chardonnays--are not as big a problem as they used to be, she says. Winemakers are making the grape into more food-friendly wines. But if you taste your Chardonnay and find that it has that raspy, woody tannin, make sure the dish you're serving with it is well-salted. "Once you have done that, you can also try to do something slightly acid to the sauce--a pinch of mustard, maybe.
"Really, I can't tell you exactly how it works in every case, because you have to train your own palate to taste. That is the most important thing."
Kamman did, however, go home after our conversation and try an experiment. First she made roast pork, seasoning the sauce three slightly different ways. Then she tasted it with various wines to see how the seasonings affected them.
"While the roast was baking, I went down to our cellar, which is not by any means luxurious, but rather a modest and eclectic one where there are more affordable table wines than there are great big expensive ones.
"Being of Alsatian ancestry, I tend to like my pork roast with an Alsatian wine, so I chose three wines that are either from Alsace or resemble wines made there."
* 1989 Stony Hill White Riesling (Napa Valley): "A balance of bare sweetness and very moderate acidity as would befit its age. Its flavor was of light vanilla and apple mixed; it coated the mouth very agreeably but, probably due to its age, its finish did not last as long as I would have liked. My husband, who tasted with me, found the finish longer and more lasting than I did.
"When tasted with the plain gravy, the acidity of the wine almost disappeared, making the wine taste definitely sweet, not altogether unpleasant, but not in balance. The vanilla-apple flavor gave way to a pleasant peach-apricot flavor, and I found the finish was lengthened.
"When tasted with a second slice of pork and the gravy with lemon juice, the acidity and apple flavor in the wine resurfaced noticeably, but the finish shortened again. When tasted with the buttered gravy, the wine sank into the butter and lost a goodly amount of its mouthfeel."
* 1993 Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Sylvaner "Turckheim": "This is a great Sylvaner, rounded in the mouth with a really awesome balance of acidity and alcohol. Its flavor revealed a hint of spice, slightly reminiscent of very ripe green bell pepper. Passing between palate and tongue, it felt buttery and viscous.
"This was a great wine until it was tasted with the food, when it lost its intrinsic qualities each and every time. Lemon in the gravy destroyed it. The only way it could possibly have been served with that roast was by finishing the gravy with a tablespoon or so of sour cream or creme frai^che, the taste of which would have been in line with the opulent mouthfeel."