The young woman was dining with her father at one of the Napa Valley’s most elegant and high-priced restaurants. A regular visitor to the valley where his daughter had grown up, the father was an affluent wine and food aficionado. He suggested they order the chef’s tasting menu — $150 per person with an additional $80 to include the recommended wine pairings. But he was horrified when midway in the meal, his daughter turned to the server and said, “I don’t really like this wine. Could I have something sweeter?”
Not one but two bloopers, at least in this man’s view: Not only was she questioning the choice of the master who’d paired the wines, but she was asking for — gasp! — a sweet wine in this most sophisticated restaurant.
As the mortified man stammered out his apologies, the server swiftly but gracefully interrupted. “Those are only suggestions,” he said. “This is about finding out which wines she likes; that’s what’s important.” He took away the dry, tannic Bordeaux blend and brought her a Riesling, delicate and slightly sweet.
“Much better,” she said.
“But not quite sweet enough?” this inspired server asked.
“Not really,” she said. He brought her a late harvest wine, usually dubbed a dessert wine, and this is what she enjoyed thoroughly with her filet of beef.
This kind of scenario, and conversation, is one I’ve been working toward for two decades: One in which the consumer, in this case the young lady who later told me the story, knows what she likes and is confident to ask for it, and a wine professional is there to help her find the wines she truly will enjoy, not to mention giving a tactful hint to the father mired in outdated misconceptions about wine. And I believe these conversations are becoming more common in California, which, after all, led the way 50 years ago in breaking down another conventional delusion that truly fine wines could only be produced in France.
Consider another scenario, this one in an entirely different restaurant, a steakhouse in the Central Valley of California. Here an item on the menu is listed as “steak and a glass of wine.” A friend of mine who had stopped there tells me she was intrigued by this and asked the server, “What kind of wine comes with the steak?”
“What would you like?” he asked. “We have Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel or White Zinfandel.”
“Do you mean I could have a White Zin with my steak?” she asked.
“You surely may, if that is what you like. Is that what you want?”
Actually, she admitted, what she liked were Merlots, which tended to be smooth for her taste, and that’s what she got. “But it’s just so wonderfully freeing,” she said, “when they put it that way. It’s fun, not so serious.”
In both instances the diner was being encouraged to explore and enjoy wine on her own terms. In my view, this is a great thing and a positive step not only for consumers but also for the wine industry.
Now back to the young woman who shocked her father. Although she’d grown up in the Napa Valley, she was persuaded that she didn’t like wine. When dining out, she’d usually order iced tea or a sweet cocktail and sip it through a meal. When I told her she was a sweet Vinotype, one of four I’ve identified in my research, she was intrigued. These, I explained, are people with such highly sensitive palates, that high alcohol, intense red wines taste extremely unpleasant and can actually cause a burning sensation. Some of these hypersensitive Vinotypes will opt for delicate,light dry wines but a large percentage of these people simply love sweet tastes, which after all, mask bitterness.
Liking sweet wines is not an indication of sophistication, or lack thereof as some pundits believe, or intelligence. The woman in this story is, in fact, a doctoral student who speaks six languages, is an accomplished ballerina and a Shakespeare scholar. It’s just a question of palate and taste. Delighted with this insight, she put it to the test, and I say that server who aided and abetted her deserves a raise. Correct me if I am wrong but, in a restaurant that has 1,500 labels on its wine list, don’t you want to encourage a sense of adventure? Why on earth would you carry so many wines in the first place?
Both restaurants are also embodying another seemingly revolutionary idea that is often given lip service but not put into practice: that there are no such things as strict wine and food pairings and that wine, instead, should be paired to diner, not the dinner.
Doesn’t that just make sense? If you don’t like a wine, it’s unlikely that a food is going to make it taste better for you. If you love a certain style of wine, why not enjoy it with dinner? I can tell you with confidence that if someone dislikes a wine style category, whether sweet or intense red, they will probably categorically dislike that style wine with any dish.
But any wine with any dish? What about the idea that certain wines can overpower or even destroy a particular food? A trend that’s gaining traction with some California chefs is the idea of flavor balancing – adjusting the levels of salt and acid in a dish that is adversely affected by a wine. Sarah Scott, for many years executive chef at the Robert Mondavi Winery, is a strong proponent flavor balancing; and now working as a freelance chef for wineries, she is highly in demand for her ability to create dishes that make Napa’s renowned, intense fruit-bombs wines purr like a cat.
And I recently helped organize an event for the staff of a Napa restaurant where the participants were presented with a buffet of foods and a range of wines. They were encouraged to try the worst pairings they could think of — oysters and Cabernet, steak and Riesling and so forth — and then to see how a twist of lemon and sprinkling of salt quickly restored the smoothness to the wine. The result: They are embarking on a new program to encourage diners to find their favorite wines and try them with a dish they want, from intense reds with fish to Moscato and steak.
“But isn’t this the way we eat in the Napa Valley?” a friend asked me. “Don’t we pretty much just drink the wines we like with whatever we’re eating? Don’t we say to guests, ‘What can I pour for you? Which wines do you like?’”