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Monday, 08 July 2013 12:21

The New Rules of Wine Hospitality

by Jim Laughren

Do you love entertaining and sharing great food, great wine, and witty repartee with friends, family, and co-workers?Wine bottle pour PicmonkeySan Francisco Travel Assn/Scott Chernis Are you planning those summer menus, loading them with scrumptious combinations of fresh fruits and vegetables? What’s better than a leisurely weekend brunch for half a dozen close friends, with an array of crisp, fresh-from-the-garden salads and beautifully cooked quiches; or a fun, easy backyard barbeque featuring grilled ribs, chicken or shrimp, with roasted corn-on-the-cob and homemade cole slaw? And who doesn’t love those wonderful dinner parties replete with delightful chilled soups, a stunning citrus-glazed pork loin or succulent, butter-poached lobster—all so perfect, so in the season.

Of course, selecting the right wine is... wait, wait. No. That’s the whole point: there is no “right” wine, no perfect pairing that will titillate the table and put everyone in vinous heaven. If those of us in the wine business have learned anything in the past few years, if we’ve been at all willing to pay attention to the evidence and confront our own false constructs, the idea of a perfect food and wine pairing for a group of diners is complete nonsense.

You’ve always been told that a mimosa is the perfect accompaniment to that array we call brunch—but you hate mimosas. Sharp, acidic, ruining both the orange juice and the champagne. Or, you love them. Well then, how about a nice Pinot Grigio and a summer salad. But so... flavorless, so unengaged with the shrimp and that sweet butter lettuce. Oh, I’m sorry, you say you adore Pinot Grigio?

In that case, let’s pour a glass of hearty Cabernet Sauvignon to enjoy with a magnificently marbled rib eye. Now that’s a match made in—what, you hate Cabernet with steak? You think it’s bitter and hard to drink?

Hey, what’s going on here? We all know a light-bodied, low alcohol wine like Pinot Grigio should pair ideally with a lovely salad dotted with sweet baby shrimp, and that rich, tannic Cabernet Sauvignon and steak were practically made for each other. Or so we thought. And preached. And proselytized.

But the evidence (yes, there’s science behind this) now tells us that individual palates are so different that what appeals to one person may be an abomination to another. It seems about a third of us are programmed to love sweet wines. Very sweet. In fact, these hypersensitive tasters find the hearty, high alcohol red wines that so many wine geeks think are the pinnacle of winedom to be absolutely horrid. They can’t help it. That’s how they’re wired. And snobby fools that we’ve been, we’ve laughed at their proclivity for White Zinfandel for so long that many of them have simply opted for cocktails, or a soda.

Other folks like their wines dry, i.e. without any sweetness, but prefer them light and crisp, even the reds. They may drink a big, overblown wine now and then, but that would never be their first choice. And then we have the defenders of the faith, the über drinkers hard-wired to think the only thing better than a bottle of big, broad-shouldered, heavily-extracted red wine is another one of the same. This group can’t stand sweet wine, aside from the occasional French or Portuguese dessert version, and they aren’t really enamored of those light, crispy numbers either. Truth be told, they’d just as soon have that big Cabernet with their shrimp salad as with their steak.

So it’s all been... hogwash? Well, kinda. Yes. Look around the world and we see Spaniards drinking heavily oaked reds with fish and octopus; Germans drinking sweet Rieslings with veal smothered in rich mushroom sauce; and was it from the French that we learned to drink Sauternes (as sweet and unctuous a wine as there is) with foie gras? Oh my. And should any particular wine that you like, taste poorly with any particular food, the just-coming-to-the-surface inside information tells us to merely add a bit of acid and salt to the food, and all will be well. Really. And it works. A splash of vinegar, a squeeze of lemon or a dab of mustard and a sprinkle of salt will bring just about any dish into balance with just about any wine. It’s true. Crazy but true.

So now you, and all your guests, are free to drink whatever wine you, and they, personally enjoy with whatever you’re serving. The new host or hostess with the mostess doesn’t even try to match the food and wine. Just be sure that sauce or that glaze or that juicy, marbled steak has a touch of acid and salt to balance its flavors and all will be fine. When you set the table put out a bottle of big, hearty red (maybe a Syrah or a Brunello or that lovely Cabernet), a bottle of something dry and light (try a Beaujolais or a Cabernet Franc from the Loire or a favorite unoaked Chardonnay or Soave from Italy) and a proud to be there sweet wine (why not a Moscato or a French Vouvray) and then encourage your guests to try them all, to drink and enjoy whichever works for them, be it Syrah with your melon soup, Beaujolais with the asparagus, or Moscato with those oh so gorgeous steaks.

That’s the new wine hospitality, and your guests will love you for it.laughren headshot Picmonkey

 

Jim Laughren has been distributing wine and educating consumers and businesses about the basic and finer aspects of wine selection and enjoyment for several decades. His second book, A Beer Drinker's Guide to Knowing and Enjoying Fine Wine, is reviewed in the Books section at www.tastecaliforniatravel.com.

 

 

A MOVEABLE THIRST: Tales and Tastes from a season Napa Wine Country

By Rick Kushman and Hank Beal

Wiley Paperback Hoboken, N.J. 2007ISBN-13: 978-0-471-79386-1

336 pages, $18.95

 moveable thirst

Napa County, the crown jewel of the California winemaking industry, has somewhere in the neighborhood of 475 wineries. The seemingly Sisyphean task of cataloging, visiting and reviewing each of these has been cheerfully undertaken by authors Rick Kushman and Hank Beal with their new book, “A Moveable Thirst.”

The bona fides of the authors are more than sufficient to the task. Since this is also a buddy story one is tempted to pigeonhole them with a simplistic Abbott and Costello-like characterization, but that would be inaccurate because they make a formidable team for their purpose. Kushman is the Sacramento Bee television columnist who brings his extensive journalistic credentials to the table. Beal is the head wine and liquor buyer and for the Northern California Nugget Market chain. Kushman has the role of the wine novice whose thirst for all knowledge wine related is steadily quaffed as Beal, the straightman, parses out the knowledge in satisfying portions.

The first half of the book explores the Napa Valley itself, physically and culturally, devoting chapters to each of the 11 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) that lie within Napa. These are officially designated regions that have been determined to possess growing conditions that produce uniquely identifiable wines. The second half is the nuts and bolts portion listing wineries by region with salient information visitors will need to know when paying a call. The book offers a lot of tips and useful tidbits that will help visitors prepare for a visit and choose where to go.

Guidebooks have an inherent drawback in that the “use by” date often passes quickly after publication. Given the explosive growth of the wine industry and the attendant tourism in Napa this could prove problematic for such a guidebook. But that would be to miss the point since the book offers much more than maps and vital statistics of wineries (those can be found at the Convention and Visitors Bureau). Kushman’s self-deprecating perspective is front and center here and it works because most of us fall into his camp, that is, we arrive armed mostly with ignorance. It is also reassuring to those who might otherwise be intimidated by the thought of tackling the mysterious and venerated world of wine. Again, Kushman’s light touch delivers the appropriate irreverence necessary to remove the intimidation of the subject brought on by the fatuous wine writing with which most people are familiar. Kushman strips away the chimera of pretentiousness and replaces it with the useful idea of learning and having fun.

One criticism I have here is that the book tends to be too generous in its appraisal of the serving staffs at wineries, too often describing them as knowledgeable and well-grounded in wine. My own experience is that, while that may be true of the mom-and-pop wineries, the larger places are geared to serve a multitude of visitors and their servers are inclined to engage in patter that is too practiced and comes off as programmed information rather than genuine knowledge.

One comes away from “A Moveable Thirst” with an appreciation for the manners and mores of the wine culture of the Napa Valley. More importantly, they remind us that it is supposed to be fun and interesting. Although our intrepid authors did indeed undertake a Sisyphean task, they reveal the slope to be not too steep after all.

 

--reviewed by Michael Eady

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