Category Archives: pairing

know when to hold ’em

Kate and I spent a couple of weeks in Italy for a business/pleasure trip.  Actually, it was all business, but it’s hard not to have a little pleasure when in Italy.  We happened upon a retail establishment offering a free tasting of several wines from Pio Cesare (CHE-zar-ay in Italian).  Since 1881, the eponymous winemaker and his family have been making beautiful wines from Barolo and Barbaresco.  Those are two winemaking zones in Northern Italy’s Piedmont region known for their production of classic, age-worthy wines from the nebbiolo grape.  Marked by aromas of dried fruit and rose petals, well-made nebbiolo wines offer an incredible pairing with many types of Italian cooking, as well as grilled meats and even smoky BBQ. Pio Cesare wines have a reputation for quality, so I was happy to indulge in the tasting.

A couple of wines deep, and the young lady pouring the wine offered the Barbaresco. I could see its characteristic orange tinge, even though is was a relatively young 2007. I savored its aromas (prunes, fig, tar, licorice), took a sip, and after swirling it around in my mouth I said, “Oh, I love nebbiolo.”

At that point, she told me that the nebbiolo was coming, as she would be pouring the Barolo last.  My first instinct was to ask her why should would say that when I just enjoyed a nice sip of nebbiolo. She was clearly trying to educate me on the finer points of winemaking in Piedmont, but she was wrong! Alas, I stopped short and decided to let it be.  Why do such a thing?  Why indeed…

I find that there is a line between when I should educate and when I should just let well enough alone. In that setting, who am I, a monolingual American, to correct the Italian woman who is actually pouring the wine? I’m not wearing my sommelier lapel pin, and she certainly has not paid to attend my class. By offering a little information, I feared that she would take it as an affront and try to educate me. I knew I could avoid the whole encounter by just smiling and holding out my glass.

I try to read the situation in times like these. I’ve taught an eager restaurant waiter all about decanting – why we do it, how we do it properly, when to do it, and most importantly, when not to do it.  I’ve also smiled politely (and cringed inside) when a know-it-all general manager spun my beautifully-aged, and carefully-transported, bottle of Heitz Martha’s Vineyard around in the air as she told me she’s “had this before.”

We all have our areas of expertise, and we’ve all encountered somebody who presumes to know more than we do. More times than not, I’d rather nod and smile while I grab another free glass of Barbaresco.


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desert island wine

We all have things in our lives that we love so much, or simply cannot do without, that we would most certainly include them on our list of items that would make being marooned on a desert island just a little easier. I would bring a book (The Count of Monte Cristo) and my wife, although knowing us, we would view our dire situation as an opportunity to build a world-class resort with a lively fitness program and an upscale restaurant.

Ahhh, but what wine to serve at the restaurant? This is a desert island, so we can only select one. What would you pick? What wine would you absolutely not want to live without?

Kate and I were enjoying an intimate dinner at a relatively upscale restaurant in Las Vegas when I made a comment that most definitely diminished my street-cred with the sommelier. I said that zinfandel is my desert island wine. He quickly noted that his is white Burgundy, and we proceeded through the meal as though our exchange had never happened. I knew what he was thinking – “You have one wine in the entire world to select, and you pick zinfandel?!” He likely pictured me sipping my treasured wine from a shoe that washed up on shore while enjoying an accompanying helping of desert island mac and cheese.

But hear me out. Zinfandel, with its core of red fruit and brambly, spicy finish, goes so well with so many things. I imagine it would pair equally well with bugs and wombats. Even a steady diet of seafood would not be overwhelmed by a well-made/well-balanced zinfandel.

I realize that a sommelier at a nice restaurant in Vegas must declare white Burgundy, or Champagne, or German Riesling, or even the best of Bordeaux as the only real choice for a desert island. As I only somm for you on this website, I suppose I have the luxury of selecting outside the box – a pure, ripe, layered zinfandel from Dry Creek Valley will do me just fine…or at least hold me over until we start importing some Rioja for the restaurant.

Check the recommendations page for a couple of zinfandels that will make you appreciate the peace and quiet on your island.

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trust the sommelier

Did you know that the term sommelier derives from the French sommier, a word that has been used to describe people and the things they’ve kept over time? Those things have included weapons, animals, food, and wine. The sommelier from hundreds of years ago was essentially a wine servant who did not have the requisite skills to be a chef. Over the years, and particularly in recent years, sommeliers have become celebrated, and often revered, for their seemingly boundless knowledge of growing regions, vintages, and varietals around the world.

Unfortunately, I think not enough people take advantage of the sommelier, and I think one of the most common reasons is intimidation. Okay, so this person can blindly taste a wine and tell you the village it came from and what year the grapes were grown. So? Surely you have a skill that would evoke equal envy from him or her. Foot race anyone?

Another reason is embarrassment that some people feel over not being able to afford the most expensive bottles on the list. You’re sitting with your date in a fancy restaurant, asking the sommelier to point out something special, and he waxes on about the beautiful Domaine Jamet Côte-Rôtie Côte Brune that would perfectly complement the Coq au Vin your date is eyeing. You, however, are eyeing the $350 price tag and wishing you had joined the monastery.

Always remember that the sommelier has an intimate knowledge of the wine list derived from the weeks or months spent putting it together, not to mention the constant upkeep. That knowledge is a tremendous help when you ask for a reasonably-priced recommendation. And don’t be afraid to state your price preference up front. If you want to be a little subtler, point out a selection or two that you know you like (for taste and price), and ask for a recommendation. Any decent sommelier will take the hint and avoid turning your love of Australian Shiraz into a monthly installment plan for a bottle of Penfolds Grange.

I’ve had a couple of recent experiences that validated my belief in the advice I’m giving you today.

  • The head sommelier at Bourbon Steak in Washington, DC, Julian Mayor, listened to what Kate and I like and don’t like and settled us into a wonderful 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon by Quixote in Napa Valley’s Stags Leap growing area that was excellent with both the lamb and the filet mignon. After we told him how much we enjoy visiting California’s wine country each year, he printed out the winery’s information, with pictures and directions!

  • Adam Pongracic, the sommelier at Olives in Las Vegas’ Bellagio talked with us for a while and recommended the 2007 Paraduxx, a red blend of mostly Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon. This pairing was just excellent with the rosemary-infused pizza crust topped with gorgonzola and figs, as well as the roasted chicken.

Oh, and how do you pronounce sommelier? The nuances of French pronunciation get a little mashed up here in the states; I recommend the not-so-difficult So-Mell-Yay.


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