Aug 17 2009

Wine with Dinner: It’s Your Plate, Your Palate

By Brett Ashley McKenzie

As an associate at Just Grapes as well as  Food & Wine Pairing Writer for the Chicago Examiner, I’m regularly asked if there are suggested wines that a home chef should keep on hand, wines that cover all the bases, from a simple Tuesday night home-cooked meal to Thai take-out to a dinner party for 10. And, because of the times we’re currently living in, I’m often told “we need to keep it under budget.”

Before I abandoned the corporate world to pursue wine writing, cooking was strictly a weekend-thing. Weeknights meant getting home exhausted, often logging into my work e-mail the second I got home to keep working on whatever urgent project needed attention. I was too tired or busy or preoccupied to mess with pots, pans, ingredients and actually sitting down to a nice meal.

But boy, did I live for those Sunday night dinners. I’d make ribs, pot roasts, homemade chicken pot pies, nine-layer lasagnas, chicken mole, turkey chili, anything and everything. With a glass of wine in one hand and NPR on the radio, it was like a few hours of heaven. Unplugged. And then my husband and I would sit and eat slowly, opening a nicely paired wine with dinner, enjoying some jazz and conversation, not thinking about our jobs.

Now that I work at Just Grapes, I  cook almost every night of the week. Not to say that it’s all coming up roses and sunshine: on event nights, that means I don’t get home to my husband and puppy until after 9 p.m., and my husband will have already snacked on hummus and my puppy will be begging for attention. But without the stresses of the corporate world, without the pressure and the constant churning of the brain, every night can be a cooking night. So while the wine component of home chef-ing is important,  the mind compenent–the ability to turn off, stop Tweeting, stop caring about the stack of bills or the chores–is key.

Wine as a pairing component and wine as an ingredient are two very different things. Whenever we can’t finish a bottle, be it white or red, or it sits out overnight, forgotten, it goes into our fridge and becomes an ingredient. I’ve used unfinished Berger Gruner in a linguine & shrimp in white wine sauce dish. Unfinished Mackenzie Merlot made for a savory pot roast sauce. We’ve even been known to open a bottle of beer, take one sip, wrinkle our noses, and pour it over pork chops. Waste not, want not.

The wine you drink with dinner should accentuate and not overwhelm your dish. In the world of wine and food pairing, we are always searching for that magical moment when you find a food and wine that together taste better than either do apart. That’s the ultimate, a sixth sense, a mini-mouth miracle.

Then, there’s the unfortunate alternative: the flop. You won’t always achieve pairing nirvana, but you can try to always avoid the flop. Let’s say you’ve ordered a greasy, sausage & pepper & onion deep dish pizza, which you’ve now coated in red pepper flakes and oregano, and all you’ve got on hand is a super  sweet Riesling, or perhaps a dainty Beaujolais. Both are wines that pair with pretty specific food types, and not with a greasy slice of Chicago’s finest. If you had a Barbera or a Super Tuscan wine on hand, you’d be in heaven. Because you didn’t, you’ll spend the next few minutes trying to scrape the weird combo off your tongue, finally deciding to wash your pie down with a Sprite instead.

Experts, like famous wine author & sommelier Andrea Immer suggest keeping some standard food-friendly wines around the house. In Immer’s “Everyday Dining with Wine,” she suggest several whites–specifically, Riesling, Sauv Blanc, Chardonnay (both big CA style and subtle old world style) and Gewurztraminer–and several reds–American Pinot Noir, Cabernet, Chilean Carmenere, Chianti, and a Rioja Crianza.

In my house, because my cooking style is much more flavorful and bigger than most (my initials aren’t “BAM!” for nothing), I have adapted Immer’s list to my own needs, subsizing my collection with some of Just Grapes’ best bargains. I keep:

  • a slightly-sweet-to-sweet Riesling on hand to combat the super spice in my Mexican or Asian seafood dishes (“Diva” is my go-to)
  • an elegant Pinot Gris for green-heavy dishes like spinach salad with goat cheese (Ponzi is a great choice)
  • an oaky but not overly oaky Chard (like R Wines’ Darby & Joan)
  • a dry Gewurztraminer for nights that we say “screw it, we’re ordering sushi” (Banyan)
  • a dry Rose for cheeses or light risotto (who doesn’t love the Hippolyte Reverdy Sancerre?)
  • a Sangiovese for smoked pizza with prosciutto (Caparone isn’t Italiano, but it’ll fool you!)
  • a juicy ripe Shiraz for my special Black Angus/three-year-aged cheddar cheeseburgers (so flavorful you need a Luchador to reign ’em in!)
  • a Washington State Cab for steak night (Chateau Smith is king of our castle)
  • a gigantic French blend for lamb or gamey meats (Aric is nice with everything from lamb stew to gyros)
  • and a kick-your-butt Tempranillo for my mean chicken mole (I never serve it without Atalayas)

These are the wines that work for me. Obviously, a vegetarian’s wine rack would look very different. And obviously, from time to time I get guests who put up a hand and say “I only drink red” or “I don’t like white,” and the pairing effort is lost. But when I sit down with a big bowl of whatever I’ve prepared and a nice glass of the wine I’ve paired it with, the bliss is on par with the beachside massage I got on my honeymoon. It’s an “Ooh” moment, an “Aah” moment, an “Aha” moment, what have you.

The next time you’re in Just Grapes stocking up for your cellar, clue us into your dinner style. Our staff of six is 100% foodie, featuring two culinary school students and even a vegetarian. There are few things that make us happier than helping you pair your perfect meal. And heck, we may even end up asking you for a recipe!

Brett's famous ribs, which she almost always pairs with Calina Carmenere!

Brett's famous ribs, which she almost always pairs with Calina Carmenere!

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