So you think this is one more intimidating article about food and wine matching by a so-called food and wine expert? You’re probably right. But let me defend myself.
I’ve worked in the wine industry in various capacities for over twenty-five years. Yeah, that’s a long time. My accomplishments are admirable with many articles and awards under my belt, I’m a trained sommelier and I’ve not only taught many courses on wine but I’ve written an entire college wine program. So when I tell you my definition of a food and wine expert, you really should listen to me.
A food and wine expert is someone who has tasted every wine in the world, has eaten every food in the world and has eaten and drunk them together to judge their pleasurability. That is a food and wine expert.
Yes you guessed it, I’m not an expert, nor do I know of any. But that’s not to say I don’t have a great time pursuing my goal to be an expert and in common pursuit, I know plenty of others who are all passionate about perfecting their own food and wine experiences.
There’s only one way to learn the craft and that’s to eat food and drink wine. The old adage of practice makes perfect is exactly how it’s done. The logic is flawless yet true. Like the Holy Grail, the perfect pairings are rare but worth a lifetime of effort.
My most memorable flavor experience I’ve had was at a dinner put on my Iron Horse Winery of California. They were serving their uber-full, rich Cabernet Sauvignon (don’t remember which one). The wine poured from the bottle into the glass in one velvety, black, luscious stream of palate seduction. It was a small pour so I didn’t dare drink any before the food arrived. I swirled it around on the white tablecloth and lifted it to my nose. That’s when I was slapped in the face with a thick wall of aroma intensity; smoldering ash, baked blackberries and a fresh cedar lined closet. It was classic, quintessential.
The chef, who had spent weeks experimenting with different dishes for this dinner decided to serve a common chocolate lava cake. Forget what I just said, there’s nothing common about a little plate being placed in front of you with a glistening mound of moist blackish-brown chocolate hidden under a veil of dusted cocoa. As the spoon glided through the center, a gush of dense, black lava-like liquid oozed out and tried to spread across the plate. If it were not for my quick scooping action I may have missed the most glorious food and wine experience I’ve had to date.
Memories are precious but what’s priceless is the ability to repeat a great food and wine experience. Never with the same foods and wines for there is much more to the perfect experience than what takes place on the palate. Considerations like the time of year, ambience of the setting, people you’re with, mood of the occasion, etc, etc, etc. No, people who quest for the perfection in food and wine experiences never know when we’ll be struck dumb with another gastronomic shower – that’s what keeps us going.
While the Iron Horse dinner was a one time event, I can enjoy a Grass-Fed Rib Eye Steak from Black River Farms with Rosso Piceno (a rich red blend of Sangiovese and Montepulciano blend) any time at The Western Door restaurant or an oven roasted sea bass with lemon shallot spinach and fennel scented onion rings with a glass of Masi Masianco Pinot Grigio at Patria Restaurant. I just love the way these two taste together!
Just as the wine makes a difference, so does the food. Food should have a measure of complexity to compliment the wine. If it’s a simple house wine, a simple meal will do, but if you really want to explore the multifaceted complexities that a well crafted food and wine pairing offers, you’ll need the complexity of a well crafted meal. Like a winemaker is to wine, so is a chef to the food.
No one knows this more than Lam Vongsakoun, Sommelier and Director of Food and Beverage at Seneca Niagara Casino. He and his team are working to make sure you have great dishes and wines to create your own food and wine memories.
“Our wine programs are evolving to be more approachable,” explains Lam. Part of their new wine program will be to offer more wines by the glass. At La Cascata there are over 30 luxury, entry level and value offerings available by the glass so diners can experiment with a new wine or a high-end wine without having to commit to the entire bottle. “The meals here are amazing, so the wine has to be,” says the experienced food and wine lover.
In the luxury category, Lam stocks red wines that need a few years to several decades to achieve their mellow, multifaceted maturity. These will pair so beautifully with the cast-iron porterhouse at the Western Door. Why would they age their own wines? Lam explains, “by the time they’re ready to drink, they’re almost impossible to find and if you could find them, you wouldn’t be able to afford them. Besides that, when you age wines yourself they’ll probably be in better condition than most older bottles you’ll find withering away on retailers shelves.”
The wines-by-the-glass program at The Western Door will grow from 18 to 30 wines with plenty of new offerings to explore like French whites; Sancerre’s from the Loire Valley, perhaps a new Viognier from Rhone or Semillon from Bordeaux. At Seneca, it’s all about the best wines that marry well with the food. It’s not just wine for the sake of wine. “We’re going for the full experience,” promises Lam.
Yes, the conditions are ripe for a food and wine playground in any of the Seneca Resorts Casino restaurants but, how should one begin? What do you choose? First, pick a dish on the menu that excites you. There are many to choose from like the Pine Nut Crusted Rack of Lamb at La Cascata to the Grilled Pork Loin with Apple Orchard Relish at The Three Sisters Restaurant.
Then decide if you like your wine and food to complement each other or contrast. Not thought of that before? It works like this; the components of sweetness, saltiness, sourness and bitterness are the elements your tongue will pick up on. The fifth element is umami which some still argue is not a real taste, but my feeling is that it describes a taste the other four miss. So yes, it’s important.
In addition to the above-mentioned criteria, other food and wine considerations include ethnic cuisine, spicy dishes, seasonality and regional specialties. Depending on how you combine them, you can get a complementary or contrasting result. Either will offer you a great dining experience, it’s just about getting more of what you like.
So while one can still enjoy a rich Bordeaux with a roasted rack of lamb with great pleasure, it’s the million other heavenly and pleasurable possibilities that will go unexperienced if you’re not in the game. So it pays to play!
Up in Ellicottville, Ray Patchkofsky, Director of Food and Beverage for Seneca Casino agrees with Lam’s wine philosophy but rolls it out a little differently. He’s developed a 20 wine bottle selection all under $20 program for Patria Restaurant. You can taste the wine before you purchase so it takes the fear out of trying a new wine. For example, diners who taste the Barone Fini Pinot Grigio with the pan seared scallops with risotto cake are hooked.
Staff is another priority in a good food and wine program. “Our staff go beyond recommending the traditional food and wine matches and they educate our diners on the characteristics of wine and food and why they may like the match,” says Ray. The staff will take the traditional order of things like white wine before red, young before old and dry before sweet and give them a fresh appraisal as well as take into consideration any special occasion or emotional feelings for food.
The rest is up to the diner. In a playground of potential food and wine pairings it easier to hit the jackpot in the dining room than ever before.
By Lynn Ogryzlo