photograph by hulya kolabas
Taste is subjective. What is sweet to you could be dry to me. Taste is impressionable. When someone comments on notes of berry or smoke, we suddenly taste it. When Mary Schaffer, owner and sommelier of Napa & Co, pairs wine with food, she is ever conscious of these facts. That’s one reason why she keeps the price of a wine secret when she teaches wine classes. “People are very influenced by price,” she says.
Schaffer believes “the right match” of wine with food “can make a good meal an even better meal.” Conversely, an off pairing can make food taste odd. She tells of a customer enjoying a tomato soup until she took a sip of red wine. The very tannic wine she ordered with her meal made the tomatoes taste sour. “The better match would have been a medium-weight Sauvignon Blanc,” Shaffer says.
Pairing the weight of the wine and food is basic, and sometimes surprising. “Steak needs a full-bodied wine,” she says, “but most people don’t realize a full, rich, buttery Chardonnay qualifies for that match.” Salads, on the other hand, are light, “so you really need to stay light in weight to work best. You also want a decent amount of acidity to counter the acid in most dressings.”
Ingredients are the next consideration. “A truffle risotto would need an Old World European–style wine to pick up the same farmlike nuances [in the dish] and not a full berry ripe Zinfandel, even if the weights were comparable,” she says.
Ask Shaffer about myth-busters, and she can rattle them off. Here’s one that surprised me. Reserve doesn’t always mean special. There’s no legal definition of reserve in the United States. Most Kendall Jackson drinkers don’t realize the winery doesn’t make a nonreserve. “Be careful of those labels,” Schaffer says. “It’s marketing one hundred percent!”
Visit napaandcompany.com for information about upcoming wine tastings.