Pairing Wine and Produce

When Foodbuzz gave me the opportunity to attend some of the events at SF Chefs Week on Friday I was specifically interested in my interview of Daniel Scherotter and of the Food Media panel in the afternoon. Actually, I found the Food Media discussion disappointing and not even worth writing about. But Foodbuzz was kind enough to throw in an extra seminar - Nature's Blueprint: Pairing Wine and Produce with Your Eyes.

Now my readers know that I don't drink alcohol and so the idea of going to a wine pairing discussion is not really my thing. But it was free, supposed to include food (ha!), and educational. So I went for it.

I arrived early and took a front seat. In front of me were three pours from Kendall Jackson: Reserve Sauvignon Blanc, Reserve Chardonnay, and Reserve Pinot Noir.  Our instructor was Gilian Handelman, Directory of Wine Education at Kendall Jackson. 

Handelman explained that in 1997 they had planted a 2.5 acre organic garden. When they got their first crop of produce and decided to taste it with their wines, they had laid out the wines light to dark and the produce light to dark. Now while it was a normal wine behavior to line the wines out that way, they just happened to do it that way for the produce. They tasted and everything was fine. Then someone noticed and said, why not mix up the produce? Why did we follow a color order? So they mixed up the produce and tasted again. Awful.

It was then that they realized that the color lineup they had done was instinctual and yet matched correctly with the wines.  What was it about the colors that influenced the tastes? Darker fruits and vegetables have polyphenols and just as they work to influence the taste of the wine, they influence what the wine should be drunk with.

Handelman then showed us listings of the color categories.
White/tan – white nectarines and peaches, turnips, cauliflower,  etc. These are the most bland in flavor with no bitterness.
Green – apples, greens, limes, green grapes, pears
Yellow/orange – most citrus, melons, peach, corn, carrots, pumpkin
Red – strawberries, cherries, tomatoes, red peppers, beets
Blue/black/purple – eggplant, black currants, blueberries, black olives
As you get darker, the flavors become more pronounced. 

We were given small plates of produce with light and dark versions of things. For instance, green and red cabbage, yellow and red raspberry, Green Zebra tomato versus a dark, red beefsteak tomato. It was then time to taste.

Now remember, I don’t drink. So although I gave it my best shot, it really was ridiculous to expect me to taste the differences. But, I’ll explain one interesting thing a little later. We were first told to taste each wine. There were spit cups for the others, but I, of course, just took the tiniest sip hoping that I could at least taste the difference. Not surprisingly, for someone who never drinks alcohol, they all tasted the same to me – alcohol!  LOL! I couldn’t tell any difference because the only thing my untrained tongue tasted was alcohol.

Don’t discount my having anything to share with you then. It was still an interesting discussion and I still have to share the little surprise.

We started with the first item, the green cabbage. Really, it’s mostly white or light green. It was very mild and had a vegetative taste. We were then to taste it first with the Sauvignon and then with the Pinot Noir.  Next we took a bite of the red cabbage. There was definitely more flavor in the red. As we tasted it with the two wines Handelman waited to see everyone’s reaction.

So here’s the surprise. Even though all the wine tasted the same to me (alcohol) there WAS a noticeable difference when I tasted ill-paired items. When I put the red cabbage with the Sauvignon or the green cabbage with the Pinot (bad pairings) there was a definite flavor clash/jolt I got from them. Whereas pairing them properly – red cabbage to Pinot – was less so.

We tasted around the plate, light and then dark. It was interesting because there were the light and dark versions of the same produce. Some items were alone. Corn, for instance. But then we got to the eggplant and the red runnerbean. First Handelman asked us to taste just the insides, which are white and bland. Then again, this time with the dark skin. The skin has all the color and the flavor. It made a difference when you tasted them with wine.

We were given maps of how KJ has their gardens laid out today. The white wine garden has paler produce items and is arranged in quandrants for wines. In the Chardonnay corner is lemon, peach, pear, melon, and gardenia. In the Gewurtztraminer/Riesling quadrant is orange, grapefruit, mint, and jasmine.

The red wine garden had all the darker produce. In the Pinot corner is plum, blueberry, tomato, raspberries, while the Cabernet/Merlot quadrant has black currants, bell peppers, black cherries, oregano.

Handelman said that it is interesting to watch people tasting wine and then strolling through the gardens because there really is a sensory experience that matches with the wines. 

We ended with Q&A and one woman asked the question, “So how should you pair? Wine to food or food to wine?” The answer was that it depends on the circumstance. If you have some particular food that you are showcasing, at a peach festival for instance, then you pair the wine to the food. But if your spouse comes home with some spectacular wine, then figure out the food to go with the wine.

The end point was the same as the start. Go by instinct and use color as your guide.