November 16, 2006
Give thanks for wine
by MARGANN FABIAN
Wine for the Thanksgiving table? Well, of course! But, you might wonder, which wine? How does one choose the perfect wine to match your perfect meal, and how do you find it?
There was a time when the answer to that question was fairly simple for me. I knew that red wine went with red meat and white wine paired with poultry and fish, but now that I'm a wine professional, of sorts, I've come to realize there's more to it than that -- there are no hard and fast rules. And even if I was thinking white wine with turkey, I wasn't necessarily aware there were so many different white wines. Alas! Now the turkey and wine question has become a little more complicated.
My career in wine started years ago as a hobby. I began selling wine up here in 1994 for a winery owned by family friends, located in my former hometown. I started helping out at Fieldbrook Winery 16 years ago, mostly bottling, but selling some of their wine as well. (Disclosure: Fieldbrook Winery is owned by NCJ publisher Judy Hodgson and her husband.) About two years ago I was offered a job with a company called EPIC Wines. I now sell wine through their "book," representing roughly 200 wineries, mostly from outside the United States.
Any information I thought I had before starting this job was soon overshadowed by my newfound awareness of just how many wines there are in the world that exhibit completely diverse flavors. Talk about overwhelmed. It got easier when I learned to relax and enjoy myself.
I soon came to realize that selling or buying wine in Humboldt County is not the same as anywhere else in California. (I don't need to go into my short and unsuccessful career selling wine in the Bay Area.) Humboldt boasts an abundance of wine professionals who know their wine and are passionately invested in it. I see it as one facet of the incredible concentration of talent we have here "behind the redwood curtain." And that most certainly includes the many talented winemakers that our community is fortunate enough to have.
Most important (at least for me) is the fact that I have yet to meet anyone in the wine business here who is a snob about it. I have never experienced an attitude of superiority, arrogance or any disdain of my relative ignorance. The people I deal with, wine buyers for local stores and restaurants, are knowledgeable, experienced and have a helpful, open and enthusiastic attitude. Collectively the merchants and restaurateurs have provided me with a wine education -- one that is also available to you. You should consider them your greatest resource for finding that perfect wine, not just for Thanksgiving but on any occasion.
So, back to the wine for Thanksgiving question. What I've learned about pairing wine with food is that it can be either as simple or as complicated as you want to make it. If you must start with rules, start with this: The best wine for any occasion and any food is a wine you enjoy. There, isn't that easy? With that as a starting point you can feel free to explore a whole world of possibilities.
There seems to be agreement that a lighter food is best paired with a lighter wine (that doesn't necessarily mean white, there are lighter bodied reds as well). This means that the "weight" of food should be compared to the "weight" of the wine. To put it another way, consider the intensity of a wine or food. Certain white wines, for instance, have a higher concentration and intensity of flavors than some of the red varietals.
Another technique would have you serve a wine that repeats some flavor of the food, such as a very fruity wine for meat prepared in a fruit sauce. Additionally, you can contrast the flavors of the dish with those of the wine. For example, a highly seasoned dish might pair beautifully with a light fruity wine.
The way Randy Ward, the assistant winemaker at Fieldbrook, puts it is to think of food/wine pairing as a color wheel. Just as you have contrasting and complementary colors, you have contrasting and complementary wines -- each can work with different foods depending upon what you want to achieve.
What I consider to be the best rule of thumb for pairing is to avoid wines that will either clash with or dominate the food and, at the same time, to make certain your food won't overpower the wine.
Starting with turkey, the consensus is that there are many white varietals that make a good match. However, someone said that what makes the Thanksgiving meal difficult to pair wine with is not the turkey but all the stuff that sits alongside it. Because of the spicy, slightly bitter flavors of cranberry and the sometimes robust seasoning in dressing, Pinot Noir is a highly acclaimed wine for Thanksgiving. Pinot is often the best choice for many foods difficult to match. Another good pairing is a lighter red with a strong acid component, Sangiovese being an example.
One more approach is to serve two or three wines with a meal. Some guests may have a preference different from your own. Besides, isn't experimentation the way we all learn best? Taste the wines you have selected with various dishes and you will be sure to learn something about pairing wine for next year's Thanksgiving feast.
My best advice is to go shopping and talk to one of Humboldt's many professional wine experts. The various wine shops are an obvious source of wisdom, but I know from experience that your favorite grocery store also has a knowledgeable staff. Ask for the wine buyer and ply them with questions. They will be delighted to discuss your menu and help you find the right wine to fit in your budget.
Now, after all this, how and where do you find the wine to pair perfectly with your meal? Last week I spoke with some local wine buyers about their favorite pairing for the Thanksgiving meal. They offered wine and food pairing advice as unique and diverse as the community we share.
One last thing: When sitting down to enjoy your Thanksgiving meal, whether the pairings are perfect or not, give a thought to the hardworking dedicated people who have grown the food and made the wine before you. Take a look at the family and friends you have chosen to share your meal with, and make a toast to the bounty of Humboldt County.
Margann Fabian is a wine broker living in Redwood Valley.
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