I’ve done plenty of wine pairing in my time, at least once or twice a week over the past 20 years or so. But almost all of that food and wine matching has come in the comfort of my own home with the aid of my own wine cellar.
Sure, I’m the guy who picks the wine when we go out to dinner, for either just my wife and me or with friends. And I also do the holiday wine procuring, along with any and everything for our soirees. That’s what happens when you’re “the wine guy.” What I hadn’t done, however, is pick wine for a roomful of strangers. Well, mostly strangers.
This was a challenge, a sommelier challenge suggested by friend, local sommelier and restaurant manager Matthew Lees. Lees has done a number of these challenges over the years. He thought doing one with me pitted against him at Rosso atop the Hotel Sorella where Lees works would be fun for guests as well as the two of us.
It was. Sort of.
Here’s how the challenge was structured. There would be a four-course meal created by Rosso’s new executive chef, Charles d’Ablaing. Three of the courses would be savory, the fourth dessert.
Lees and I would pick one wine each for the first three courses. The diners would taste the wines, all poured blind, with the food and vote on the one they preferred with the cuisine. The votes would be tabulated and a winner would be announced. Hilarity and good times would ensue! Sort of. Actually, I had a blast, interacting with the guests, poking some fun at Lees and tasting the wines.
Lees and I had tasted through the courses at a casual lunch, without wine, several weeks earlier. This was not to be an easy task, as Lees’ boss and one of Kansas City’s top sommeliers, Michael Scherzberg, told d’Ablaing to “throw in some challenging ingredients.” As an example, cinnamon with the diver scallop and a smoked Cabernet demi-glaze served underneath the USDA prime tenderloin.
The middle course was squab with chanterelles, so earthy on earthy — not exactly a slam dunk wine match. But then that was the idea, challenge the two of us to pick the wines that would not just overcome the troublesome elements, but make the dishes and wines work seamlessly.
I had some definite ideas after tasting through the food: a premier crus Chablis with the scallop (Chablis and scallops is always a go-to pairing for me), a Gigondas or Rasteau from the Southern Rhone for the squab, and a Chilean red blend, hopefully with some Carmenere in the mix, to go with the smoked element of the demi-glaze.
And that’s where I screwed up. Not with the Chilean blend, which I got absolutely right, but with the fact that I started thinking what diners would better respond to rather than the wine matches my instincts and 25 years of experience told me to make.
I started doubting my gut, something I should never have done. It’s not that the wines I selected for the first two courses were bad, or even incorrect. The Willamette Valley, Ore., Pinot Gris from Raptor Ridge was terrific, but the Chablis would have been better.
Same with my pick for the squab, a Moulin-a-Vent Cru Beaujolais. My thinking with both of those wines was that their purer fruit and a more lifted palette would stand out and be something guests would relate to. Wrong. Lees’ choices, a viscous Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley and a darker, earthier (compared to my Beaujolais) Ripasso from the Veneto ruled the night as my fruity picks fell flat.
I did win the third course rather easily with a Von Siebenthal red blend out of Chile’s Aconcagua Valley, but Lees’ lead was insurmountable, and I lost by a mere four votes.
I’m convinced if I’d gone with either the Chablis or the Rhone, let alone both of them, the results would have tilted in my favor. But I did not and they did not. I did learn a valuable lesson, though: To thy own self be true. Someone famous said that, I think, but maybe I should tweek it a bit to appeal to a broader audience. I just can’t decide.
Dave Eckert was the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS and Wealth TV for 12 seasons.