A Server's Perspective:
Breaking All the Stereotypes
By Jorge Eduardo Castillo
Maybe it's just me, but any time someone tells me I'm "supposed to" do this or "have to" do that, I always look for a different way to do it. So it is no surprise that many years ago when I first got into wine and all the "experts" would tell me things like, "you can only pair fish with white wine," my natural inclination was to search out a red that would go well with fish. My view is that when you adhere to these stereotypes or accepted norms, you are placing yourself in a box and limiting your options. There is nothing more satisfying to me than breaking stereotypes, whether it be in dealing with wine or every day life, so whenever I'm teaching people about wine I always tell them to exhaust all their options when looking for a perfect pairing. Below are some of the stereotypes in the wine world that I think can be detrimental to the overall enjoyment of wine and food. Some of these are meant to "surprise" your guests with different and exciting options when recommending wines.
White wine with fish.
Since I used this as an example above, I figured why not explain some ways you can break this stereotype. Popular opinion suggests that a flaky white fish needs a white wine to compliment it. While I am not suggesting you break out the Joseph Phelps Insignia next time you broil flounder, I do think there are some reds that can be extremely complimentary to the delicate flavors of the sea. Subtle and complex red Burgundy can go very well with Grouper, Mackerel or Mahi Mahi. Medium bodied Chianti, Barolo and New World Pinot Noir can match up very well with steaky fish, such as Tuna, Swordfish and Marlin. Also remember to consider the preparation as well — a stock and bean broth or olive relish changes the suggested pairing immediately, whether you are serving Bluefin or Rockfish. These are just some examples of how this stereotype can be broken. I encourage you to play around with different pairings in order to find new and interesting matches.
You should let wine breathe in the bottle before pouring it.
I have no idea where this one started, but any wine expert will tell you that any wine will breathe better in the glass or a decanter due to the increased surface space in which wine can be introduced to air. Here is a little game I like to play with guests who inquire about how a wine breathes: I bring out two glasses with their bottle. I pour a small taste in the first glass and tell them to let it sit for 3 minutes. Then I come back and pour a taste in the second glass. I have them taste from the glass I just poured, then go back and taste the first. The difference between the two will be startling to most wine novices — often they will taste like two different wines.
It is hard to find a good match for chicken.
I find the exact opposite is true: many varietals go very well with chicken. While finding the "perfect" match might be a little tough, chicken is a fairly flavor-neutral meat. Chicken can be so middle-of-the-road when it comes to flavor and fat there can be many different flavors that can compliment it. This is why there are so many different kinds of chicken preparations that taste great, because the flavors and textures can stand up to just about anything. Next time you are eating chicken, try it with a Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah or Merlot, and you will find they can all be decent matches — based on the background flavors of the preparation. How many other meats or seafoods can you say that for? This is something you can use to your advantage when taking care of your guests; whenever they choose a wine that you are having trouble finding a match for on your menu, recommend a chicken dish — odds are it will be a decent match.
Italian Wine with Italian food, French Wine with French food, etc…
If you order a Chianti every time you are eating pasta, how will you ever know if there is a better match? I find that Zinfandel can go very well with tomato sauce. German Riesling can go very well with Foie Gras. Red Burgundy can go very well with Paella. Shiraz can go very well with German sausage dishes. Gastronomic diversity is a good thing people!
Chocolate and wine go very well together.
Actually, I find it very difficult to find a wine that can hold up to the strong flavors or richness of cocoa. I will say that some Banyuls, some very full-bodied Madeira, and a couple vintage Ports make for decent pairings — but that's probably about it. So many people make the mistake of ordering a Tawny Port with their chocolate. To stand a chance, it must be a Ruby. I challenge you to take a bite out of a brownie or piece of fudge, then a sip of Tawny and tell me the flavors you get from the wine. My suggestion: enjoy your chocolate dessert without a wine, then indulge in a delicious cognac, sherry, armagnac or cordial.
There are hundreds of stereotypes out there waiting to be debunked. I encourage you to find one and squash it, then use it to your advantage when taking care of your guests or enjoying wine on your own. Remember — people like to be pleasantly surprised.
Jorge Eduardo Castillo is a representative of Vino 101, which provides on-line server wine training. Visit www.vino101.com for more details.