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An Unlucky Pairing - Ordering the Tasting Menu Can Mean Being Treated Like a Rube

Feb. 29, 2008


How have wine pairings with tasting menus evolved? To find out, we tried four of New York City's, and America's, best and most famous restaurants: Le Bernardin, Jean Georges, Daniel and Per Se. We are back, poorer but wiser, and, to quote Gilda Radner on "Saturday Night Live": Never mind.



Our journey started at Le Bernardin, a temple of seafood. We ordered the top tasting menu and the additional wines with each course (there was a set menu of wine pairings). Very little went right. The sommelier didn't hear a word we said. No matter how much we tried to explain in a low-key way that we knew something about wines and would like to discuss them, she kept to her script, which told us little we didn't know. . . Even though we were there at 6 p.m., not one of the seven wines we were served was poured from a full bottle, which wouldn't have been as noticeable if the wines had seemed pristine, but they didn't. John said one wine had "notes of Band-Aids." A painfully contrite Mr. Sohm said in a follow-up interview that it was "impossible" that the wines had not been freshly opened. . . .



We felt very much like we had been treated as hayseed tourists who ordered the tasting and wine-pairing menus only because we didn't know how to pronounce the names of any of the dishes or wines. While we always try to remain anonymous when researching a column, we have never succeeded so brilliantly: In this case, we were positively invisible. We have saved this for last: The wine-pairing menu was $280 for the two of us. That's just for the wine.


This is the bottom line: When the idea of wine pairings with each course was new, it seemed sommeliers were genuinely excited. Not only that, it seemed the only people who would order it -- and pay the sometimes high freight -- were wine lovers, so there was a certain connection between diner and server. Now that pairings have become routine, some restaurants see it simply as a way to move some wine and move along the diners. The romance is largely gone.


We have found that when we order wines by the bottle, we slow a restaurant to our pace. We take a few minutes ordering the wine, then we drink some while we chat, then we order dinner and continue to sip, then maybe we order another bottle or glass. Our research has shown, unfortunately, that when we order the tasting menu, the restaurant puts us on its schedule, which is generally too rushed. (Even at Per Se, we had to insist that we were going to wait for some wine before we ate its classic amuse-bouche, the salmon tartare "ice cream cone." Then, the second the wine came, our waiter picked up the cone holder and held it for us to take a cone.)


There are wine dinners happening all the time featuring the wines of a certain region or producer, and those are often lovely. And we're sure there are restaurants that still treat their wine-pairing menus seriously and the people who order them special. But, from now on, we'll go back to ordering bottles from the wine list. For us, wine-tasting menus are a trend whose time has passed.




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Nail on head! Don't tell me anything after you've put my food down; just leave.

This has always been my experience. When I have attempted the wine pairings, usually because I do like the idea of different and appropriate wine with each course, I always tell the sommelier that I do not like new world wines. Yet, inevitably, I am brought an over-oaked california chardonnay, a new zealand SB, and a petit sirah fruit and alcohol bomb.



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It's interesting that the restaurants treat the wine pairing buyer as second class citizens in their presentation and treatment. Here's what the article goes on to say about Jean-Georges. Considering the prices charged for dinner, offering just an ounce of a $22 a bottle wine seems stupid...




Jean Georges was a more-gratifying experience. The wines (once again, pre-chosen) were served in different kinds of glasses, which added to the sensual experience of the meal. Once again, we went early, and every one of the seven wines we had was poured from a freshly opened bottle. Jean Georges started us with a bubbly, which seems appropriate -- a lovely Laurent-Perrier 1999 -- but it sure would have been nice to have it with the amuse-bouche. It felt strange to eat before we'd had a sip of wine, and the amuse-bouche -- especially the mushroom on a piquant green sauce with a little piece of toasted black bread on top of it -- would have sung with it.




Once again, we never did meet the head sommelier, Hristo Zisovski, or Kimberly Drake, his teammate, whom he said works the room in his absence. People ordering full bottles got the whole sommelier treatment, with lots of swirling and sniffing and discussion, but no one other than our waiter, who was professional and knowledgeable, dropped by our table. And our waiter also never really listened or grasped that we are passionate about wine and wanted to discuss the wines before us.


Here, finally, however, was the kind of risky pairing that makes these tasting menus worthwhile: spicy poached lobster with an Oregon Pinot Noir. It seems an unlikely combination, but they worked beautifully (see chart). Mr. Zisovski said of the lobster pairing, "We serve either a white Burgundy or Pinot Noir, depending on what we have opened. The dish has orange and tangerine and saffron, and the lobster has some sweetness." The pairing worked, he said, because of "the lighter notes of Pinot and the fruit from the New World-style" wine. We enjoyed this pairing so much that Dottie asked for another "splash" of the wine to have with the lobster she was still enjoying. The waiter almost grudgingly poured an ounce more, but didn't offer any to John, whose glass also was empty. The wine retails for $22.


Mr. Zisovski later apologized for us not meeting either him or Ms. Drake. "There are a couple of waiters who are quite knowledgeable about wine," he said, and, in any case, "if they feel that a table wants to talk about it, they come and get me right away." We only wish.

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There are places I trust to do this right, but certainly there's a high risk that the sommelier's choice of wines will be remarkably similar to the wines they happen to be pouring by the glass at the bar.


Worst service I've had in this context was at London's Pied a Terre, where the sommelier decided he could just pour without even showing me what he was pouring. Once I stopped him doing that, I then had to teach him to pour the wine into the glass without lifting the glass from the table.


Two Michelin stars. :blink:


(That was a few years back.)

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One place where I have found it works is at WD-50. The wait staff I have encountered have all been well-versed in and enthusiastic about the wines and they come up with very interesting pairings. And they were once gracious enough to allow me and a companion to have half-pours and pay for one pairing. I also had a good experience at Telepan, but should note I was with a friend of the house.


I had a bad experience at Babbo, though, with a tasting menu. We were sitting upstairs and the pairings were late to the table for almost every single course. It was really annoying, and without anyone in my party making so much as a squeak (although I think some of us may have looked a bit peeved) the wine was comped.

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The places that offer pairings in Munich do a fairly nice job. Two of them (that I know of) are primarily wine importers so they pick the wines first and the kitchen cooks to match. You can choose between 0.1 or 0.2 liter pours, or just get a bottle.


The other place that offers set wines is Tantris -- the sommelier is pretty famous so it's kind of fun to see what she chooses. Here the refills are frequent and unlimited, and so far I've really loved the choices.


Also, I didn't realize Zweigelt was such a wine-nerd shibboleth.

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I agree with Daisy about WD-50. Maybe it's cuz the sommelier is Wiley's dad. I also had an excellent experience on a tasting menu with pairings with the sommelier at Urena. Also, EMP (where I believe that on several courses, the sommelier gave me tastes of various proposed pairings, so I could choose the one I liked best). And of course the Monday Room -- but that's a wine bar.


Otherwise, the places in New York where I've had experiences just like the authors' are legion.

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I agree with Daisy about WD-50. Maybe it's cuz the sommelier is Wiley's dad.


WD-50 would be one of my examples too, although Dewey does actually employ a sommelier.


I had good experiences at March too, back when March was serious. More recently at Blue Hill. The Monday Room is excellent in this respect.


But the problem is, how else do you really get wine that'll go with a seven-course tasting menu featuring wildly disparate dishes?


Two sides to this, I'd say. Even when I've been pleased with wine pairings, I find switching back and forth between whites and reds of different styles over a long series of courses can bewilder the palate. March really pushed the envelope by dropping sherries and sakes into the mix: the individual pairings worked, but it was a very strange way to drink through the evening.


There's a lot to be said for choosing one versatile wine, or two, and seeing how they work with the variety of courses.

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OK you guys are talking about something entirely different. Usually our sequence is limited to an apero, a white, a red and a dessert wine.


But even then, for two people and the minimally civilized three/five courses two bottles is simply too much alcohol. I don't particularly care to drink cabarnet with a seafood veloute, or be stuck with white wine for the entire evening.


I generally order by the glass, but in the states my experience has been that this is usually not a great option either.


The middle ground is to order champagne or prosecco for the first course and a bottle for the rest of the meal -- but that's still more than I ought to be drinking if it's just the two of us.

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Not entirely relevant, but I just read this from Eric Asimov in the Times:


Often precision is the enemy of pleasure as it reduces the enjoyable task of choosing a wine to a system in which you must dissect a dish into its sweet, sour, salty and bitter components and pair it with a wine that has been dismantled into elements of acidity, pH, phenols and diacetylenes. You don’t know whether to grab a fork or a piece of litmus paper.


Wow, yeah, that's how I do it. Everyone else?


This is in preparation for seeing whether a red Arbois goes with oysters. A bit like seeing if you can make a rice pudding bounce: yes, a bit, but really...



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