La Jota Vineyard Co. was a very small stone winery built in 1887 on the side of a sloping Howell Mountain hillside. The property had 28 acres planted, mostly to Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Syrah, and Malbec grapes turning out about 5,000 cases per vintage. The owner, Bill Smith, was a quiet, reflective man in his late 60s. He was a believer in drinking wine, not using it as a trophy or status symbol.
"It's just grape juice," he would say when I would marvel at what he had chosen to go with our cookout lunches prepared by the vineyard team. We had some amazingly authentic Mexican food cooked over a campfire in the middle of the vineyards, and Bill would open anything he felt like drinking. One day it was a 1988 Dunn Cabernet from his friend and neighbor Randy Dunn, on another occasion it was a 1990 Chateux Rayas.
Because the operation was so small, I was required to wear many hats. I got my hands dirty planting and pruning in the vineyards, picking and pressing during crush, and racking and bottling in the cellar. I spent time each day tasting the wines in barrel, learning how they changed over time, noting the sometimes subtle nuances between barrels, the weight of different varietals, and the slight variance in the terroir of the five small vineyards on the property.
Most of all, I garnered an appreciation for how critical a role the olfactory plays in our perception of taste. Wine lovers speak of a wine's "nose," and compare the aroma to the eventual flavor on the palate. The "finish" is often tasted when you breathe in again. These are all part of the language of wine, and yet we do not typically speak of food in the same manner. I wonder why that is?
Luckily, I was drawn back to cooking and returned to finish my education with Chef Keller. As a sous chef at the French Laundry I began to focus more and more on how dishes could be flavored through aroma. As I developed my own style in Chicago at Trio and at Alinea, aroma techniques became one of the defining characteristics of my cuisine. And it started with my experience in the vineyard.
While building Alinea we decided to continue the pairing work we had begun at Trio with Joe Catterson. We believed that pairing was so critical to the dining experience that we made Joe not only our wine director but also our general manager. With a menu of 12 to 26 courses, it is impossible, and not terribly desirable, to have just one or two wines bridge the courses. Instead, we believe that each course can be enhanced by the wine--and visa versa: that the food can enhance the wine as well. That is the essence of a great pairing.
There are no hard and fast rules on pairing wine with food. The romantic notion that a sommelier with amazing taste-memory knows exactly what to pour with whatever dish has some occasional truth. But more often than not, that merely informs a direction. Then we begin opening dozens of bottles to find just the right complement to a course. Or if we find a wonderfully vibrant, unique wine that we wish to showcase, we may work in the other direction and let the food be guided by the wine (though that is a rare occurrence, a subject I'll explore in later posts). Ideally, even seasoned wine lovers come to Alinea and are surprised by both the wines and how well they match with the dinner.