Why Wine Pairings Matter

The author introduces a series on pairings, explaining how he came to appreciate the way wine enhances food.


Photo by Heather Sperling

When I accepted the job as a chef de commis at the French Laundry, in 1996, I had the unrealistic notion that I would be able to find the free time outside of cooking to learn the wine trade. Surrounded by vineyards and the core of the American wine industry, there was no escaping that Napa meant wine, and that my culinary education should include the wine education that only immersion at a vineyard could provide. They felt like they went hand in hand. However, the transition into reality was abrupt: I found myself working 15-hour days with the goal of helping create the best restaurant in the world.

The next thing I knew, I had been working at the French Laundry for two and a half years. I had grown immensely as a chef, but felt that I was plateauing a bit in my drive and desire to keep learning. I had a girlfriend at the time, who of course was less than happy at the hours I was logging. That and other forces in my life kept telling me I needed a change. The time seemed right to pursue winemaking.

I spoke with Chef Keller and let him know that in two months I would be taking an assistant winemaker job at La Jota Vineyard Co. He was supportive of the decision, even though the timing was not perfect from the kitchen's point of view, and graciously masked any disappointment he felt. He assumed I would never return.

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.

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.

About 70 percent of our customers order the pairings, and we feel that is the best way to enjoy the restaurant. We also keep a 550+-selection cellar, and encourage diners to incorporate a favorite into their pairings. Our staff is very flexible in augmenting the pairings or changing them slightly to match a patron's preferences.

The response has been rewarding: many diners tell us that the pairings are revelatory, and that they never understood food/wine pairing--or thought it was total BS--until a particular moment in the meal. So many diners asked to order the wines from our pairings that we decided to launch a Web-based service selling them as a subscription. Alinea: Oenophilia was born from the requests of our patrons.

In compiling some of the material for Alinea: Oenophila I wrote my thoughts on specific pairing and the stories behind them. In subsequent posts we'll explore examples of food and wine pairings, why they work, what we focus on, and the creative relationship between them.

Grant Achatz's eight-part series on wine pairings will run on Mondays and Wednesdays for the next four weeks. Check back for his recommendations for what to serve with beef heart, caviar, chocolate, and more.