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When he's riding through Napa on his Harley, long hair flying, chef Jan Birnbaum isn't afraid of anything. At his Calistoga restaurant, Catahoula, his bold yet soulful brand of Southern-inspired cuisine is equally assured; his wine list is a compendium of Napa Valley's best. But when it comes to matching food with wine, Birnbaum hasn't always been as confident. When he first started cooking at K-Paul's in New Orleans, he jokes, "the choices were beer, martinis and a house white or red." Since then, the Louisiana-born engineer-turned-chef has developed an idiosyncratic wine-pairing "rule book" for use both at Catahoula and at his second restaurant, Seattle's Sazerac. Birnbaum attributes his wine-pairing prowess to trying a wide range of bottles with his cooking as well as being schooled by his winemaker friends. Their best advice, he says, was to build flavor bridges between the wine and the food while he's creating his recipes. But most important, he learned to trust his own instincts, which tell him, he says, that "there shouldn't be a war going on in your mouth." The recipes that follow and the wines he suggests to accompany them keep the peace.

—Lily Barberio

Published October 2002
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