Maria Hines of Seattle’s Tilth, an F&W Best New Chef 2005, can tell you exactly how the chickens that lay her restaurant’s eggs are treated. But she knows relatively little about how the wines in Tilth’s cellar are made. Indeed, many chefs admit to knowing less than they’d like about wine. So when Hines and several other past Best New Chefs in Seattle got a chance to take a crash course in wine, they grabbed it. Their teacher: Maria Helm Sinskey, an F&W Best New Chef 1996 who is now culinary director of Napa’s Robert Sinskey Vineyards. Sinskey is herself a student, albeit on an elite level; she is on the verge of earning her Master of Wine, a degree held by fewer than 300 people worldwide.
On a rare day out of the kitchen, Hines joined Johnathan Sundstrom of Lark, Tamara Murphy of Brasa and Jason Wilson of Crush for the class. The setting was Taste, a year-old restaurant in the Seattle Art Museum where Danielle Custer, another former Best New Chef, works as general manager. Since the chefs were all curious about geeky winemaking terminology—“I really want to know what a winemaker means when he says his whites go through ‘malo,’ ” says Wilson—Sinskey made sure to demystify some of the jargon. After an overview of how grapes are grown and harvested, and how wine is fermented and aged, she talked about how to taste wine. Finally, she moved into a pairing lesson using wines from Italy, Spain and southern France to complement dishes the chefs had selected from their Mediterranean-influenced menus.
Growing Grapes and Maximizing Flavor
“Even chefs who know a thing or two about wine think grapes just grow, and then they’re picked,” says Sinskey. But there’s more to it than that. In the middle of summer, after the vines flower and the grapes start to get bigger, the fruit begins to change color. “This is called veraison,” Sinskey says. Around the time of veraison, vineyard managers often start what’s known as green harvesting by clipping unripe bunches from the vines, so the plant can focus nutrients into the remaining fruit. Workers also prune the leaves, which helps direct sunlight reach more grapes and helps air circulate around them to prevent rot.