Educating Peter, Part 3: The Rules of Pairing

In the third and final installment of our series, wine editor Lettie Teague teaches her pupil, film critic Peter Travers, the do's and don'ts of pairing wine and food—and learns she may have created a monster.


I just finished making a film I'll be entering in Sundance," the waitress said to my friend Peter Travers as she handed him a menu. "Give me your card and I'll send you a copy." Peter and I were having lunch at L'Impero in Manhattan, the first of three meals I'd arranged in order to teach Peter how to order wine in a restaurant and how to pair it with food. Peter nodded graciously; as the film critic of Rolling Stone for the past 15 years, he is accustomed to being accosted by would-be Scorseses with Super-8 films. Such aspiring directors, said Peter, are outnumbered only by ambitious actors "who hand me an eight-by-ten glossy and say 'Next time you see Spielberg, could you give this to him?'"

"I've been looking forward to this," Peter said to me as we opened our menus. After tasting and spitting during our two months of private wine lessons, Peter just wanted to drink wine. Accompanied by food. ("I'm sure I would like this wine a lot more if I had something to eat" had been a frequently uttered Peter phrase.) Peter was also anxious to talk to a real-life sommelier. "As soon as I got over the idea that every wine has to go by a grape name, I got excited about wine lists. They don't seem as overpoweringly terrifying now," he said.

I'd chosen L'Impero because it is Italian, the most popular cuisine in this country and one I know Peter is fond of. Of course, L'Impero isn't just any Italian restaurant, but one of the best in New York; its chef, Scott Conant, is an F&W Best New Chef this year, and its co-owner and wine director, Chris Cannon, has created one of the city's most interesting (mostly Italian) lists, which last year F&W named one of America's finest.

L'Impero's list, however, isn't a traditional one, with wines grouped according to region (Piedmont, Tuscany, etc.), but one where they're arranged by flavor and character, such as "Floral, Lean and Racy" whites and "Powerful...Contemplative" reds. Peter, having spent the previous month studying the geography of wine, was visibly miffed. "Why do they do that?" he complained. I ventured it might be that many of the wines are obscure, like the 2002 Asprinio d'Aversa by Villa Carafa, a white made in Campania from the Asprinio grape, or the 1998 Litra Abbazia Sant'Anastasia, a Sicilian red made mostly from Nero d'Avola. "I'm a little at sea, looking at this list," Peter reported.

You could always ask the sommelier for advice, I said to Peter, as such a list seemed designed to provoke requests for assistance. In fact, a good rule of thumb is: The more obscure the wines, the more likely the sommelier wants to chat. "Then this guy must be begging for someone to talk to him," Peter replied.

But before such a conversation could take place, Peter needed to decide on food. And we needed to discuss some basics of wine and food pairing. Did Peter know, for example, that wines that are relatively high in acidity are the most flexible with food? He did not. They included some wines Peter liked (Pinot Noir, Chianti and Riesling) and some he did not (Sauvignon Blanc). Italian wines are especially notable for their relatively high degree of acidity. Another consideration, I added, is the wine's weight and texture relative to that of the food it will be paired with. Lighter dishes are generally best matched with lighter wines. In fact, color could be a useful clue in this context: The paler the wine, the lighter the food.

This is called a complementary pairing, I said to Peter, although there are times when a contrasting pairing could work too. For example, though a rich food like lobster might be complemented by an equally rich Chardonnay, it might also pair well with a contrasting wine like Soave, a lively white with the acidity to cut through the intensity of the dish. The key is to create balance between the wine and the food. Peter nodded enthusiastically at the word balance. "I'm less and less interested in depth and complexity than I am in balance, when it comes to wine," he declared.

I was about to reply that a wine of complexity and depth is by definition a balanced wine, but our cinematically minded waitress had returned with a recommendation specifically aimed at Peter. "You have to try the goat," she stated, referring to the Moist Roasted Vermont Capretto. Peter registered interest but first wanted to figure out the wine to pair with his appetizer, a sweet pea, tomato and crabmeat soup. "I've never thought about wine with soup before," he said.

Think about the components of the soup, I said. Though crabmeat is pretty rich, the tomato was likely to give the dish an acidic lift. I suggested Peter consider a wine with some fruit but one that also had a fair amount of acidity, like a Riesling, or (in L'Impero's parlance) a wine from the "Floral, Lean and Racy" category, such as a Friulian Tocai.

"Am I allowed to ask the sommelier for help?" Peter replied. Just then, as if divining the moment, Chris Cannon appeared at our table. "We'd like to start with a Riesling, but there isn't one on your list," Peter said, a bit truculently. Telling a sommelier what wine you might have ordered had he the sense to have put it on his list didn't seem like the best opener to me, but Cannon appeared to take it in stride. "We just got a Riesling in from Jermann in Friuli, but it's not on the list yet. Why don't you tell me what you're having?" he replied.

I'd chosen L'Impero's signature starter, a fricassee of mushrooms on creamy polenta, followed by roasted orata rosso (a mild Mediterranean fish). Peter ordered the soup and said he was "attracted" to the goat, though he had no idea what wine might accompany it.

Cannon, of course, had all kinds of ideas, starting with the 2003 Cantalupo "Il Mimo" rosé, made from Nebbiolo, the grape of the noble Piedmontese wines Barolo and Barbaresco. Cannon thought it could work with both of our appetizers. "I haven't tasted any rosés before," Peter replied, giving me an aggrieved look. Was I imagining it, or had Peter, newly possessed of some knowledge, turned a touch...bellicose? (I recalled that the same thing had happened to Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady when she staged a rebellion against Professor Henry Higgins.)

Happily, Peter and I were in accord over the rosé. Neither one of us thought it went particularly well with our appetizers. I thought it was too tannic for my creamy polenta, while Peter said it failed to "lift" the flavors of his soup. The wine's color—dark pink, almost red—had been a portent of trouble, not only of tannin but of alcohol, too. (At 13.5 percent, it was higher in alcohol than most Bordeaux.) Neither is desirable in a food-friendly rosé. "Are we allowed to semi-disagree with a sommelier's selection?" Peter wondered.

For our main courses, Peter asked Cannon for a Pinot Noir ("Pinot Nero" in Italian). Cannon countered with a 2001 Pico Maccario Barbera d'Asti Lavignone. "It has a lot of attributes of Pinot Noir—good fruit and really big acidity," he said. He gave Peter a taste. Peter approved, but Cannon decided he would open a second wine as well. He'd put it on the list just hours earlier, he said, giving Peter a meaningful look.

The Barbera had nice acidity and attractive fruit, and it went well with my fish, but it lacked complexity and weight. "It's too much of a contrast," Peter said when he tasted it with the full-flavored, spicy goat. But the second wine, a 1995 Hofstatter Lagrein Steinraffler from Alto Adige, was precisely right. Smoky, soft and dense, with a Syrah-like pepperiness, it was a perfect foil. "The Lagrein doesn't counter the goat, it complements it," Peter said, adding, "It stays on my tongue in a way that says more."

As much as Peter was pleased to learn about a new wine ("I'm looking Lagrein up in my atlas when I get home," he reported, mistaking the grape name for a place), he was even more inspired by his talk with Cannon, against whom Peter felt he'd held his own.

Our next lunch, at Nobu, offered Peter a new challenge. Not only because its Asian-fusion cuisine (including lots of sushi) is a difficult match with many wines, thanks to preparations that include soy, wasabi and pepper sauces, but also because Nobu, we discovered, has no sommelier. Peter, however, seemed pleased by the prospect of a solo endeavor. He took a quick look at the list and questioned the number of Cabernets and Syrahs ("Those don't seem like wines that go with Asian food"), though I speculated the selection had to do with Nobu's clientele, many of whom come looking for trophy bottles like Chave Hermitage and Dalla Valle Cabernet. Peter decided we should only drink wine by the glass. Never mind that I told him that this is usually the worst deal in a restaurant—the wholesale cost of the entire bottle can often be equal to the price of a single glass.

Peter, undeterred, began ordering glasses of wine at a blinding speed: Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, Riesling and Viognier. He had particularly high hopes for the Gewürztraminer, the 2002 Château d'Orschwihr from Alsace, which he expected to pair beautifully with his fluke sashimi appetizer. Fluke, Peter informed me, is a rich fish and needs a wine like Gewürztraminer to stand up to it. "I know something about fish," he said.

We spent nearly an hour passing glasses back and forth: The Chardonnay, though oaky, had good acidity and worked surprisingly well with the fluke. The Gewürztraminer, which had a firm acidity and just a touch of sweetness, fared well with both the fluke and my appetizer of soft-shell-crab salad in miso dressing. Peter looked smug.

For our main courses—black cod in miso and rock-shrimp tempura—Peter had a theory to test. He'd decided that because Nobu's food has "many layers of flavors" the perfect pairing would be a blended wine. "It strikes me that the producers who take the qualities of several grapes are doing the same thing with wine that Nobu is with food," he said and promptly ordered both a white blend and a red blend.

The results, unfortunately, did not bear him out. Luckily, a third wine, the 2002 Sandy Cove Ginger's Cuvée Pinot Noir Napa Valley (a single-grape selection), had lovely juicy fruit and bright acidity and worked well with the food. Nevertheless, I said to Peter comfortingly, it was impressive that he was already formulating food-and-wine theories. Peter brushed off my effort at consolation. "Sometimes theories don't hold up," he replied.

There was no question that Peter's self-confidence had grown substantially, almost alarmingly, but I wondered how he would fare at our final destination, Veritas—New York's famed temple of wine. With two wine lists (an inexpensive "market" list and a much pricier "reserve"), Veritas has over 3,000 wines and a team of sommeliers who open thousand-dollar Burgundies like other restaurants do bottles of Perrier. Peter, undaunted, declared himself ready.

When Veritas wine director Tim Kopec arrived, bearing the leather-covered tome that is the Veritas wine list, even Peter was a bit taken aback by the sight. "That certainly is the lists of lists," he commented. Peter mentioned he'd looked at the online version (on earlier that day. "I found a 1985 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Romanée-Conti for $6,500. That's Sean Connery's favorite wine," he said. "We could have that." I shook my head. "How about the '61 Cheval Blanc?" he countered. "It's only $1,550 a bottle." This wine, according to Peter, is a favorite of Alexander Payne, who directed Election, About Schmidt and Sideways. "Why don't you have a look at the market list instead?" I suggested.

Peter scanned the market list and asked for the menus. He muttered something about wines by the glass. No, I said, this time he would have to order a full bottle. Finding a wine that goes with lots of different dishes is a greater challenge. "All right," Peter said reluctantly, "but how about two? One bottle is too limiting."

Just then Tim appeared, bearing two glasses of Pierre Gimonnet nonvintage Champagne. "Nonvintage?" Peter said to Tim's back, pretending to be offended. Or at least I hoped that he was pretending. Peter decided to start with the foie gras, followed by the veal, and I chose the Maya shrimp ravioli in basil-cilantro emulsion followed by the duck in an orange jus. Tim reappeared. "I'm thinking about this Gewürztraminer for our first course. What can you tell me about it?" Peter asked him, naming the dishes we'd chosen. Tim glanced at the page Peter was pointing at. "The 2001 Kreydenweiss Kritt is very tropical, very classic," he replied smoothly. "It has an off-dry character that will go beautifully with the foie gras and I think pick up the cilantro of the ravioli." Tim spoke not in sentences but in entire paragraphs about wine. Peter interrupted him to give his thoughts on Gewürztraminer. Tim turned to him: "Do you want to speak, or do you want me to speak?"

Peter was unfazed. "Would you suggest a Pinot Noir for our main course?" he asked. "I would actually avoid Pinot Noir," Tim replied, suggesting that we have something earthier, less delicate. He offered three possibilities, beginning with the 2000 Brunel Les Cailloux Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Said Tim, "The 2000 vintage was a great one for Châteauneuf-du-Pape; it produced very ripe wines. And where there's ripeness, there's richness. And when you have richness, you don't have to go for a luxury cuvée. The 2000 Brunel Châteauneuf is made predominantly from Grenache—" Here Peter interjected "One of my favorite grapes." Tim gave a brief biography of the next two wines, but Peter was most compelled by the first. "You made it sound so appealing," he said to Tim.

"Generally if you ask a sommelier for a recommendation, his first wine is going to be the best," Tim replied, and he left to get the bottle. Peter looked after him admiringly. "That was completely delightful." Peter was even more impressed that Tim hadn't said a word about price. How did Tim know how much I wanted to spend? Peter wanted to know. A good sommelier never asks, I replied. Tim had noted the price of the Gewürztraminer ($38) and thus knew what price Peter would be comfortable with. (The three wines ranged from less than $50 to $105; Peter, of course, chose the most expensive one.)

"You know, as much as I love foie gras, the food has really taken second place to the wine," Peter confided when our first courses arrived. "Now all I can think about is how the foie gras is going to go with the Gewürztraminer." As it turned out, the wine, gorgeously aromatic and incredibly lush and dense, worked beautifully with Peter's foie gras—and fairly well with my ravioli, too.

The Châteauneuf-du-Pape was a more difficult match. Tim presented Peter with the bottle (Peter later confessed to "feeling it up" to see if it was the right temperature before Tim decanted it). Peter reported the wine had a fantastic nose, "like a Pinot Noir, but deeper," and we both found it round and generous in the mouth. But when it came to pairing it with our food, I found that its fairly high acidity accentuated the acidity in the citrus sauce on my duck, and it wasn't quite big enough to stand up to Peter's veal. Or, as Peter put it, "The Grenache isn't as present as I'd hoped it would be." What wine might Peter have chosen? "I was thinking about the 2002 Pisoni Estate Pinot Noir," Peter replied, naming a Pinot from a highly regarded California producer. I was impressed. "That could have been very good," I said.

Now that our sessions were finally at an end, I wondered what Peter had gained from them all. Well, replied Peter, now he talked about wine almost all the time; it had become an obsession. "Wine and movies are both worlds that encourage obsession," he observed. Was that all? "I'll miss our tasting sessions," he added. The hours we'd spent together? The maps that I'd made (all right, photocopied)? The words of wisdom I'd doled out? "I'll miss the wines," Peter said.

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