The stress and tension of a professional kitchen can sometimes make cooking seem like a life or death situation. After all, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture when the dinner orders begin piling up on a Saturday evening. An extremely busy night is one of those occasions when, even though you do your very best to prepare for it, there is really nothing you can possibly do to avoid the onslaught. At best, you can stay just a half step ahead of the rush and have enough food to get through the dinner service. You finish the night exhausted, but with an innate sense of accomplishment. At worst, you become buried by tickets and bring the entire kitchen to a grinding halt. That’s the most helpless feeling in the world.
I will always remember the time when I was working the sauté line one busy Saturday night at Auberge du Soleil in Napa. It was at the height of the summer busy season, and the restaurant’s reservations were near capacity. The printer was already spewing out tickets four and five at a time, even though we had just opened the doors. As the orders kept pouring in, my flat-top was soon completely covered with sizzling sauté pans, and even more food was set out on the countertop waiting to be cooked. I could already tell that I was headed for a rough one. I was not only battling time, but also space. Clearly, the chef could see my concern as the tickets kept spilling out of the printer. He walked over to my station and told me, “Don’t worry -- it’s just food.”
The comment took me a bit by surprise. Auberge du Soleil had just received its first Michelin star a few weeks earlier, which automatically established a standard of excellence that each one of us in the kitchen wished to maintain. A Michelin star, after all, comes with the burden of keeping it. Here we were in the trenches on a Saturday night, completely focused on sending out perfect plates at breakneck speed, and the chef said it was “just” food? I wondered if I had possibly missed his intended sarcasm. But as I thought more about what he said, I realized that the chef was not being sarcastic at all, and that he was right. Sure, getting through a busy Saturday night could be challenging, stressful and exhilarating, but at the end of the day, it was just cooking. It wasn’t rocket science, it wasn’t open-heart surgery, and it certainly wasn’t life or death. In that situation, to view cooking as anything more complicated would only have been counterproductive.
I gained some valuable insight at that moment, and I like to adopt the same perspective when it comes to food and wine pairing. Whenever someone tells me that they have difficulty choosing a wine with dinner, I remind them that it’s just food. At the very least, if you only know enough to pair red wine with red meat, and white wine with white meat, you’re already in the ballpark. Of course, food and wine pairing is not quite as elementary as simply matching colors. But on the other hand, it really isn’t that much more difficult, either. When I was studying at the Culinary Institute of America, my Wines & Spirits instructor, Michael Weiss, helped develop a system that he and his colleague, Steven Kolpan, dubbed the Tower of Power. Based upon the differing characteristics of different wines, the Tower provides a framework for food pairing that yields surprisingly good results, considering its elegant simplicity.
At its core, the Tower of Power lists wines in the order of their intensity, beginning with the heaviest reds and ending with the lightest of the whites. For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to limit my version of the Tower to a few common American varietals. To attempt to include all the wines of the world would be a mammoth undertaking for a single column. I am also limiting my discussion to still, dry wines. To include sparkling wines and dessert-style wines in this discussion would again be too much. However, if the guidelines I highlight below pique your interest, I suggest consulting Chapter 14 of Weiss, Kolpan and Brian H. Smith’s text, “Exploring Wine” (John Wiley and Sons, 2nd Edition). The book is a great resource, with several pages of charts devoted to food and wine pairing.
When considering a wine, the most important rule in food pairing is that intense foods must be matched with intense wines. Try to eat a barbecued bacon cheeseburger with a light white wine, and the wine will taste like water in comparison. Try to drink a heavy red with a piece of lightly steamed snapper, and you won’t be able to taste the fish. Matching the intensity between food and wine is 90% of successful pairing. Keep that in mind, and you’ll never be off the mark. The other 10% of pairing involves finding specific tastes within a wine that complement particular flavors in a dish. An earthy red, for instance, may shine next to a mushroom sauce. Or perhaps the hint of green apple in a Chardonnay, might complement the apple slices in a Waldorf salad. Finding the perfect pairing can make a good meal great, but consider the last 10% as optional in the beginning. Matching intensity is the real key, and will still produce very nice results.
- The most intense wines on the Tower of Power scale are Syrah and Petite Syrah. These two wines will dominate all but the richest foods, and they subsequently do well with any red meat that has been prepared with smoke, such as a barbecued brisket. They are also good choices for game meats, such as venison or elk. Consider a syrah or a petite syrah if the meat is also served with a particularly heavy sauce or gravy.
- The next rung down on the Tower consists of Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese and Zinfandel. These reds are still very intense wines, but are not as aggressive on the palate as Syrah and Petite Syrah. These three wines will still stand up to roasted or braised red meat, but they may also do well with something like barbecued chicken or pork. Although chicken and pork definitely have a more subtle flavor than red meat, they can approach red-meat status in flavor intensity if they’re prepared on a charcoal grill or in the smoker. It is important, therefore, not only to consider the type of meat being served, but also the method of preparation.
- The next set of wines includes two reds, Pinot Noir and Merlot, as well as barrel-fermented (oaky) Chardonnay. At this point, most red meats are too intense for this group, although a Pinot Noir or Merlot could possibly stand up to a very simply-prepared filet mignon. The most appropriate matches for this group consist of chicken and pork, cooked in nearly any style. Keep in mind, however, that a particularly heavy fish, such as grilled salmon, might also stand up to these wines.
- Barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc and barrel-fermented Pinot Blanc comprise the fourth tier of the Tower scale, and both are solid matches for any fish that is not heavily smoked or deep-fried. A pan-seared halibut steak with a light citrus sauce would be a fantastic complement to these wines. Fried calamari would be another excellent match. If you’re not sure how much time a wine has spent in the barrel, check the back label or ask your wine retailer.
- The last and lightest wines on the Tower of Power are the stainless steel-fermented versions of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. These two wines lack the oaky, tannic structure of their barrel-fermented counterparts, and thus have a greater degree of crisp acidity. Because of their lack of tannins, these two wines are outmatched in intensity by almost all foods, aside from shellfish. Raw preparations of fish, however, such as sushi or seviche, can also be excellent with this group.
Keep the Tower of Power in mind the next time you consider a wine for dinner, and you can easily eliminate the guesswork. I also suggest taking advantage of any restaurant that offers a wines-by-the-glass program, which is becoming more and more common these days. If you’ve never really tried petite syrah, for instance, or you have never tried it alongside a charbroiled porterhouse steak, see how you like it. I feel that it’s important to try new food and wine pairings whenever possible. Variety is the spice of life, after all. And it is just food.