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Always have white wine with fish and red with steak? Not necessarily

Tammy White, Beringer wine educator.
Tammy White, Beringer wine educator.
Photo courtesy of Beringer Vineyards, used with permission.

When you eat fish, drink white wine. When you eat steak, drink red. This is the traditional way of doing things and yet Tammy White of Beringer Vineyards would like people to perhaps consider a different approach.

I recently attended a food pairing at the St. Helena winery conducted by White, who described herself as “a wine educator.” While thoroughly versed and knowledgeable about her topic, she was anything but stuffy or professorial, explaining such concepts as “tannin” and the pleasures and principles of food pairing in a relaxed and informal way. Being at the table with her was like sharing a glass of wine with your next-door neighbor.

Only, in this case, there were four glasses with four different wines in them: White Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. Just enough was poured in each glass to wet your beak, not soak it. The glasses were lined up in such a way as to form a progression—from the sweeter and lighter White Zin on one side of the spectrum to the dark and rich Cabernet on the other.

There were ten in our group, seated at a beautifully appointed table in a room in the Hudson House where people have been pairing wine and food since it was built in the 1850s. To the left of the glasses was a spittoon, in case we wished to simply taste the wine without swallowing. Having never used a spittoon before and afraid I might miss or embarrass myself in some way, I didn’t use mine. Nor did I see any of the other guests spitting into theirs. But White, no doubt because she does this sort of thing on a routine basis, used hers like a pro.

Each plate had five food items on it—slices of lemon and apple and small pieces of steak, fish and pepper cheese—with two little plastic cups of salt and umami. Following White’s lead, we would sample a wine, take a bite of food, then sip the same wine again. What was surprising and interesting was how what we ate subtly changed the taste of the wine.

For instance, after squeezing a little lemon juice on the side of our hand, dropping a few kernels of salt on it and licking our hand, we drank the Chardonnay. This made it taste “softer,” to borrow White’s term. In contrast, taking a bite of the apple, a sweet taste, made the Cabaret seem stronger and fuller.

“It’s like when they line the rim of a margarita glass with salt or put an olive in a martini,” said White. “Whether they’re aware of it or not, what people are doing is balancing their alcohol with food to soften the taste.”

Generally speaking, she said, salty or acidic foods soften the taste of wine while sweet, savory or spicy foods make it stronger. White would like to encourage people to consider breaking with the old rules of white with fish and red with steak and try new types of pairings. It’s okay, she reassured us, to change things up, depending on the dish and the wine.

Many wineries conduct wine-food pairings and seminars. At Beringer, the price per person for a food pairing such as this is $50. Call (707) 302-7722 for more information.

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