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Pairing Against the Grain:
An Interview and Exploration of Nontraditional Pairings with Stephen Asprinio
October 2009

Chef/Sommelier and hospitality expert Stephen Asprinio
Chef/Sommelier and hospitality expert Stephen Asprinio
There are longstanding traditions in the world of wine pairing, traditions that have dictated the rules for the simple reason that they work. Whether it’s Sauternes and foie gras, oysters and Champagne, or port and chocolate, these standby rules have allowed many a sommelier to match food and wine comfortably and with a minimum of error. But just as these pairing conventions facilitate certain success, they can also lead to complacency and lack of imagination. At worst, they lead to a kind of petrified state of immobility where wine service loses pace with evolving cuisine. 

Fortunately, it seems a new era of pairing is upon us, signaled in part by the appearance of unconventional pairing options on high end restaurant menus, i.e. sakes with non-Asian foods, microbrews and artisan ciders—incorporated no doubt as a response to the recession-fueled search for better value and variety. In addition, the trend of increasing cooperation between restaurant kitchens and wine programs calls for a more nuanced cuisine savvy approach to pairing.

Taking for granted the old school rationales, we wonder if it’s possible or even necessary to distill the essence of the relationship between beverage and cuisine to create abbreviated guidelines for nontraditional, but still successful, pairings. We recently spoke with chef/sommelier and hospitality expert Stephen Asprinio, who led a tasting seminar at our 2009 International Chefs Congress on the subject of pairing “outside the box.” We discussed the status of traditional wine pairing, the emergence of non-traditional pairing, and its implications for the industry as a whole.

""If you adopt the old school mentality of wine and food pairing, you’re not only cheating yourself, but your guests as well.

Emily Bell: In your ICC demonstration, you explained the rationale behind certain pairings, i.e. pairing acid to cut fat. What is the rationale behind other conventional pairings, e.g. Sauternes and foie gras?
Stephen Asprinio: Most “conventional” pairings are based on a wine’s acidity and body, whether it is derived from residual sugar (in the case of Sauternes and other dessert wines), alcohol or simply the complexity of the fermented grape must of the varietal or cultivar at hand. With conventional pairings, it’s mostly about making sure that the wine doesn’t outweigh the food, and vice versa. Then a wine is either chosen to complement a particular preparation with similar parallels of flavor (e.g. Chianti with Pasta alla Puttanesca), or it is chosen to offer contrasting elements to the preparation (e.g. Spätlese Riesling with spicy Thai flavors).

EB: How do you play with that?
SA: I don’t agree with some conventional pairings. Serving Sauternes with foie gras is pairing something extremely rich with something even richer. To me, it’s overkill. Foie gras needs acid to cut through all that fat, and body to stand up to the richness of the liver. However, the body should not be from exceedingly high levels of residual sugar. My solution is to consider something less sweet, but not dry, such as certain styles of Sherry or Madeira, or go the complete opposite direction and pair a red wine with lots of depth and character. Ultimately, of course, the preparation of the food determines the pairing, e.g. whether the foie gras is served hot or cold, if the accompaniments are sweet or savory, etc. 

EB: Do you think wine service lends itself too readily to convention/rules?
SA: With traditional wine service, yes. In too many cases, you will see sommeliers fall into a very complacent act of plain, boring service. Traditional wine service is very regimented, consisting of precise steps, and well, rules. These rules I have always found to be silly when followed too strictly. Modern wine service should be all about finesse. Even more so, the same goes for wine and food pairing. Rules are counterproductive in this sense. 

EB: Do you think those conventions create a kind of comfort zone for the sommelier or F&B director—a safe territory—that can lead to complacency and diminished imagination?
SA: Considering where we are in the industry in general, with culinary powerhouses like Grant Achatz, Pierre Gagnaire and Ferran Adria exposing guests to the most advanced cooking techniques the world has seen to date, is it really too much to just expect sommeliers to be able to know what pairs well with a particular dish without referring to a set of rules? I think not. The goal is simple, to achieve balance between the wine and the food on the palate. If you follow a set of rules, you are limiting yourself to a fraction of options. And if you adopt the old school mentality of wine and food pairing, you’re not only cheating yourself, but your guests as well. The rules typically focus in on the main component of the dish. This makes zero sense, and more times than not, this is what leads to a mediocre wine and food pairing.

EB: Can you give us an example?
SA: For instance, quail confit with a salad of beets, blood orange, and rocket warrants a completely different pairing than barbecued quail with huckleberries, mustard greens, and thyme. With the first preparation, a medium bodied white wine such as Viognier or an unwooded Chardonnay would work, where as the second preparation requires a medium bodied red wine such as a Rhone-style blend or even a rich example of Pinot Noir from Oregon.                        

EB: Is there a tendency in wine service to appease a diner’s expectations, which are often guided by media and easily digestible cultural outlets? How can a sommelier avoid convention while still appeasing the diner and maintaining the balance of hospitality?
SA: Without a doubt this tendency exists, but this situation can be a very positive one and opens the door to opportunity if played properly. When a guest expects the typical pairing of a Cabernet-based blend or Syrah to be served with the lamb course, and the sommelier throws down an incredible wine from Priorat instead, an opportunity is born. Now the guest trusts the sommelier, and might be more willing to step outside their comfort zone and spend a bit more on a future visit (or the second bottle that same evening). 

Additionally, if a guest is stuck on a particular varietal, offering the same style of wine from a different region can win points as well. A Sauvignon Blanc enthusiast who is seeking a pairing with, say, a first course of raw oysters, and typically prefers the style of Sancerre, might be blown away by something off the beaten path such as a Slovenian Sauvignon Blanc, or even one from Austria.         

EB: In what order would you range the importance of wine’s component elements: taste (flavor, e.g. fruit, herbs, smokiness), body, roundness/texture, acid, residual sugar. Why?
SA: A wine’s body is the first and foremost element to consider, but certainly not the last.  This is the base point from which the ideology of the pairing is derived, and then developed from there.  Outside of body (which precedes all other elements and is based on acidity, alcohol, etc.) it depends on the particular pairing. For instance, if you are pairing a wine with something somewhat spicy, the first element to focus on is residual sugar as a counter to the heat.

EB: Are we a nation of complacent tasters? In your experience with diners, do we tend to play it safe in pairing?
SA: Generally speaking, I have found the level of complacency to vary from generation to generation in America, with members of the Baby Boom Generation being more complacent than members of Generation X. Wine and food pairing, being the intricate subject that it is, sometimes pushes people by default into a corner within their comfort zone, and unless convinced otherwise, they do not deviate from what they know and like.  With the endless supply of high quality wines and spirits at all price points, there is absolutely no reason for this to be the case.

""The only way such guests will stray away from the norm is it to actually taste the difference.  A lot of times, it only takes one wine to convert them.

EB: What can a sommelier or F& B director do to gently encourage diners to be more adventurous or flexible with their pairings?
SA: This is where the role of the sommelier comes into play, whose duty is to guide the guest in the right direction while constantly assuring value and quality within the experience. In many cases, the right direction is the more adventurous route, which at times poses an issue with the more complacent types. The only way such guests will stray away from the norm is it to actually taste the difference.  A lot of times, it only takes one wine to convert them. For instance, if a guest consistently “plays it safe” and orders a one-dimensional Pinot Grigio with their first course each time they visit the restaurant, and the restaurant has an Austrian Grüner Veltliner by-the-glass, pour them an ounce. Chances are that they will love it, as well as the gesture, and the return on the $.50 investment for the ounce of wine will have been well worth it. When it comes to wine and food pairing, some guests just don’t know what’s out there. 

Another great way to expose guests to different pairings is through tasting menus. To offer an esoteric pairing with each course might be too much for a pairing “virgin,” but incorporating one or two alternative pairings into the mix of more traditional ones can be very effective. For example, instead of serving the wine intended for the fish course, pour a sake as an alternative. If the pairing is spot on, then the conversion from a skeptic to a believer will be a success.                           

EB: In your tasting seminar, you said you often use the pairing to complete, as opposed to merely compliment, the dish. Do you choose the dominant characteristic of a particular bottle and use it to substitute that element, with, say, sweetness or acid, in a dish?  For this kind of pairing, do you have to choose wines with extremely prominent characteristics?
SA: This technique is not to complete an incomplete dish, but in some cases if I personally feel a dish, though fine on its own, could use an element of acid, fruit, or sweetness that will be the basis for the pairing (containing a specific prominent characteristic). Sometimes I prefer for the wine to act as an ingredient as well as the pairing for a particular preparation. It is simply just another way of thinking in order to marry both the wine and the food.

EB: Can you give us an example?
SA: For instance, when serving the tempura, I would prefer it were accompanied by a touch of acidity to cut through the fat and the light batter on the outside. One option is to serve the tempura with touch of lemon for example. The other option, which serves as the basis for this pairing technique, is to select a wine that has an ample level of acidity and is light enough in body to showcase the subtle flavors of the prawn. I’ve used this technique with duck as well. Instead of serving a sauce with some component of fruit in it which I find to accompany duck very well, I will serve a wine that is laden with rich fruit on the palate. The idea is not only to create a perfect pairing, but ultimately to elevate the preparation of the dish to the next level, making it even better with the wine than without

EB: At the tasting seminar you used sake and sherry, two typically marginalized spirits. What newer or under utilized wines/spirits do you incorporate into your pairings?
SA: In regards to non-traditional pairing, I prefer to serve high-end cider, craft beer, all styles of sake, fortified wines like sherry and Madeira, and obscure varietals from the lesser know wine regions of the world such as Hungarian Zweigelt or Portuguese Baga.   

EB: In Japan, sake bars are the norm, often with hundreds of sakes on a given menu. What, if anything, is the American palate missing in its experience of sake?
SA: Sake is simply misunderstood in America. Similar to the path that wine followed, most of which was consumed from jugs and boxes only a few decades ago, sake’s quality has yet to be realized. The majority of Americans associate sake with the hot, off-balance, low quality version of rice wine that is reminiscent of rubbing alcohol, most of which is dropped into a pint of beer and downed in one gulp.

EB: How can we enhance our appreciation of sake?
SA: What America is missing is that first taste of a cold, high-quality, artisan sake which encapsulates balanced layers of flavor, aromas and many other beautiful characteristics. Slowly but surely, high quality sake will find its way out of only primarily Japanese restaurants. 

EB: What would it pair best with, Asian or non-Asian?
SA: For wine and food pairing, sake may be served with almost anything, depending on the style. Sake should never be limited to Japanese cuisine. I highly advise all sommeliers to taste a number of different styles of sake from a local importer/distributor to understand this concept. When tasting, it becomes crystal clear that a particular refined Junmai Daiginjo may lend itself to more delicate flavors on the menu, where as a certain Honjozo style may pair better with some of the richer flavors. From caviar to a bone-in ribeye, and from Indian cuisine to Scandinavian cuisine, there are numerous options in the sake category when considering wine and food pairing.            

EB: Champagne is another marginalized beverage, generally used for celebration only. How do you see pairing it with dishes on a more casual basis?
SA: Personally, Champagne is my favorite wine to pair with food. Yes, Champagne is typically viewed only as a celebratory beverage or aperitif, but to the contrary, it’s the ultimate pairing in my opinion - depending on the style and preparation to be paired with.

EB: What elements of Champagne lend themselves to cuisine and how can we pair those elements playfully?
SA: Not all styles of Champagne pair with all preparations of cuisine. The sweeter styles of sec, demi-sec and doux (no longer commercially produced) pair differently than the drier styles of extra dry, brut, extra brut and brut nature. The reason I find Champagne to be the most food-friendly style of wine is because of its high level of acidity that is balanced by the presence of carbon dioxide. The combination of the two elements along with the characteristics from the region’s unique terroir create a perfectly clean balance on the palate. Champagnes can be light and subtle, or rich and powerful. And when the right Champagne is paired with the appropriate preparation, it’s like magic.

EB: What are the advantages of pairing with Champagne over a still wine?
SA: If you were to serve butter-poached lobster with a Premier Cru Meursault and a classic Vintage Brut Champagne, both would be amazing. The rich nutty, buttery flavors of the Meursault would work wonderfully with the lobster, as would the yeasty, vibrant finesse of the Champagne. But when the Champagne is on the palate after tasting the sweet lobster laced with a mouth coating layer of butter, the extra bit of bright acidity coupled by the cleansing effervescence of the wine takes the pairing one step further than the Meursault. 

"" There should be zero limitations before you begin the wine and food pairing process. All that matters is what is on the plate.

EB: How does the flexibility of American cuisine and its ability to integrate immigrant influences facilitate the practice of pairing against the grain?
SA: American cuisine, more so than any other, is the perfect platform for alternative wine and food pairing due to the fact that American cuisine has no boundaries. The modern American chef is constantly creating new interpretations of different preparations on a day-to-day basis. The sommelier must follow the same path. At the highest level of restaurants such as Per Se and Jean-Georges, the wine programs are directly aligned with the level of the cuisine. This is because the sommeliers and wine directors at these establishments utilize all their resources when developing a pairing format, and do not limit themselves in the least. Additionally, it is integral for the chef to be involved with the wine and food pairing process as well, especially when devising a multi-course degustation menu. American cuisine sets the stage for these practices, ultimately providing the sommelier with endless possibilities.
EB: Can you distill your pairing philosophy into a set of rules that would allow the sommelier to pair against the grain without straying too far from the foundational dynamic that makes pairings work?
SA: There is only one rule, a rule of thumb if you will, that I follow as well. When devising a pairing format that is unconventional, the idea is not to simply think outside the box. The rule is that there is no box. There should be zero limitations before you begin the wine and food pairing process. All that matters is what is on the plate.