Step into a food and wine pairing seminar with Jerry Comfort, and you'll see the expected semicircle of partly filled wineglasses. But Comfort ― director of wine education at Beringer Blass Wine Estates in St. Helena, California ― grins over a plate of less-than-standard foods: a slice of apple, a lemon wedge, salt crystals, a cup of mysterious clear liquid. It's all very austere. "Don't worry," Comfort says. "This isn't lunch."
The foods represent basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami (the fifth taste, savoriness). In Comfort's unconventional approach to pairing, by balancing these fundamental flavors, you can make a food match almost any wine. He dubs his theory "food and wine in balance."
Cause and effect
Comfort, who began his career as a chef and found himself concentrating on wine pairing while cooking at Beringer's private dining room, explains that each of the five flavors in food has a different effect on how the wine tastes. As we taste our way through the wines and foods, these effects become clear. A bite of apple makes a slightly sweet wine impossibly sour; a lick of lemon juice makes tannins almost disappear from a Cabernet Sauvignon. Comfort explains that sweetness in food makes wine flavors stronger, so it may highlight characteristics you don't like, such as harsh tannins. A sip from the mystery cup ― a solution of monosodium glutamate, representing umami ― also strengthens the wine's textures and reduces aromas. Acid in food, conversely, makes wine's basic structure and flavor profile milder. A salad with a tangy vinaigrette, for instance, might wash out a delicate wine, but it would soften a big, tannic one.
Salt softens the effect of both sweetness and acid. When we squeeze lemon on the apple and sprinkle it with salt, each wine we try it with returns ― almost like magic ― to tasting much as it did before we started testing all the effects.
If seasonings are in balance, Comfort contends, almost any wine can be paired with any food. "My wife is a Chardonnay-aholic," he says. "When I grill a steak, that's what she wants to drink. But if the steak is properly seasoned, you can drink Chardonnay with it." Top the steak with a tangy sauce, like salsa verde, or even a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkling of salt, and it matches a wide range of wines. Ironically, an acidic red-wine sauce can make the steak taste surprisingly good with white wine.
Comfort's unorthodox experiments are "really a freedom act," he says. "Of course, some pairings are natural fits and some you have to work at. But if your food is properly seasoned, you really can drink the wine you like with the food you like every night."
INFO: Attend seminars and tastings at Beringer Vineyards (2000 Main St., St. Helena, CA; www.beringervineyards.com or 707/963-7115).
Speaking of pairing...
Here's a tip: Two particular wines, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, set off more foods than almost any others. Sauvignon Blanc's fresh mouth-feel, crisp acidity, and herbal flavors make it the best all-around white for everything from grilled seafood to herb-roasted chicken. Pinot Noir's earthy flavors, medium body, and good acidity make it the most flexible red. Think sushi to sausage pizza.
Rancho Zabaco Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2002 (Sonoma County), $18. Lovely herbal and slightly tropical aromas. Exotic mint and mango flavors.
St. Supéry Sauvignon Blanc 2003 (Napa Valley), $18. A dependable thirst-quencher and terrific food wine. Herb and green fig flavors, with a crisp, zingy lime finish.
Beringer Founders Estate Pinot Noir 2002 (California), $11. A steal. Sweet, earthy aromas give way to classic Pinot flavors ― dried cherry, mocha, grenadine ― and an irresistible silky texture.
Sanford Pinot Noir 2001 (Santa Rita Hills, Santa Barbara County), $26. Luscious flavors of earth, pomegranate, mocha, and cherry preserves, plus a plush, silky texture. ― Karen MacNeil-Fife