When It Comes to Wine, Bigger Isn't Always Better

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See also: - Sam Pillsbury Turns on New Zealand Wine - Sort Of

"Nope," I smile as nicely as I can, "I want you to try the opposite," and I splash a bit of my baby, our Roan Red, into his glass. This Cote de Rhone is a true GSM, and the 2011 is one of the lightest reds we have made. But it has divine fragrance, delicate floral fruit, and a long, nuanced finish.

It still surprises me, but about 85 percent of the time, this person's face lights up. They just made a discovery. Bigger isn't necessarily better.

Or some of us men like to think.

"Man, that's good!"

"Look," I say, "do you have ribs every night for dinner?"

What I love is how many people get it if you spend the time with them. It's just education. And the people who don't? Well, everyone has their own physiology. People with fewer taste buds like bigger wines . . . this has been researched. It's not their fault. But I like to try to open things up.

Simple fact: The more intense the wine you drink, the more narrow your food pairing options are. One friend loves drinking a jammy Aussie Shiraz with his chicken salad on Sunday afternoon.

He can taste the Shiraz, but he sure can't taste the chicken salad.

I have nothing against big wines. We make a shiraz and a petite syrah you can stand a spoon up in. But all the time??

I call it Food Wines vs. Cocktail Wines.

It's sort of France vs. California.

I'm generalizing, of course. But I'm a foodie and I make wine to go with food.

Americans like to drink wine like a cocktail. The French wait for dinner and drink it with their food.

My theory is that, a few decades ago, Californians (and Australians), with more sun behind their backs than the French (and so, easy to make jammy, high alcohol wines) went all out for "big" -- because they could -- and they used these to grab the attention of slurpers who previously had existed on a diet of beer and Coke.

It's also part of the fat/sugar/salt immediate-gratification culture. Throw catsup on your fries -- all you can taste is catsup.

We pour sips for crowds all the time. It really is significant how many people toss down an ounce, mutter a comment, and move on. That's the boundaries of their sensual life.

I guess they have sex like that, too.

Segué . . .

Wines are like women. The fabulous ones won't reveal their secrets to you so easily. You need to spend a bit of time with them.

I'll never forget a seminal evening years ago. I was alone in my kitchen in Los Angeles, opening a bottle to accompany my dinner. I love cooking for myself, I can dawdle and experiment. And I remember the wine: It was a Clos de Caillou Cote de Rhone, around $23.

I poured a couple of ounces and swirled-- a faint nose of red berry, a sense of unripe fruit. I moved the onions around the frying pan and sipped.

Absolute zero. What we might call "tight."

Oh, well. It happens. I resigned myself to a dull wine evening, but there was food, and it was still wine. It had alcohol.

Another sip. Hmmmm . . . the faintest hint of some fruit, a tiny bit of fragrance.

Chopped garlic and peppers into the frying pan, ease the heat back, shake the heavy cast-iron (garage sale) utensil over the blue flames.

Another sip. Heavens, there really is something going on. The red berry fruit is ripening, the nose is growing more complex and fragrant, opening up like a flower.

It is true that a wine will "open up" in the glass. This is especially true of young reds. If you pour with an aerator or decant, they can go from dull and bitter to absolutely delicious. Legendary AZ winemaker Ken Callaghan regularly leaves bottles opened on the counter, sometimes revealing lovely surprises days later.

But there's another truth: You also tune in to the subtleties of a wine. All your sensory receptors can start to pickup delicate nuances, your brain can re-program to read complexities too elusive at first.

Especially if you just had a WHOPPER® Sandwich, ¼ lb.* of savory fire-grilled beef topped with juicy tomatoes, fresh cut lettuce, creamy mayonnaise, crunchy pickles, and sliced white onions on a soft sesame seed bun with mustard and ketchup.

*That's from Burger King's website.

Or maybe you were just breathing onions, garlic, and peppers frying in olive oil.

It's just like that shy little kid in the back row. Pay attention; that just might be the next Einstein.

As I poured the last drops of that bottle into my glass later that evening I was ready to crawl over broken glass to get another bottle. Alas, too drunk and too late. But I had just spent a few hours in heaven.

Another segue . . .

Just spent two weeks in France last November, doing one of those wine cruises Eric Glomski and I do together.

I made a point of ordering the inexpensive by-the-glass wines at little restaurants -- because I'm cheap. But also because I wanted to see what the bottom line was. They were all remarkable in their simplicity -- all were bone dry, with good acid and barely perceptible fruit. Guess what? They were great with the food, and that's what they were made for.

There's no way these were Californian wines.

Everyone loves a blow-your-head-off hummer wine. But maybe not every day. Here are some rules -- based on my experience, as I have done no classes, I reckon there are two ways of regarding wine/food pairing:

Simpatico Pairing and Contrast Pairing.

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Sam Pillsbury