Friday, July 18, 2008

UC Berkeley Wine Studies II, Fall

I’m once again teaching Fundamentals of Wine Studies II: Sensory Evaluation of Wines and their Components for UC Berkeley Extension, and I’d love to see some of you in the class. If you’ve ever wanted to see if I can actually babble about wine for 2 1/2 hours, now’s your chance. It starts on October 9 and continues for six weeks. By the end, you’ll have a great vocabulary for articulating what you taste in the glass, and you’ll be able to communicate your likes and dislikes with confidence. The class is less about regions (though some of that sneaks in) and much more about analysis. You can read my detailed description of the classes in earlier posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

This semester, given that I live and work in the East Bay, I’ve arranged to teach the class in Berkeley. I hope that means that some of you can take it who couldn’t make it into SF in the past. Let me know if you have any questions, and I hope to see you in class.


Sunday, July 13, 2008

Some Recent Food/Wine Books

In March, Alder wrote a post titled “Food And Wine Pairing Is Just A Big Scam.” The resulting comment thread surprised me: I didn’t think it was a particularly novel revelation that there’s never one and only one perfect wine for a meal. Some of the best wine writers in the industry — Karen MacNeil and Ed Behr to name two — have been arguing this point for years.

I disagree with Alder’s absolute stance about food and wine pairing — I have some basic guidelines that work well — but I don’t disagree that a major industry has formed around convincing people that they can only pick out a wine for dinner with an expert’s help.

How could I? I’ve been sent three food-and-wine-pairing books for review, and there are probably a dozen others out there. That gives me the chance to compare them instead of doing a full post for each.

He Said Beer, She Said Wine, Calagione & Old
Maybe you can’t judge a book by its cover, but its title is fair game. She’s an urbanely dressed sommelier; he’s a “guy’s guy” brewer. Together, they’re a couple that bickers about what to drink with dinner while maintaining outdated gender stereotypes. There’s even a photo of her standing with crossed arms and her back to him looking at the camera. I guess if they ever make a romantic comedy movie out of the book, they’re all set for the poster shot.

The frustrating thing about this book is that the eye-rolling gimmick hides decent information. It’s nice to see a food-pairing book give equal footing to beer — which in many ways is more food-friendly than wine — though it feels a little wrong that many of the recommended beers come from Calagione’s brewery. The two authors present wine and beer as a series of characteristics that expand your ability to find similar drinks: levels of oak in wine, for instance, and levels of hops in beer. The book encourages its readers to make their own judgment, though only after it has pre-biased them to the results. If someone says a wine smells like lemon zest, you’re likely to smell lemon zest on your next sniff. If a book says beer is the better choice for a dish, are you really going to be objective when you try it yourself?

But the information isn’t worth the cutesy dialog. Pick out a book that’s useful and not condescending. You’re an adult, and you deserve to be treated like one.

What To Drink With What You Eat, Dornenburg & Page
In the year and a half since I first reviewed this book, a mild annoyance of mine has become a full-blown rant: If you just tell a reader which wine goes with which food rather than explain why, you’ve abandoned that reader to ignorance. What To Drink is guilty of that sin, but it’s hard to argue with its voluminous lists, culled from the opinions of sommeliers around the country. If nothing else, it has the potential to introduce readers to new wines (and the book is mostly about wine, though there are other drinks in there) and provide brainstorming opportunities for jaded, cynical wine geeks like myself.

But I find it interesting that while I recommend it — even still — I almost never consult it. So why recommend it? I think the bulky lists offer something, even without an explanation as to why the wines work. They offer a wealth of possibilities and a reassurance that, in fact, there isn’t one wine for any food. There are tons. While it never says so, it underlines my basic food and wine premise: Most wines go with most foods. And that’s a lesson in its own right.

Williams-Sonoma Wine & Food, Joshua Wesson
I don’t look to the Williams-Sonoma books for the kind of cookbook I like. The ones I’ve seen are simple collections of recipes; I look for more technique in my tomes. So I listened politely but skeptically at a book launch party as the executive editor of the series told me how good their food and wine book is.

Then she sent me a copy.

The book organizes its sections by style of wine — Crisp Whites and Juicy Reds, for instance — just like the better modern wine lists. Each section describes the flavors and characteristics of the wine style. It then talks about how those traits affect the wine and food pairing. Finally, it gives several recipes that exemplify the kind of dish that suits the wine. Each of those recipes offers guidelines about the New World and Old World wines to seek out. It doesn’t give specific labels. It gives you terms you could use in a wine store: an Alsace Riesling, a Merlot-based Bordeaux. And for each of those recommendations, it offers a reason.

It educates and illustrates. It lets the reader understand what the author was thinking. What more can I ask for in a wine-and-food-pairing book?