I enjoy drinking. Hardly a day goes by when I don't indulge in a cold beer, a glass of bourbon, neat, a shot of Jezynowka. It's a social thing as much as it is about the warm mellow feeling induced by a tumbler of whiskey, the drowsiness of a daytime beer buzz, or the crazier antics induced by tequila. Most of the time, a day without a drink is like a summer without sunshine; it's that necessary component that makes things blossom.
Conspicuously absent from that short list of beverages is wine. Not that I don't like wine. On the contrary, I enjoy wine. I just almost never order it at the bar or when I dine out. I'm sure I'm like a lot of guys who've been sort of relieved that the craft and imported beers have been so good that you can sound like a connoisseur and leave the wine list undisturbed. The only times I'll order wine is when I'm in a restaurant where I feel the server can make the right pairing for me. It's a sort of "training wheels" approach that causes me some embarrassment to admit.
Sure, every so often, I'll curl up with a bottle of a nice oaky, buttery chardonnay, the kind that pairs well with a few cigarettes, or a nice riesling from the Traverse area, but the world of pairing food and wine remains mysterious to me. It's not that I would ever order a red with fish, but I don't feel I have the grounding necessary to make really proper choices.
And it's a shame, I think, because I know there's a lot of enjoyment I'm missing. I've seen people really get into pairings before, and they are filled with excitement about the ways the flavors of wine and food complement each other. I guess I've always been waiting for that one thing that's going to tip me over into the rabbit hole.
So when somebody offered me the opportunity to attend a food and wine pairing event, I finally shed my intimidation and decided that this was the time: I was going to educate myself.
I arrived at the Cellar Door in Auburn Hills. Metro Detroit is so weird; buildings are blank containers on the outside, and you never know what you're stepping into. In this case, I stepped into a white box decorated to look like a winery, with a full-wall print of a vineyard, dozens of candles burning, and stacks of barrels, all hollow judging by the sound a knock produced. It was fine by me; I wasn't there for scenery so much as education. The crowd looked a bit older, with a bit more money than average, and seemed attuned to wine beyond this fundamentals course.
Each place setting had a glass of water, a wine glass, and a plate bedecked with a small pile of salt, a lemon wedge, a slide of "red delicious" apple, some cubes of Swiss cheese and a pile of crumbly blue cheese, as well as a hunk of bread. There were also some handouts, including some order forms for some of the really high rollers who wanted to walk out with a case or two.
Our host for the evening was Michael Schafer, a former attorney who now goes by the title "The Wine Counselor." Warm and jocular, Schafer moderated the tasting, offering his personal mix of entertainment and education.
We were taught pairings to avoid, including heavy wines with delicate dishes, alcoholic wines with spicy food, oyster and cabernet sauvignon, salad and dessert wine, steak and sauvignon blanc. We were warned about the pitfalls of pairing great wine with a great dish; great wine demands simple fare. We learned the classic pairings: sauvignon blanc and sea bass, shiraz and beef stew, muscadet and oysters, port and blue cheese, cabernet sauvignon and steak, chianti and red sauce, chardonnay and lobster, pinot noir and duck, sparkling wine and eggs. We reviewed pairing tactics of mirroring, bridging, and contrast. We learned that a dish in which green herbs predominate goes with sauvignon blanc, though perhaps grilled meat with rosemary is best with cabernet sauvignon, or a peppery dish with a shiraz.
While this education was beamed to us from a flatscreen television, we also went through a course of progressively darker and heavier wines, beginning with a brut rosé, followed by a chardonnay, then a riesling, then a pinot noir, on to a cabernet sauvignon, before finishing with a port. A grading sheet gave us slots to evaluate each wine's appearance, aroma, body, taste, and finish. Tasting them all with the condiments and snacks provided helped give a good idea of how some wines are wiped out by strong food flavors, and how some flavors trump even the strongest wines. That's where you get into that complicated game of rock-paper-scissors that goes on with food and wine pairings, judging such qualities as saltiness, acidity, sweetness, and mouthfeel.
Our table seemed to have more than its share of philistines. The flavors of the wine dazzled us, but we wondered how we'd find foods to match our diets. I'll have a steak every once in a while, but the last time I had duck it was Peking, not confit. I asked my fellow aspiring wine lovers, would I have to start eating steak and duck and beef stew instead of burgers and coney dogs if I wanted to truly enjoy wine. Schafer was making the rounds of the room, and when he dropped by us, we tried to stump him.
"What wine goes with popcorn?"
"What wine goes with peanut butter?"
"Smooth or crunchy?"
"A nice cream sherry."
When your host will take such a rebellious audience with gracious good humor, it's hard to keep on razzing. He told me to call him later.
When I did get in touch, Schafer was his usual warm and nonjudgmental self. He admitted that my concerns were valid. He finds it best not to fuss over food but find the wine that best works with it.
"Wine is a very intimidating subject for so many people," he said. "One of my missions is to de-mystify and de-intimidate the topic. I had a client who, a while ago, wanted to have a 'fun birthday party' with guests that were not wine-savvy, but wanted pairings. One of the things we did is that we had two different kinds of Cheetos: We had the crunchy and we had the classic, and we had two different wines with them."
Well, I didn't want to go full Cheeto. Schafer understood. "You like that to which you are accustomed," he said. "You've got a comfort level. The goal is to get the wine to fit your diet."
Now we were talking! I asked him what kind of wine goes with a burger.
"It depends on what you're going to put on the burger," he said. "Part of that depends on what type of wine you like. Zinfandel can be really nice if you're putting some barbecue sauce on there. You want to have a hearty red to go with a burger. You want something that's going to stand up to that burger — most pinot noirs would get kind of overwhelmed. If you're going to have American cheese on there, maybe a nice Bordeaux with a lot of Merlot in the blend could be delicious. If you like tomatoes on there, you can balance that out with a Malbec. The answer is 'it depends.'"
OK, then. How about something that doesn't vary: the classic Detroit coney dog, a steamed bun, an all-beef frankfurter, a few dollops of beef-heart chili, a shower of diced white onion and a smear of yellow mustard. What wine goes with that?
Almost without hesitation, Schafer answered, saying, "Prosecco, because you have so many different flavors going on there. The little bit of sweetness will stand up to the sharpness of the onions and the spiciness of the chili. Sweet likes heat."
Now we got to talking turkey. Am I seriously going to get a $2 coney dog and buy a $5 glass of wine?
Schafer tactfully disabused me of my misconception. "There are proseccos out there that are pretty reasonable. One of the reasons why it's so popular is because it's so much less expensive than champagne. And that's part of the reason why prosecco sales have continued to increase. Is it worth it? If you'd rather spend a buck for a Miller Lite, then no. But it's somewhat of a different experience. Part of the challenge is that many restaurateurs overprice their wines, and that's starting to change a little bit because their customers are typing on their smartphones and using their wine apps and going, 'Really? Really?' and they don't like that!"
It made me feel a little better to know that the savvy oenophiles watch their pennies too, but it's not all about price. In truth, who wouldn't feel inappropriately pretentious ordering a glass of prosecco with a coney dog? And I guess that's what really nags me about wine: The presence of the wine glass itself practically shouts at me that I shouldn't be eating the crappy food I am.
Ever the diplomat, Schafer tells me not to be so hard on myself. You don't have to be sophisticated to have fun with flavors. "At that tasting you attended, for instance," he says, "There were some folks there that were pretty sophisticated and knew about wine and maybe a bit about food and wine pairings, and there were others that were not sophisticated at all. They're new to it and they want to be. Part of my challenge and part of the fun is to communicate and engage people of all different levels, whether there's someone that knows the difference between a Premier Cru and a Grand Cru burgundy and can afford it, or if it's somebody who's like, 'I had rosé the other night and I mixed white and red with Mad Dog 20/20.'"
Maybe that's it. I lost sight of the fun. I'm supposed to be enjoying myself, and it takes an expert like Schafer to remind me that, if I like it, I'm always right.
"Yeah, because you're the one paying the bill," he says.