Monday, December 5, 2011

Emerging Oenophiles Rec: The Food Lover's Guide to Wine

Of the many beloved food books sagging the shelves of book cases in my kitchen, Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg's The Flavor Bible is among those I turn to regularly. So, when the couple asked me to take a look at their new book, The Food Lover's Guide to Wine ($35/Little, Brown), I immediately accepted their invitation. I've been waiting for a book that would help me understand wine better and, of course, how to select what will make me happy.

What I found is a thoroughly enjoyable primer for culinary enthusiasts who are trying to extend that pleasure to wine. Most of us who take great care about the ingredients we use in the kitchen or expect to be used when dining out have a certain knowledge base and language we access to make choices at the markets or on a menu. But, we need a similar knowledge base and language to make wine selections that make sense for us, for our wallet, and to beautifully accompany the food we so adore.

Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg
Page and Dornenburg draw from their own extensive knowledge (they are also the authors of What to Drink With What You Eat) as well as that of winemakers, retailers, and sommeliers, including San Diego's own Jesse Rodriguez of Addison at the Grand Del Mar, to guide readers through the basics with an eye toward enabling us to have more confidence in our choices. They give a brief history of wine making in the U.S. (Did you know that in 1619 the male heads of households were commanded by law to plant grapevines or that in 1839 the first vineyards were planted in Napa Valley? The grower was George Calvert Yount--as in Yountville.) From there, they take the reader on a journey into every aspect of grapes and wines that starts with the stories sommeliers tell of how they fell in love with wine and takes us into the intricacies of learning how to taste, how to read labels, how to discover our own palate, and how to pair wines with food.

Wine is a pleasure. Learning about it shouldn't be tedious. Ordering it shouldn't be intimidating. By bringing sommeliers into the picture and, in fact, focusing an entire chapter on their strategies and secrets for mastering wine, Page and Dornenburg create a lively conversation among the professionals that makes it clear that their role is to be an educated guide. Contrary to the fear most diners have that sommeliers are simply trying to sell up a bottle or two, sommeliers here make it clear that they are there to help diners suss out what they'll enjoy at a price point they'll be comfortable with. It's what gives them pleasure in their work. Collaborate with an experienced sommelier and who knows what pleasures you'll experience.

Similarly, learning little techniques that boost enjoyment of wine--storage tips, opening tips, advice about using good-quality glassware, inspired pairings with food, and how to taste--should be part of an enjoyable process. Each of these and more are addressed in the book, but importantly, not as finger-wagging directives but as suggestions that could change your opinion about a particular wine and even open you up to possibilities you hadn't considered.

I was particularly taken by the section on composing meals. The authors take readers through the creation of a menu, noting the first principle is to move from light to heavy--both in terms of food and wine. Success in this takes practice and they turn first to The French Laundry to offer guidance through each course and then sommeliers at places like The Little Nell, The Breakers, The Modern, and On the Square. In this chapter is also a very useful guide for matching wine to common dishes--say, an omelet with Champagne--and to common cuisines--Indian or Thai with Gew├╝rztraminer. For one sommelier, Champagne is his go-to wine for Japanese food. Another loves Pinot Noir with Peking duck rolls and mu shu pork because the hoisin sauce's earthy-spicy-sweet personality mirrors that of the wine. That's the kind of insight that makes the book so useful.

The middle of the book is devoted to a comprehensive directory of wines that identify the grapes, country of origin, full flavor profiles, Tannin levels, and other key information--all geared toward novice wine enthusiasts. The authors also include numerous additional resources--websites and blogs, other books, a list of American Master Sommeliers, and wine magazines. The Food Lover's Guide to Wines is truly the perfect place for an aspiring wine lover to get started and gain confidence.

All photos by Tom Kirkman.

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