I’m a pescatarian. That means I don’t eat red meat or poultry, but am good with most creatures from the sea. I know plenty of people both in and out of the wine and food industries who eat in a similar fashion.
I was at a wine lunch the other day at which the last course was duck with a delicious slice of what I would call a mushroom bread pudding, which was served with a flight of pinot noirs. When I let the server know that I do not eat meat but that fish was fine, I was instead served pan-roasted dorade, a pungent, seasonal fish.
Pinot noir is often touted as the “go to” red wine for fish, so it was not surprising the chef felt it would be a reasonable pairing. Lightly tannic, fruity reds such as pinot tend to work better than earthy, tannic monsters. However, pinot noir matches some types of fish — such as salmon, yellowfin tuna and swordfish — more than others, such as tilapia or dorade.
This particular fish filet seemed especially overpowering, at least when tasted with the pinot noir. Dorade is clearly a white wine kind of fish. It is wonderful with albariño, riesling, gruner veltliner, pinot gris, a slough of Italian white grapes and sauvignon blanc. But red wines, no matter the type, just make it taste fishier.
For years I’ve been telling readers, customers and students that wine and food pairing must also consider seasoning, and the way a dish is prepared. I’ll grant that a New York strip steak and California cabernet make a better pairing than substituting a portobello mushroom, but that does not mean the veggie matchup is not enjoyable.
My restaurant, which was also a wine bar, had weekly staff tastings and it was mandatory for the kitchen to attend.
Occasionally, they had way too much to prep and were excused, but on the whole, the cooks had a pretty good idea about wine — and — food pairing so that when a dietary request came in from the server, they knew to ask what the person was drinking. I know many other restaurants take wine and food pairing this seriously, but far too many, including fine-dining establishments, perpetuate some of the clichés — such as the one about pinot noir — to their clientele’s detriment.
Whether you are out in one of the Bay Area’s great restaurants or at home, keep in mind that there is not one cure-all when it comes to food and wine pairing. The best way to choose a wine that will go with your dish, or vice versa, is to ask questions and experiment.
Pamela Busch was the founding partner of Hayes and Vine and CAV Wine Bars, and is a wine educator and writer.