Category Archives: Food Pairing

Fine food pairings with compatible wines.

Wine Certifications MW, CWE, WSET and MS? Differences AND Why You Want To Know

Why Should a Wine Consumer Care?

You are attending a wine tasting, wine class, an attendant is recommending a wine at a restaurant, buying a wine at a shop, or deciding which vintage to pop from your cellar… If you are an average consumer and “Two Buck Chuck” (okay, probably $4 now) is your thing, please move on to the next article of interest. If wine selection is a bit more important to you read on…

Most wine enthusiasts are faced with these situations frequently and try to make sense of the value proposition. Do you trust recommendations? How could wine professionals understand what you enjoy? Should I pay $20 for a bottle, or maybe splurge and spend $30? What IS a quality wine and how does it taste different? Which food tastes better with which type of wine?

If you spend any time asking yourself these questions, you need to know the difference between these certifications. Well, why should you trust my explanation? If a certification helps to define my content here… I have trained formally, tested and passed the first two levels of Sommelier certifications. Strictly speaking, I am a certified Professional Sommelier. The next level is Advanced and then Master Sommellier. There are a little over 200 MS certified individuals in the world and just the Master test requires a 3 day commitment for the Theory, Service and Tasting sections. Even with a fair amount of experience, it would take me a year (or more) off work to study for that one! All of these certifications require much preparation and are quite an accomplishment. The failure rate for all of these tests is high.

What is a Master of Wine (MW)?

The certification body is the Institute of Masters of Wine and requires a research project and paper. This should give you an idea of the direction here. The path here is Stages 1,2 and 3, prior to the Master designation. An MW will KNOW virtually everything about all wines around the world: all varietals, how they are farmed, all individual world Terroir, vineyard strategies, winemaking techniques, wine taste variation, etc. Where do these people play in the industry? Usually, they work as technical consultants to media, wineries, publications, distributors and importers, etc. There is much to learn about wine from one of these individuals, IF they know how to teach it.

What is a Certified Wine Educator (CWE), or a WSET L4 certified Consultant?

The certification bodies here are the Society of Wine Educators and Wine & Spirits Education Trust. The path to CWE can be to study and test for the Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW), or not. The path to WSET L4 typically goes through L1-L3. These are the most prestigious wine education organizations in the world and they certify as you might guess… the teachers of wine. Why is this distinction important? Think of these people as the educators. If you were to take a wine class, it would be good to have a teacher with one of these certs. It validates their level of knowledge and that they have been introduced to a methodology for teaching wine.

What is a Master Sommelier (MS)?

The most prestigious certifying body here is the Court of Master Sommeliers. I was certified by the International Sommeliers Guild (ISG). They are connected to the Food & Wine education programs at the Art Institutes in major cities in the U.S. In my case, the Phoenix Art Institute and we had the opportunity to work with the chef education program there for food pairing training. The path to MS is already described earlier in this article.

I have a real bias towards these people. The difference here is, you are trained on Theory, Tasting and SERVICE. Why is this different than the other certs? Yes, I was trained to understand how different varietals and styles TASTE and I was tasked to learn about wine production and growing, but the big difference here is the focus on FOOD and matching an individual palate. I was mentored to believe that there can be a difference in wine quality, but wine flavors only apply to an individual palate. There is no “bad tasting wine”, only wine flavors appreciated by different clients. I was trained to learn HOW to pair different flavors (both FOOD & WINE) with different clients and their perception of an enjoyable EXPERIENCE. In essence, this certification focuses on recognizing HOW & WHY people enjoy different foods and wines and how to build an experience that is tailored to an individual. Look for these certified attendants at RESTAURANTS. They will know their stuff and if you can get some one-on-one time, they will enhance your dining experience.

The Difference Based on Your Need

I think you will find this quick guide helpful and easily understandable. If you are taking a wine class, look for WSET and CWE certified individuals. If you have decided to start some sort of business in the wine industry, an MW as a consultant would be a good choice. If you are at a restaurant, a Sommelier on staff would be a good indication of the quality of their wine program. All of these individuals have a level of wine knowledge that can offer much to your personal wine experience, but there are differences as noted above. If you are participating in a wine tasting, any of these people could lead a group successfully with very interesting and rich content for you to enjoy.

So, keep an eye out and ask about certifications. There are a million so-called wine experts. In fact, some can be amazing. I have spent time with wine collectors that would blow you away. Although, if you want to be sure that your money is being spent wisely for classes, education, or dining… Look for the folks with formal training and certification testing. You will have a better chance of getting the most for your money and a much improved experience!

 

 

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Wine Buying Strategies for the Average Consumer

So, let’s say it is Friday and you are Mr./Ms. average wine consumer on your way home from work. You drop in to the grocery store for a few things and a bottle, or two, of wine for the weekend. Your tendency is probably to go to a brand label you know that has proven reasonable value in the $10-15/btl. range, like Yellow Tail, Cupcake, or Woodbridge. Now, let’s say this day you just got a raise, or your just feeling a little adventurous and decide your willing to up your budget to $20/btl. and you look at the 100′ long wall of wine in front of you… and you are totally lost! What do you do? Make a selection at random? by varietal? because you like the pretty label? If you are like me (before the wine training), I eventually gave up and rolled the dice, picking a bottle at random of a varietal I thought I enjoyed. Half the time, I struck-out and had to pour the bottle down the drain. It happened too often to stick to my pride and drink the awful bottle.

If this sounds familiar, just what can you do to be a little more realistic and have a better chance of selecting a bottle you will enjoy? This will require a little advance thought and a little time to walk through the process, but in the end, you will feel like your money is being better spent!

How do You Drink Wine?

Most importantly, think about how you drink wine: with food, or without. Food requires wines with more acidity to cut through and compliment fats, proteins and carbs. Acidity is the component that makes you salivate and a “bite” is usually felt near the back sides of the mouth and tongue. Easy drinking (less acidic) wines may be what you enjoy, but are best drunk on their own. For example, it is difficult to find a Malbec, or Red Zinfandel with good acidity. I am convinced this is the result of producers assuming people have discovered Malbec and Zin as simple, fruity wines that drink well without food. These varietals can present much more character, but aren’t often produced this way. In the end, wine is a business and if a producer doesn’t think they can sell a type of wine, they will simply choose not to produce it.

If you enjoy wine primarily accompanied with food, then one approach can be looking for regions that are known for producing primarily acidic wines, i.e. Chianti (Italy), White Burgundy (France), or White/Red Bordeaux (France).

Special Case: if you are a red meat eater, wines with high tannins should be your choice, as the tannins break-down the fats in the meat and clean your palate between bites. When your palate is cleared, it prepares your taste buds to appreciate the full flavor of the food with each bite. Tannins are the component that makes your mouth feel like Marlon Brando chewing on cotton balls for his next big scene in The Godfather. The cottony dryness is usually felt between the teeth and gums. These wines are fantastic paired with red meat. Examples would be: all Cabernet Sauvignon, Italian Sangiovese, French Red Bordeaux. Italian pasta dishes with red meat sauces are also good pairings for these types of wines.

Why Do You Drink Wine?

Do you drink wine for the appreciation of the flavor, or do you just enjoy relaxing with a bottle of wine after work? If you are the latter, just make an effort to learn the better quality growing regions and select something in your price range from one of these areas. In general, wine regions that are known for their quality, or have been growing wine for generations, tend to offer generally better wines. An example would be Napa Valley in the U.S., or Bolgheri in Italy. If you can find a $20 bottle of Cab Sauv from these areas, give it a shot…  it is more likely to be enjoyed, than a random Cab from Lodi, or Mendocino. If flavor is your thing, you are going to be one of those needing to put some effort into learning about wine regions, because that is the only real method for selecting wines by flavor profile.

If you are selecting wine to enjoy with friends, or at a restaurant… some of these same strategies can work. If you are lucky at the restaurant, you might get a server that actually knows something about wine, but in general think of these situations as opportunities to learn more about wine. I have written several more advanced posts on this site to help with a detailed approach to fine wine selection, if you are ready to dive in.

Cheers!

 

 

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Follow-up to: “Cabernet Sauvignon Blend Comparison”

A few comments from readers outside the U.S. highlighted the cultural bias I showed in this piece.  So, for my readers outside the U.S., I decided to write a follow-up with that in mind…

Bias Cartoon

I have written before about cultural differences and how it affects wine culture and wine jobs around the world.  It is difficult to shed the result of our up-bringing.  My point has always been – evaluating the quality of a wine is the same around the world, but whether it is enjoyed with or without food… or which foods pair best to local palates – are not simple questions with easy answers.

Cultural “Liberties”

I took many cultural “liberties” in the previous piece, assuming a shared understanding.  Also, I SHOULD have offered an evaluation regarding the best wine-food pairing…  As a starting point, keep in mind, all four wines were essentially Bordeaux style blends, the wines were similar in profile and this style of wine pairs well generally with red meat.

When I hold a tasting of varietally similar wines like these, it definitely allows a focus on evaluating structure and balance vs. flavors/aromas.  A more technical approach, but one I prefer. If you read my tasting notes, I ALWAYS discuss the structure and balance of the wine – regardless of the pairing.  I tend to evaluate wines based on how well they are made vs. how much I enjoy them.  This is the FIRST concept I was taught in formal Sommelier training.  The French wine was BY FAR the best balanced wine at the table.  So, in a tasting of similar style wines, it offered the best wine-food pairing of the four.  Which wine did I enjoy the most without food?  The 1993 Beringer Private Reserve.

In my opinion, this “Cultural Bias” is the biggest challenge that a wine professional can face when trying to bridge the chasm between Old and New World locations:  accommodating the local wine culture.  This affects every discipline in the wine industry, affecting how the wine is made, how it is marketed, serving decisions…  Perhaps, this thinking explains the importance of an involved U.S. importer to a European producer.

Cultural Differences

In the U.S., it is more common to enjoy wine without food.  One of the challenges I had to overcome in my training, but it also affects how I approach evaluating wine for my U.S. audience.  I believe there are a few ideas differentiating wine drinkers in the U.S. from many other locations around the world:

1) A significant share of the wine consumed in the U.S. is enjoyed before, or after dinner, without food.

2) Americans are looking for a less formal and relaxed wine experience.

3) When paired with food, wine flavors should enhance food flavors, rather than just complement the flavors.  Wine is not often consumed primarily to clear the palate as is common in Europe.

In closing, I was asked for a better description of the food prepared and enjoyed with the wines. So, here it is:

Beef Short Ribs – braised with a balsamic reduction for 3 hours in a pressure cooker.  They were rich, meaty, and very tender.

Mac & Cheese – a uniquely American comfort food.  This is an extremely rich pasta dish made with butter, cream and lots of cheese.  In this case we made the pasta from scratch vs. pre-packaged.

Succotash – another uniquely American dish.  A mixture of corn, butter beans (we subbed cannelloni) and okra (we subbed zucchini) in a light butter sauce with salt pork flavoring.

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New and Old World Style Food – Wine Pairings?

Cartoon Bar-minister-priest-rabbi

A Frenchman Walks into a Bar in Mendocino, and…

My wife and I were recently in a winery tasting room in Mendocino County enjoying several wines and a gentleman from France joined us at the tasting bar.  This producer happened to offer a cool-climate Syrah mixed with 20% cool-climate Zinfandel and Viognier.  A very light style of wine, with the Zin adding a brighter red fruit character.  I remarked that I wished I had a bottle of this wine to pair with our Turkey and stuffing dinner from a few nights before… and wow, both the attendant and the Frenchman laughed out loud!

Is Food & Wine Pairing THAT Different in the U.S.?

At the time, I didn’t think much of it, but it stuck with me and eventually had me thinking about the nature of food – wine pairings.  Is a Sommelier‘s job different in Europe vs. the United States?  Does the European restaurant patron look for something different, than their American counterpart?  I began turning over my Somm training in my head and realized, there really are two separate and distinct points of view to this discussion:

1st View

When pairing with foods, wines should contribute to mouth-feel, exhibit balance to complement the food textures, but primarily – the wine should clear the palate between bites.  The idea being: clearing the palate with wine allows you to fully experience the flavors of the food in each bite.

2nd View

When pairing with foods, wine should compliment the flavors in the food and ENHANCE its enjoyment.  In this case, a wine is selected based on pairing the wine and food flavors so the whole is tastier than the parts.

I know EXACTLY what that Frenchman was thinking… in his mind, that fruit-forward wine interfered with the taste of the food.  I thought back to his preferred wines at the tasting bar.  He purchased the most acidic Pinot Noir that was the least fruity and the best balanced (BTW, I enjoyed it too).  His thinking regarding the pairing was completely at odds with mine.  Lighter Zins (with good acidity) are a great pairing with turkey and gravy, because the wine compliments the food.  These two people were so against that kind of thinking, that they had laughed when it was suggested.  A strange experience, but very instructive.

Another Wine Job That Requires an Understanding of Cultural Preferences?

Sometime back, I wrote a piece on the cultural differences affecting the wine marketing and media manager position.  So, now the Somm position is affected by this too?  OK, I am not saying my preference here matches everyone in the U.S., but the wine education training I have done, has shown it to be true – at least in my small sample.  Does this mean Somm training and certification should include the regional and cultural preferences of local wine consumers, NOT just regional cuisine?  Could this also mean, there is no one definitive training approach to content that will apply to both the Old and New Worlds?

Feedback

For the professional Somms reading this, what has your experience been?  Am I painting to broad a brush on the issue? I don’t read much talk about this on wine related websites.  Is this observation and discussion relevant?

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Wine Marketing – The Gap Between Europe and the U.S.

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Can European Wine Producers Access the Mainstream U.S. Market?

I have two acquaintances from Europe on a work visa here in the States.  It is always interesting to hear their perspective on wine.  They view wine very differently than the majority of my U.S. friends.  When I am looking for someone to explore and appreciate the complexities of Northern Rhone, or Burgundy with me…  it is rarely my U.S. friends.  Decades of high Robert Parker scores have been driving demand for high alcohol, big oak and rich mouth-feel and have skewed the high-dollar U.S. Cabernet market towards palates that have been trained to demand it.  I know, because that was mine back in the day.  It’s all good though.  I have come to enjoy both the big & bold and lighter complex styles.  Although I must say, the wines that fill that special place for me are often the more balanced lighter wines of Italian origin.  With such major differences in style preference between here and there, can a wine executive from Europe having grown up with a different wine sensibility…  truly understand the American consumer?

Many Europeans Experience Wine as an Accompaniment to Food

Until 2010, I primarily drank wine before, or after a meal, but rarely with. Based on my friends, acquaintances and wine education events, this is the primary wine experience for the majority of Americans.  It wasn’t until my Sommelier training that I was introduced to the idea of wine as an accompaniment to food.  Too many U.S. consumers evaluate wines and make buy decisions based on tasting without paired food.  I don’t believe this is well understood by wine industry executives in Europe. The popularity of the big fruit-forward taste profile in the U.S. is a good barometer for this discussion.

Is There an Assumption of Basic Wine Knowledge?

There are a few points to make on this topic. Wine is a common fixture on most French, Italian and Spanish dinner tables, consequently children are exposed to wine at a very early age.  This leads to basic wine knowledge being assumed by many Europeans.  In addition, branding regional food and wine by city, or area name is well understood there. In the U.S., this is a confusing and foreign concept. Until another approach to marketing is developed, the under $50/btl. retail wine market here will continue to be an elusive target for European producers.

Many Europeans might cringe at the idea that the most popular food dish in America is probably boxed mac & cheese.  The foodie movement is a relatively new trend here.  Working with consumers in the U.S. means starting with people from the ground up and building demand with little steps.

Red Wine Health Benefits Comic

Are European Producers Targeting Only U.S. Collectors and Connoisseurs?

Importing marketing, or sales professionals from Europe is a thoroughly misguided idea… unless you are trying to target the 5% of the total market (by volume) that are the collectors and connoisseurs. I have had only a few experiences with Europeans in a sales role for wineries in the U.S.  They have all been French and were the singular worst experiences I have had during all my wine trips to California over the years.

Changing the American Wine Paradigm

The challenge in the American market is convincing the average consumer that wine is not just for special occasions and holidays… or… is not just a glass on tap (yes, most winebars are now serving on tap) with friends before, or after dinner.

Wine Wimp

Conclusion

The more I talk to people in wine marketing in the U.S., the more I realize how misguided many are… and how absolutely correct the winemakers usually are… winemakers and vineyard managers are just farmers at heart.  It is this wine for the “regular Joe” story that resonates with the average American Consumer. If wine is to gain greater market share here, it should be experienced as relaxed and fun, with no rules. Put together an effective explanation of why focusing on wine can make life richer… and there you have a marketing campaign that will have an impact in the U.S.

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A Wine-O Walks into a Bar, and…

Wine Bar in Italy

One day last year, my wife and I walked into a wine bar in Castello di Bolgheri, Italy (OMG, this sounds like the beginning of a joke!). They had 20 wines in a commercial dispensing system… Sassicaia, Ornellaia, Le Macchiole, Sapaio, Grattamacco, Ca’ Marcanda and more (pardon mixing my wines/producers) and I blew a boatload of cash sampling higher priced, older vintage, hard to get wines in 2 oz. pours. Never saw such an impressive selection of wines BTG in my life! I will remember the fun we had that night for many years!

Wine Bars and the U.S.

Could this wine bar concept be successful in the U.S.? Let me throw this out there… could providing wine education and then exposure to these kind of exquisite wines from all over the world be successful? Obviously, the demographics of the area would be a huge factor, but assuming you were located in a high-income area… could it make business sense, or would it be a disaster? Definitely – paired tapas and the right atmosphere would be a must.

A Passion for Wine and Curiosity

In my case, I am always curious about ultra-premium wines. Frankly, it is fun trying to determine if the value makes sense, or the price point is bogus. In the process, you always run across an amazing gem, like we did that night. Although generally, I am not up for spending big money on a full night of it. In this case, my wife and I were on vacation and we decided it would be fun to treat ourselves to the experience. Are we the only couple with disposable income that feels that way? Would the location have to be a tourist wine destination like downtown Napa, CA? Will the new Coravin wine preservation system provide the method for making this concept work?

Which Wine Experience Are You Looking For?

Being of entrepeneurial spirit, I try to guess at the different kinds of consumers that make up the marketplace. When you choose to drink wine at a bar, or restaurant, what most influences your selection?

1) pair with food 2) price 3) value 4) broad appeal for the entire party 5) explore new wines 6) the old dependable 7) hunt for exceptional quality 8) try multiple wines and a diverse experience

Is seeking out an exceptional wine value on your radar, or like many believe… are you just looking for a passable wine at the right price? Many in the industry have the view that people are just happy to be out enjoying a good time with friends…

$700 USD/btl for Harlan Estate Cab? Really?

Here are a few lines from a recent wine auction. Sorry, vintage dates are missing, but you get the point. $75+ for a 2 oz. taste of wine? I don’t think many would be curious enough, although I have watched people pay that for a shot of utra-premium tequila…

Harlan Estate, Napa Valley, USA – $709
Schrader Cellars Old Sparky Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, USA – $624
Caymus Vineyards Grace Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, USA – $617

How about $25+ for a taste of these wines?

Paul Hobbs Beckstoffer Las Piedras Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, St Helena, USA – $182
Dominus Estate Christian Moueix, Napa Valley, USA – $180
Bevan Cellars ‘Oscar’ Sugarloaf Mountain Proprietary Red, Napa Valley, USA – $180

Or these?

Chateau Montrose, Saint-Estephe, France – $192
Chateau Haut-Brion Le Clarence de Haut-Brion, Pessac-Leognan, France – $192
Chateau Lynch-Bages, Pauillac, France – $188

At some point, you become saturated with high-priced offerings beyond your budget. Occasionally, I stop and think about all the buyers out there spending this kind of money on wine. Sometimes… I just can’t get my head around the wealth that must be out there.

Wine Bars in My Area

Don’t know about you, but I look for decent food and ambiance with great value wines in the low, mid and higher priced categories. Sometimes, you are out on a special occasion and want to splurge. Having craft beer on tap too is a plus, for the times when a beer just sounds right. Unfortunately, this ideal place does not exist within 20 miles of my home and has me wishing… and hoping, the next new entrepeneur will take the risk and get it right.

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