Friday, November 30, 2007


At Black Trumpet, we have put on three wine dinners and one beer and game dinner. In the olden days, Scott O’Connor and I collaborated on countless Lindbergh’s Crossing wine dinners. On November 7th at Black Trumpet, Scott returned (with some great organic and biodynamic wines) to a full house of old friends and wine dinner regulars of yore. The event, a departure from the structure of many past wine dinners, served primarily as a festive reunion for old friends who love fun food and hard-to-find wines. Scott and Tom’s return was clearly the focus of the event. As a bonus, the food and wines were quite well received also. So many guests at the most recent wine dinner asked me about the process I go through in pairing wine with food, I thought I’d use the blog to post some thoughts on the way our preparations work.

First, the concept. We pick a theme. Or a theme picks us. In other words, some impulse appears on the radar pointing me in the direction of a region, a varietal, a concept or a specific winemaker. Then, I find out if the wines are available in the state. If they are not—which is far too often the case (a later, more controversial blog will address the complications and frustrations of selling wine in the state of NH)—it’s back to the drawing board. If they are available, Julian—our daffy, dutiful and diligent wine guy—talks to distributors and arranges for individual bottles to be dropped off for tasting. I taste, usually with Julian and sometimes with a wine rep, and then the real thought process begins.

This is the scary part, because it offers some insight into the very greyest part of my grey matter. For example, here’s a non-sequitur digression coming at you for no reason:

I used to write songs. Not very good songs, but songs nonetheless. It was a form of creative expression, an outlet for the part of my brain that now gives itself entirely to menu making. Being a writer, I am prone to analogize, so it should come as no surprise that I have found a connection between songwriting and wine pairing.

For me, there are two ways to write a song. In the first scenario, music comes first. It could come from an instrument I am playing. It could come from another song I hear. It can even come out of the air itself. I wrote a bunch of songs when I was commuting on foot in Washington, DC back in my early twenties. The rhythm of my footfalls were the only structure I needed. I had a Walkman, as I recall, but I never really liked the way it cut me off from the world around me. So I would literally write songs as I walked, forming verse and then chorus, or vice versa, revising as I went on my merry way. You can picture the looks on the faces of those people I passed on the sidewalk. Eccentricity, I still contend, will one day be the new normalcy. Until then, I can only hope for the pity of strangers.

The second songwriting scenario is the lyrical approach. Words come from a separate muse (the Greeks had Erato in charge of lyrics and Euterpe in charge of music, as I recall), one that doesn’t heed meter sometimes. When words are more important, they can squeeze their own music from affricatives, plosives and glottals that make our language so complex (and sometimes vulgar). The rest is easy; just ask Bob Dylan.

Obviously, this analogy can parlay into a number of artforms and disciplines. Some poets are slaves to structure, obsessed with fitting ideas into sestinas and sonnets, while others let the words make the meter and the music. A single poet can, in fact, successfully embrace both approaches—those of Erato and Euterpe--in his career. Wallace Stevens might be a good example.

To make a long analogy short, wine is the music and food the lyric in this pairing process. Composing a menu can either begin with the words (ingredients) or the music (wine), and the results will vary depending on which comes first.

Back to the narrative.

So I’ve now got wine in my mouth, and I’m writing notes furiously, describing with words the indescribable complexities of aroma, flavor and finish. I am putting words to the music, body and soul of the wines. There is no question that this process is subjective. My palate, far from perfect, has its own leanings and longings. I have to keep these in check when tasting wine (and food, for that matter) because, at the wine dinner, our dining room will not be filled with clones of me. I end up with a page—no matter how many wines I’m tasting, it’s almost always one page—of tasting notes. The wines are then left open for an hour, and then a day, to let them open up. At these intervals, I go back to taste again, in hopes of detecting any other nuances, hidden notes, flourishes, etc. I write more words. At this juncture, I have a half-decent idea at least of the order in which I want the wines to be presented. This, too, can be rearranged as late as the day of the event. I also have a jumble of cuneiform runes and scratches in as many as four different inks on a crumpled page that has traveled with me in pockets, on clipboards, in notebooks. The proteins usually come first. For example, the young petit verdot has the kind of acidity and weight that call for a bird, probably a little bird, maybe partridge. Must find partridge! (This is only a simulation.) I edit as inspiration strikes. I think—always, always—about what ingredients are seasonal and appropriate with each wine, and soon a dish comes together.

Recently, Julian headed to Portland with our friend Mark to scope out some high profile wines from France that were being introduced to New Hampshire. His assignment was to come back with some big little wines that could be featured at our next wine dinner in January. He tasted twelve and selected six or seven with Mark’s help. Next step, I will taste these contenders and formulate a theme for the event.