About Me

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Steven Kolpan is Professor and Chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. Steven is co-author of Exploring Wine, which has sold more than 125,000 copies, and was nominated as Best Wine and Spirits Book by the James Beard Foundation. Steven is also co-author of WineWise, a consumer-friendly guide to the wines of the world, which won both the 2009 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Beverage Book and the 2009 Georges Duboeuf Award for Best Wine Book of the Year. He is also the author of A Sense of Place, a history of Napa Valley's Niebaum-Coppola / Rubicon Winery (foreword by Francis Ford Coppola) that received the prestigious Versailles Award for Best American Wine Book in 2000. He is a contributing editor and the wine columnist for The Valley Table and Salon.com. In 2007, Steven Kolpan was named Wine Educator of the Year by the European Wine Council. He has been a member of Slow Food International for 20 years. Steven Kolpan lives just outside of Woodstock, New York.

New Rules/No Rules: Pairing Food and Wine

Recently, I checked in with my dentist for a cleaning and checkup. As usual, Mary Ann, the dental hygienist, chatted with me as she cleaned my teeth, and inevitably the conversation (punctuated by my silence due to scraping, irrigating, flushing, and spitting) turned to wine. When it comes to wine, Mary Ann, whose Italian-American parents made their own, knows what she likes. “No Chardonnay, no Zinfandel; it’s got to be Pinot Grigio.” I asked her if her favorite wine works with all of her food choices, and she said “absolutely.”

Then Dr. Vivian came in to have a look at my teeth and gums. “Doc,” as she is known by her staff, is a walking advertisement for dental health because she has such a beautiful smile. Mary Ann asked, “Doc, what’s your favorite wine?” Without missing a beat, Doc answered “Whaddaya got? I just love wine, all wine!”

I realized at that moment that there was only one wine geek in the room, and it was the guy in the dental chair. Mary Ann and Doc are true wine lovers. One loves her Pinot Grigio, and one just loves wine, and they both enjoy wine and food without pretensions, without rules. I was humbled by Mary Ann and Doc’s instinctual passion for wine, and I wanted to get in touch with my own instincts, my own passions.

I spend a good part of my professional life teaching and writing about wine. Perhaps the most important part of what I do as a wine educator, author, and journalist is explain how to successfully marry food and wine so that each wine enhances each dish, and vice versa. In my classes at The Culinary Institute of America, where I have taught thousands of aspiring food and wine professionals over the last 20 years, wine and food pairing takes on special significance. Because wine courses at the CIA are geared to professionals I teach my students to pair wine and food not solely for their own palatal pleasure, but for the pleasure of others, specifically paying customers. The dynamic pairing of food and wine in a restaurant environment is an important part of the guest’s dining experience, and directly impacts the reputation and financial success – or failure – of any restaurant, from the informal bistro or chain restaurant to the upscale white table cloth restaurant or hotel dining room.

Often, when I teach or write about wine and food pairing for professionals, I let my students or readers know that the guidelines for marrying food and wine for a paying customer also has resonance in the wine and food choices they make at home for themselves, their family and friends. But I also point out that in their own lives there is no reason to adopt a conservative approach to marrying wine with food. Take a chance, live a little. Really, if you’re pairing a wine that you like with food that you like, how badly can you screw up? And if you do marry in haste or error, you can learn from that experience, too.

The United States is on its way to becoming the #1 wine-consuming nation in the world (you read that right: #1 by the end of 2009 – not based on per capita consumption, but total consumption). Americans in virtually all socioeconomic strata are becoming really comfortable with wine – Olive Garden sells more wine than any other U.S. restaurant; Costco is the #1 wine retailer in the nation – and that’s a good thing, because a glass or two of wine with dinner is an affordable pleasure, a small reward at the end of the day for all of us.

As we become comfortable with wine as part of daily life, we discover wines we really like, and wines we don’t like at all. We find wines at affordable price points – right now the consumer is king or queen, as good-quality wines have never been more accessible or less expensive – and choose a few as our own “house wines.” Couples may agree or disagree about what they like. That’s OK, as each can keep a bottle or two of his or her favorites in the house to enjoy at their leisure.

Americans have become confident in their wine choices. Gone are the bad old days when wine was intimidating, the days when people felt that they had to know how to talk about wine using antiquated jargon that has thankfully bit the dust. Just as we don’t have to know everything about the food we eat to enjoy it, the same holds true for wine. It’s a real bonus that so many of us are interested in knowing the source of our food, how and where it’s grown and by whom. And let’s remember that wine is indeed a food that happens to be fermented and sits in a glass. Perhaps more than any other food (with the possible exception of cheese, another fermented food), wine can express its sense of place, and that place can be local or international. However we think about food in general, we now think of wine as another flavor, another texture, a spice, a sauce, a refreshing counterpoint. A bite of food, a sip of wine, and we’re good to go.

So, in our daily lives let’s forget the “rules” of wine and food pairing. The only rule should be eat and drink what you like, and do so responsibly. White wine with meat? Sure. Red with fish? Absolutely. Rosé with a Whopper? Knock yourself out. Bubbles with everything? A no-brainer.

So, thanks to Mary Ann and Dr. Viv for helping me see the light – and for trying so hard to get those red wine tannin residues off my teeth and for saving my enamel from white wine acids. I’m going to continue to taste professionally, and to teach aspiring professionals how to successfully pair food and wine for paying customers. But in my own life at home, with friends, with family, I think I’ll adopt Dr. Viv’s carpe diem approach.

Whaddaya got?

1 comment:

Paul A. Rainbow said...

I'm the only wine drinker in our home and I use just a glass per evening. My wife doesn't plan our meals around the wines. Drinking the same wine five or six times with a variety of foods over the space of a week has been a great way to learn what goes with what. In fact, I wouldn't claim to know what a wine tastes like apart from an extended experiment of this sort--different foods bring out different facets of each wine.

After all, in the southern European countries where people have wine at all three meals they use what's available locally and don't engage in all this fussy pairing of multiple varietals.

One grand conclusion I've come to is that whites and light reds will go with almost anything. Heavy reds are less universal. Some combinations are, of course, more stunning than others, but any wine elevates a meal.