The Kitchen Trinity

Wine may be wonderful, but donít neglect the food and the company

By Michael Cervin


'm often asked (usually by someone in a state of panic) what wine should be served with dinner, as if given the right choice, it will make the evening an unparalleled success. My response is always the same and is a two-part answer. What food are you serving, and who are your guests? I ask those questions because, more often than not, people believe the wine they serve is the star of the meal. Wine, they think, is like an uber super model — something that dazzles you to the point that you forget your surroundings. The best culinary evenings I’ve had have not been about showcasing a particular wine, a unique food or the incredible wit of someone seated next to me, but when the simple elements of the kitchen trinity — good food, good wine and good company — come together and create a seamless evening.

Good wine cannot mask poor food anymore than sumptuous cuisine can override boring guests. If there's a break in these elements, things suffer.

Recently, I had guests over and in some odd time-warp moment, I neglected to put water in the vegetable steamer and turned the heat on without it. The result wasn't catastrophic, but the vegetables weren't quite what I had intended.

I've been in situations where the food and wine are wonderful, but the company I’m with makes me feel like Sisyphus, and that I’m pushing the conversation boulder uphill. Sometimes good conversation isn’t easy to come by and you have to work hard just to get one-word responses from people.

“Wine can help bring out conversation,” according to Jason Collis, owner and executive chef of Jonathan’s at Peirano’s in Ventura. “Wine is a binder,” he says, that allows people to open up and feel less intimidated. It’s just one of the “components of the full experience.”

It's also important to know your audience. For my wedding, I chose a wine I knew would appeal to the broadest possible palate. Being a wine writer, everyone expected me to serve some obscure petite sirah or a flowery voignier. Instead I chose a mild blend I knew most everyone would like. I have friends who don’t drink red wine, or prefer something “fruity” or “non-threatening,” so I try and understand their needs. If I want to serve a non-oaked chardonnay or a cool climate syrah, something I may personally gravitate toward, I'll also offer something more accessible to guests who might be overwhelmed by my own tastes.

Setting the ambience and the right tone for an evening is crucial. I usually keep the conversation going by asking questions I think will make for broader topics. I also always explain what food I’ve prepared and what wine I'm serving, so everyone has some idea of what I’m attempting. Additionally, I never want anyone to feel intimidated, which is why I never ask direct questions like, "What do you think of the wine?" No one wants to be put on the spot. So whether it’s zinfandel and burgers or Chateaubriand béarnaise and Pomerol, the goal is always balance, and when the kitchen trinity tumbles into place, the result is the best of times.


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