A sommelier on your shelf

Special to The Times

IMAGINE having the perfect wine for every dish on the takeout menu from your favorite Chinese seafood restaurant. The very notion seems farfetched. Those menus usually list dozens of items running the gamut from heat to savory, sweet to sour. Where do you start?

I'd recommend you start by picking up the latest book from food writers Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page, "What to Drink With What You Eat,"(Bulfinch Press, $35) and turn to the page in the fifth chapter on Chinese food, where you'll find 20 well-reasoned suggestions, as well as a handful to avoid. Most of them will make the meal better. A few might be ideal. And one might create that perfect synergy between food and drink that can make even eating out of a box a memorable dining experience.

Pairing wine with food has always been more of an art than a science. Even though hundreds of thousands of words annually are devoted to the topic in books, newspapers, magazines and blogs, it's nearly impossible to apply hard and fast rules. And really, how could you? The perfect pairing is almost always inexpressible, a heady mix of the sensual and the unexpected. When it happens, words fail; you're left speechless, simply marveling at your own mouth.

So a book that seeks to demystify this most wondrous of mysteries seems about as useful as a book on how to look at a painting, or a book on how to read a book. But that is exactly what the husband-wife team Dornenburg and Page have done with "What to Drink," subtitled "The Definitive Guide to Pairing Food with Wine, Beer, Spirits, Coffee, Tea -- Even Water -- Based on Expert Advice from America's Best Sommeliers."

Thanks to Dornenburg's experience as a chef and the pair's seemingly insatiable appetites and exhaustive taxonomic energies, the authors have shed new light on the art of pairing, ensuring even the novice wine drinker -- and eater -- a book's worth of peak experiences.

Dornenburg and Page are best known for their book "Becoming a Chef," a kind of experiential guidebook: life lessons by way of the toque. But the new book builds on their more recent "Culinary Artistry," to which a number of the country's most famous chefs contributed their expertise on complementary foods. At the heart of that book is an index of ingredients and their most reliable and delicious accompaniments. This approach, supplemented by chef's suggestions and recipes, allows readers to reference time-honored flavor combinations with flashcard quickness.

"What to Drink" extends the list approach to food and beverage pairings. Drawing from extensive interviews with some of the country's best-known sommeliers, it compresses their suggestions into two sprawling indexes that take up nearly two-thirds of the book. One is an alphabetical list of dishes, ingredients and types of cuisines from "acidic (or tart foods) or dishes, e.g. goat cheese, tomatoes," to "zucchini blossoms (esp. fried)" and the wines, beers, teas and other drinks to pair with them. The other lists wines and beverages and suggests foods to pair with them (and to avoid).

Not only will you learn that meals flavored with celery, citrus and cilantro will pair well with your New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc (not to mention a Filet-o-Fish), but you'll also get snippets of information about how it works and why.

The book's initial chapters establish some basic principles of food and wine pairing. If you're a foodie, or if wine is a regular feature of your supper, you're probably acquainted with several of them: how to employ your senses, for example, or how to pair a region's food with a region's wine.

But Dornenburg and Page take pains to point out that you don't need to be an expert -- indeed, for most of us, pairing food and wine is practically innate. We've known since we were kids that certain foods taste better with certain beverages. Oreos always taste better with milk; with 7-Up, on the other hand, they're pretty yucky. (They are with Barolo too; a Banyuls, however, would be heavenly.)

Voices galore

DRAWING on that foundation, Dornenburg and Page employ a small army of sommeliers to back up their claims with suggestions, anecdotes and advice. These include such well-known experts as New York's Joe Bastianich (wine book co-author, restaurateur, wine merchant and winemaker); Karen King (beverage director at the Modern, formerly of Union Square Cafe); Bernie Sun (corporate beverage director for Jean-Georges restaurants); Chicago's Alpana Singh, (Master Sommelier, previously of Everest restaurant); Brian Duncan (wine director and partner of Bin 36 Restaurant, Wine Bar & Market); the Bay Area's Larry Stone (Master Sommelier, French Master Sommelier, winemaker, formerly of Rubicon); Rajat Parr, (Master Sommelier, wine director of Mina Group); and Alan Murray (Master Sommelier, sommelier and wine director Masa's). Los Angeles is underrepresented, but Valentino's Piero Selvaggio and Silver Lake Wine's George Cossette both make appearances.

The sheer number of quotations tends at times to fragment the reading experience -- the authors' voice ends up being a little lost in the polyphony -- but few would argue with the credibility of the sources.

In the fourth chapter, Dornenburg and Page elaborate on what I think is a wonderful idea. They recommend purchasing and maintaining a "starter case": a dozen expressive, inexpensive wines that encompass a range of flavors to have on hand at all times. They recommend a world sampler with examples of everything from Champagne to sherry. Regional starter cases -- French, Italian, California -- are obvious next steps.

"With these wines on hand," the authors say, "you can come home with just about anything from the store or takeout window and be ready to open a bottle to fit your food and mood."

Nor do they limit the mood to wine. Beer, sake, tea, soft drinks, even bottled water are given consideration for their range and pairing prowess.

When we reach the heart of the book, we've been suitably primed. Of course all of the classic pairings are represented -- Chablis with oysters, red Burgundy with mushroom dishes, Cabernet with steak (by the authors' reckoning, the wines of Champagne and Alsace probably have the greatest versatility). But what is impressive here is the reach of the suggested pairings, extending well beyond the classic and expected into some surprising flavor combinations.

Next time you grill mahi mahi, for example, see if an Italian Barbera picks up on the char of the grill. As for Champagne with omelets: Why not?

Clearly Dornenburg's experience as a chef plays into this. If anyone can articulate the flavor nuances between a Kumamoto and a Wellfleet oyster, or for that matter between a skirt steak and a rib eye, it's a chef. When the authors delve into their topic on this level of detail, the results can be thrilling. In fact the cheese guide, with more than 100 different cheeses and their accompanying wines, may alone be worth the price of the book.

For Epoisses, for example, the wonderfully stinky, washed-rind cheese from Burgundy, some recommendations stick close to home -- red Burgundy for a ripe wheel, white Burgundy for a less ripe wheel. But a Marc de Bourgogne -- a brandy distilled from the must of Burgundy wine -- might be your best bet. It will certainly clean your palate more effectively than any wine.

As for Roquefort, the classic pairing, Sauternes, would never fail you, but the authors encourage you to try a sweet red from Banyuls, an oloroso sherry, or even a rich, heady Belgian ale. The results may not be classic, but they're likely to be stimulating.

The authors are clearly less comfortable, however, when the lead-in is wine. Their index of wines is broad and far-reaching, and their coverage of wine styles, regions and varieties is impressive, even a little geeky at times. (Who knew that Locorotondo, an indigenous Italian white, goes best with broccoli rabe?) But often the wines are oddly described, or their descriptions are inconsistent in the level of detail. Barolo, for example, is referred to as a "bitter" red wine (tannic certainly, but bitter? Not these days), and its grape variety, Nebbiolo, goes unmentioned. Crozes-Hermitage is described as dark and red (it can be white too) without naming the principle variety, Syrah. And why mention Crozes and neglect St. Joseph in a list of Rhone reds?

How do you spell it?

ELSEWHERE, misspellings and typographical errors reinforce the sense that the authors are less familiar with wine than food and may be relying on their army of experts to coast around this shortcoming. "Meursault," for example, has three spellings in the book; in one instance, two different spellings are found on the same page.

Worse, the book's real stars, the sommeliers, are occasionally subject to some embarrassingly bad transcriptions. One sommelier suggests a pairing with "Cayman's Conundrum." (The white table wine named Conundrum is from Napa's Caymus Vineyards.) Another professes a love for Austrian Gruner Veltliners from Larry Brundlaeyer when she almost certainly means Willi Brundlmayer. For anyone whose first love is wine, these errors compromise the book's integrity. But if you stick to the business of pairing, few books of its kind are more enjoyable.

The final chapter invites sommeliers to select their "desert island" wines, and the results are a wonderful. Indeed, if your island retreat comes equipped with a good refrigerator, a Wolf stove and a set of Calphalon, make sure you pack "What to Drink" too, and you'll happily live out your days.


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