If you have ever anguished over what to serve with your perfectly poached salmon, or what to prepare for your dinner guests toting wines they brought back from South Africa, Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg have advice for you. 2007 International Association of Culinary Professionals “book of the year” winner What to Drink with What you Eat: The definitive guide to pairing food with wine, beer, spirits, coffee, tea—even water—based on expert advice from America’s best sommeliers is the current sine qua non of wine and food pairing, with 230 pages listing over 1500 pairing suggestions in two chapters—one starting with the food and the second with the beverage.
The book opens by explaining how and why a great pairing can create a life-altering experience. While the suggestions include other beverages, the focus is on wine. Yet, after all the minutiae of what pairs best with Taco Bell Gorditas or what clashes with kale, the authors readily admit that taste is personal.
In point of fact, many of the entries include long lists of wildly varying varietals and styles—there are 20 under “omelets,” from sparkling wine to Côtes du Rhône to tomato juice—suggesting that even the appointed experts don’t all make the same choices. This should offer comfort to those who prefer to let their own taste be their guide.
The book gets its life blood from the quotes and musings of over 70 chefs, sommeliers, and other wine, food, and beverage-savvy folks. There are restaurant wine pairing menus and listings of the dozen wines the likes of Daniel Boulud, Joseph Bastianich, and Larry Stone might choose for living out their final days on a desert island. A smattering of photographs (my favorite is the Junior’s cheesecake coupled with a bottle of Quady Essensia), occasional recipes, and lots of illustrative stories and examples make real what could be at once an overly philosophical and technical volume.
Still, the book leaves me with lingering questions. While a great combination of food and beverage can be awakening, will the magic be the same for everyone? If I let the “experts” guide me, will I have the courage to try off-beat combinations that might tickle my idiosyncratic fancy? (The authors confess that there are surprises to be found; following a prescription might prevent that from happening.) Food is so complex; is it practical to look up all the components of a dish and find a wine that will make the whole thing sing? Where does the synergy of ingredients come into play?
For the voyeur, What To Drink offers an approachable and entertaining look inside the minds of restaurateurs, sommeliers, and other beverage professionals. The stories of how esteemed sommeliers learned to distinguish one wine from another in their vast world is in itself fascinating. And it is enlightening to learn how they look upon us when we sit down in their restaurant and ask for a wine suggestion.
The authors have one thing spot on—pleasure is an essential element of life. Remembering that this is food for thought and not a definitive reference, What to Drink adds pleasure to both the reading and dining experience.
Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page, What To Drink With What You Eat: The definitive guide to pairing food with wine, beer, spirits, coffee, tea—even water—based on expert advice from America’s best sommeliers, Bulfinch Press, 2006, $23.10 (hardback).
Jennie Schacht is principal of Schacht & Associates. She is co-author of The Wine Lover’s Dessert Cookbook and Without Reservations: How to Make Bold, Creative, Flavorful Food at Home.