Aerobics for the Taste Buds: Enjoying Wine with Food

Let me begin by saying that entire books have been written about how to pair food with wine. If that’s the case, how can you ever find the right balance of flavors that will leave your guests toasting you? Well, it’s hardly rocket science, and it’s not as difficult as you might think.

While the old adage, “White wine with chicken and fish, red wine with beef” holds some truth, it’s not written in stone. Bacchus will not descend from the heavens to pulverize your wine glass if you serve a Pinot Noir with poached filet of sole. If you stick too closely to this rule, you may miss out on some exceptional wine and food combinations.

What’s the Secret?
The key to good wine and food marriages is matching the intensity of flavors. A strong-flavored or spicy meal deserves a wine that can enhance its flavors rather than be buried by them. Mild-flavored dishes deserve to be treated to more delicate, subtle wines. Sweet wines are best saved for dessert or sipping before dinner. That said, you’re still likely to be overwhelmed by the choices available to you in any well-stocked wine shop.

Rather than give you my preferences, I decided to ask an expert in both food and wine: Joe Pierce, of Pierce’s 1894 Restaurant in Elmira Heights. Joe is the latest of four generations that have been running Pierce’s since the late 1800s, an establishment which at times has been a cigar factory, a pool hall, a bar and grill, and a bowling alley. If you’re interested in Finger Lakes wines, Joe can tell you all about how the industry has grown from its early days in the 1970s.

Joe decided that after years of helping his customers choose the right wines, he’d put it all down in his wine list. “It took me a few weeks to do,” he explains, “but now anyone can choose just the right wine for that special occasion.”

Consider this entry in Pierce’s wine list, just one of literally dozens offered:
Zinfandel is a marvelous, versatile, and exceedingly delicious wine that can be made with an array of personalities. Zinfandel is the best choice one can make when looking for both flavor and value as it is far more reliable than Syrah or Merlot.

A Budding Interest in Wine
Joe is this first to admit that most of what he knows, he learned on the job. While at Cornell’s School of Hospitality Management, he took a new course that years hence would garner a long waiting list: Wine and Spirits Appreciation. Little did he know that the course would lead to a lifelong interest in wine.

Shortly after he graduated in 1975, the Farm Winery Act was passed, opening the door for the development of small wineries in the Finger Lakes. Joe jumped on board this growing industry by visiting the newly established Glenora Wine Cellars and befriending founder Gene Pierce (no relation). He’s been following Finger Lakes wines ever since.

Joe was astute enough to recognize the value of imported wines in the ’70s and ’80s. He loaded up on vintages from those years and cellared them. That’s why you can find a 1975 Chateau Petrus on his wine list, a rarity even in major metropolitan areas.

He also took a serious look at California wines long before they became popular in the East. “When I visited the Napa Valley in the late 1970s, I was just blown away by what I was tasting,” he explains.

The result is a wine list unrivaled in Upstate New York. In fact, Pierce’s wine list has repeatedly won the top two honors bestowed by the Wine Spectator: the Grand Award and the Best Of Award. Such recognition is earned by only a few hundred restaurant wine lists in the world. Pierce’s maintains an inventory of about 25,000 bottles – and 450 varieties – from all over the globe.

Choosing the Wines
How does Joe select a wine for his list? “First of all, I always involve the serving staff. We pour two or three varieties and taste informally as we’re cleaning up. I always make sure that the tastings are blind,” he states, “and I never look at the price.” This ensures that he and his servers are using their taste buds rather than a balance sheet to choose the best for their customers. “Educating my staff about wine has always been a top priority,” adds Joe.

Joe also asks himself if the wine meets his “wine by the glass” criteria. “Rather than buy an entire bottle, you can order wine by the glass and match your selections to each course,” adds Joe. “This is a wonderful way to become familiar with different wines and learn how to pair them with food.”

This philosophy is carried on in Pierce’s Wine Cellar Dinners hosted during February and March each year (see insert). “We bring in a Finger Lakes winemaker to speak and answer questions during a very special meal. Each part of the meal – hors d’oeuvres, four courses, and dessert – is carefully matched with wines from the featured winery,” mentions Joe. “We often get a lively discussion going, and everyone has a great time.”

The dinners sell out very quickly, since only 26 people can be seated. “We get people who drive four hours for one of our dinners,” Joe says. “We’ve had repeat diners from Pennsylvania, Buffalo, and even farther away.” The Wine Cellar Dinners are served right in Pierce’s wine cellar, where guests are surrounded by thousands of bottles of outstanding wine.

Our Own Special Meal    
Our meal focused on the wines from Atwater Estate Vineyards and Prejean Winery, both on Seneca Lake. Just to be sure that we had the full experience of this family-run business, Joe asked his daughter, Lee Marie, to be our server (not to be confused with Joe’s 81-year-old mother Lee, who buzzed from table to table as well).

We began our meal with an Atwater Dry Riesling, olive bread, and a nosh plate of toasted spinach tacos served with a cold vegetable mélange. The olive bread, in particular, tasted as if it was proofed in extra virgin olive oil, so strong was the flavor of the marinated olives that generously studded it.

Our appetizers consisted of Oysters Rockefeller and cream of leek soup. The creamy, lemony flavor of the oysters combined well with the slightly fruity Riesling, reminding me why oysters are thought of as aphrodisiacs.

Salads dressed with raspberry vinaigrette came next, nicely complemented by the semi-sweet tang of Pierce’s House Select, a white wine made by Lakewood winemaker Chris Stamp. A light-bodied and uncomplicated wine, it could pair easily with many light flavored meats or fish.

Next up, our entrees: roast saddle of lamb and pan-seared sesame tuna steak. The Atwater Pinot Noir, a mild flavored red wine, enhanced the very distinct flavor of wilted mint that permeated the lamb as well as the garlic taste of the accompanying mashed potatoes.

Prejean’s Gewürztraminer, a wine characterized by its spiciness, was paired with the tuna, allowing the toasted sesame in both the fish coating and the cold capellini side dish to stand out without being overpowered by the wasabi dipping sauce. Both dinners were served with crisp, steamed vegetables.

For dessert, we shared a sampler plate of Grand Marnier crème brûlée, turtle cheesecake, and a napoleon drizzled with raspberry sauce. The dessert cart also featured ports, ice wines, and late harvest wines to be served with or as dessert. We enjoyed a Lakewood Port, a rich and dense wine that was as delicious as the desserts themselves. In case those treats weren’t enticing enough, Pierce’s also offered chocolate mousse, Fort Knox pie, and a whiskey torte.

To complete our visit, Joe escorted us through the wine cellar below the restaurant. The brightly lit, temperature controlled rooms brought us back to our senses, particularly when Joe pulled out a bottle so old that the label was illegible. He smiled broadly as he showed us a French Margaux from the late 1800’s. “Now this,” he claims, “must wait for a very special occasion.”

A Wine Cellar Dinner
Pierce’s Wine Cellar Dinners are one of their most popular events. This year, wines from Lakewood, Prejean, Glenora, Atwater, Dr. Frank, and Heron Hill were featured. Here’s a sample menu from the Heron Hill event.

Hors d’oeuvres: crabmeat rangoons, duck potstickers, fresh oysters and shrimp, 2001 Dry Riesling. First course: Wild mushroom and onion tart, Semi-Dry Riesling. Second course: Roast rack of lamb with fried polenta and red and yellow peppers, 2001 Cabernet Franc. Third course: Spring salad mix with buttermilk yogurt and chive dressing. Fourth course: Fresh julienne vegetables and Anna potatoes served with pan-seared Atlantic salmon with a balsamic bacon glaze, Pinot Noir.  Pastry chef’s dessert, 1999 Late Harvest.

The Future of the Finger Lakes Wine Industry
What’s in store for Finger Lakes wines? “Winemaking in the Finger Lakes has improved dramatically in the past 20 years, especially when it comes to consistency,” Joe claims. “I have the utmost respect for the people in this business. Today’s climate reminds me very much of where California was 20 years ago.”

Joe speaks fondly of the “Banana Belt” on the eastern shore of Seneca Lake. “It’s been said that if you had to grow bananas in the Finger Lakes, this is where you would do it,” referring to the unique blend of microclimate and elevation that enables winemakers to churn out wines better suited to warmer locales. “The beauty of the Finger Lakes is its diversity, which enables winemakers from all over the area to produce some really fine wine.”

A Few More Suggestions
Additional excerpts from Pierce’s wine list:

Pinot Noir
The best measure of any wine’s appeal is when “one glass immediately invites another.” No wine produced on earth better illustrates this axiom than Pinot Noir. The personality of this grape is so soft, charming, and delightful that one could almost call it seductive. This is one of the best red wines to pair with rich seafood such as salmon, sea scallops, and tuna.

Perhaps my favorite Chardonnay, these wines are almost exclusively produced without any exposure to oak. Their common thread is the classic “steely fruit” which is so complex and so well illustrates “terroir.” The best wines of the region will age gracefully for a decade or more and offer an incredible experience.

New York Red Wines
The exceptional quality of recent vintages coupled with increased viticultural experience and wine making skills now allow the Finger Lakes to produce red wine the quality of which was only a dream less than a decade ago. Cabernet Franc is emerging as our red wine equivalent of Riesling, and its best days are still ahead. Stylistically, expect wines which run from Cru Beaujolais to Zinfandel.

Pierce’s is located at 228 Oakwood Avenue in Elmira Heights, off Route 14 just north of Elmira. Contact Pierce’s at 607-734-2022 or http://www.pierces Meals begin serving at 5:00, Tuesday through Saturday.

by Joy Underhill
Joy enjoys keeping up with the Finger Lakes wine industry with her husband, who has the unique talent of remembering nearly every wine they have ever tasted.

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