California Drinkin’

California Drinkin’.


One of the coolest parts about writing about wine is that I get to tell people I write about wine. Regardless of how the preceding conversation has gone, no matter how clumsy or bumbling I may have been, as soon as I mention that I write a wine column, my cred gets a major bump.

The bump is usually only temporary, however. As anyone who has engaged me in a conversation about wine can attest — I’m much more of a wine geek than the sophisticate they may have momentarily imagined dining on caviar and not deigning to drink anything less than Latour.

Honestly? I’ve never had a sip of Chateau Latour (hardly unbelievable given the minimum $1,000 price tag) and I’m not really one for caviar. Oh sure, I probably spend more than most on my day-to-day wine but that’s just because I’d rather imbibe those calories blissfully than guiltily and, well, I do write a wine column.

But as far as food goes (another area in which I am queen of the nerds), I’ll let you in on a dirty little secret: some of my favorite food, for which I have an incessant craving, is best served in a Styrofoam container.

That’s right — I’m talking take-out. So what better way to marry my two great culinary loves than to pair great wine with greasy goodness? You may think it doesn’t make sense to waste good wine on cheap food, but, oh, the pleasures that await you!


I realize that pairing wine with food often presents a daunting task for even the most devoted of oenophiles. It’s hard enough understanding wine all by itself without trying to match it, like a puzzle piece, with its perfect mate — the dish that will enhance the wine and bring out its best flavors while, in turn, being elevated by its alcoholic companion.

My favorite strategy for pairing food with wine comes from Karen MacNeil, author of the celebrated Wine Bible. Macneil suggests that you use wine as a mirror and hold it up against the more pronounced qualities of a dish. Pair spicy with spicy, sweet with sweet, earthy with earthy, and so forth.

If you run into a flavor profile that doesn’t quite have its match in a wine, look to texture — is it rich? You can match it with an equally rich wine and languish in velvety mouth-feels or you can pair it with something bright and full of flavor that will match the intensity of your meal but cut through the richness with some acidity. This is one of the reasons that lobster pairs so well with chardonnay and salmon goes so swimmingly with pinot noir.

For each of my favorite take-out dishes, I’ll go through why I pair each dish with its particular wine and hope to enlighten you through example. Once you’ve successfully paired something as low-brow as Panda Express, there’s no turning back from full-on wine geekdom.

Pad Thai with Tofu: Voignier
Great pad thai is tangy, savory, and a little sweet. The tamarind-based sauce gives it that fruity acidic taste that leaves us hungering for more. Voignier is a grape that is often described as “luscious” and has a characteristic honey aroma. The grape is inherently low in acidity which makes it a perfect match for pad thai, already so tangy, and often has flavors of ripe peaches, tropical fruits (ahem, tamarind), and fresh orange peel.
Try: 2008 K Vintners, $20

Yellow Curry with Shrimp: Grüner Veltliner
Yellow curry is sweet and delicately spiced. It’s the mildest of Thai curries and the most redolent of coconut milk. The complex and delicate broth requires a wine that accents the spice without overpowering. Grüner Veltliner is an Austrian white grape that yields a sweet wine that is noted for the characteristic rush of white pepper on the finish. The combination of sweet and spicy makes it an ideal match for Thai curries.
Try: 2008 Hiedler, $16

Pad Kee Mao with Chicken: Savignon Blanc
Aka “drunken noodles,” this dish is one of my personal favorites among Thai cuisine. You get spice from the chilies, an herby fresh flavor from the mounds of Thai basil that the noodles are tossed with at the very end, and the grassy flavor that comes from bell peppers only cooked slightly. Sauvignon Blanc, especially from New Zealand, with its bright acidity and grassy herbaceous notes is a perfect match for this bold noodle dish.
Try: 2008 Jules Taylor, $15

Chicken Tikka Masala: Côtes du Rhône
The dish is rich, creamy, sweet, and redolent of spices without being spicy. The wine has a good deal of sweetness and spice as well — with a rich, smooth mouth feel that complements the creaminess of the sauce.
Try: 2008 Domaine Alary, $16

Lamb Vindaloo: Dolcetto d’Alba
Another tamarind-based spicy dish, but this time with gamey lamb and heavy heat, this dish calls for something with a lot of fruit, good spice, and a brightness to match the tang of the tamarind. Dolcetto is one of my favorite grapes — I’m tempted to describe it as the Beaujolais of Italy. It’s a lighter wine with nice acidity, lots of fruit like raspberries and cherries, and a spicy finish.
Try: 2006 Moccagatta, $16

Sweet and Sour Chicken: Albarino
Ah, the old standby. Sweet and fruity one minute and pungent the next, this is a great opportunity to get creative. Albarino has a zing to it that makes me love it for sweet and sour chicken — it also has a tendency toward sweetness and an almost unbearable lightness that lets it shimmer on your tongue instead of weigh down your taste buds.
Try: 2006 Morgadio, $13

Beef with Broccoli: Bordeaux
This traditional favorite is salty soy-goodness at its best. The good kind will also have a nice ginger and garlic flavor that is well matched by this rich red wine. The wine has notes of ginger, very soft tannins, and a velvety mouth feel that makes it easy to drink.
Try: 2005 Chateau Guiraud-Cheval-Blanc, $14

Moo Shu Pork: Priorat
Priorat is the name of the region in Spain that makes robust and earthy red wines that go well with Moo Shu Pork. Look for a blend that features syrah as the dominant blending grape — it will lend a gamey, almost funky ,quality to the wine that will accentuate the woodsy mushrooms in this dish.
Try: 2007 Joan D’Anguera La Planella, $19

One sip of Chardonnay and my mind’s eye invariably conjures an image of the tragically coiffed and shoulder pad-wearing career women who inhabit my favorite romantic comedies from the 1980s. If one were to solely look to popular romantic comedies of the era as a cultural reference point (which, obviously, I don’t) it would be easy to conclude that these women worked their asses off and struggled against the patriarchal power structure of corporate America just so they could sit down to a nice cold glass of Chardonnay at the end of the day.

I’m sure the working women of the decade curled up with a big glass of Cabernet Sauvignon often enough, too, but the 1980s was the decade of Chardonnay. It was the first major varietal grown on American soil to yield an internationally recognized wine and established Napa Valley as a “serious” wine region after the famous “Judgement of Paris” in 1976. The “Judgement” — which you can see depicted in the 2008 film Bottleshock — used blind tasting and eleven extremely discerning judges to measure California wines against French ones. California rocked it.

Perhaps for all those career women who fought to crash through glass ceilings and garner respect in the workplace, drinking a wine that had broken so many staid conventions in the viticulture world was all too appropriate.

Napa has been producing wine since the early 19th century, but until that tasting in 1976, it seemed as though Americans just couldn’t break into the wine world. No one would take a California bottle seriously — they wanted old vines and French labels. But as soon as Chateau Montelena’s Chardonnay bested the best of Burgundy, west coast winemakers made a mad dash to grow their own chard vines and take advantage of a rapidly growing market. In an era of unabashed patriotism, national strife, and culture shock, Americans were eager and proud to embrace the wine that put them on par with the greatest vineyards of France.

Perhaps for all those career women who fought to crash through glass ceilings and garner respect in the workplace, drinking a wine that had broken so many staid conventions in the viticulture world was all too appropriate. It’s easy to forget, when considering Chardonnay, that “the California style” is a relatively modern invention.

The California wineries that pioneered the style were, at first, producing strictly classic renditions of the Chardonnays produced in Burgundy. These French Chardonnays can range from the dry, crisp, and minerally versions made in Chablis to the rich, nutty wines of the Cote d’Or. Eventually California winemakers got bolder and crafted bigger and bigger wines that were intensely buttery, redolent of oak, and often laced with tropical flavors.

California-style Chardonnays often sacrifice food-friendliness for size and so, while they’re great to drink on their own, they can coat the tongue and leave diners groping in a fog of oak for any other flavors. Many winemakers are starting to turn away from this massive style and opting to craft more food-friendly Chardonnays that retain the flavor profile of the classic California style but have a lighter mouth feel and higher acid content.

This particular difference boils down to a simple process called Malolactic fermentation that’s usually used to change the naturally occurring tart-flavored malic acid (think green apples, nectarines, and pears) into softer-tasting lactic acid that gives a rounder mouth feel.

Chardonnay is one of the most malleable wines — it can be manipulated through a vast variety of other factors that can all be gone into with great detail (but you’re spared this time around). For the time being, lets focus on a solid example of a few different popular styles so that whatever you’re going through — a fit of Francophilia, a rash of ’80s nostalgia, or a surge of American pride — you’ll know exactly what kind of wine to pair with your mood.

Try These:

Classic California-style (oaky, buttery, and big): Robert Mondavi Solaire (California), 2006, $14

Tropical and Fruity: Jekel Chardonnay (California), 2007, $11

Chablis (dry, crisp, and fruity): Chateau de la Greffiere (France), 2008,  $17

Cote d’Or: Verget Bourgogne Blanc (France), 2006, $19

Unoaked: Plantagenet Omrah (W. Australia), 2008, $16

Nouveau California (minerally, acidic, green fruits): Joel Gott Chardonnay (California), 2008, $15

Well-rounded and easy to drink: Chateau Ste. Michelle Cold Creek Vineyard (Washington), 2007, $17

I’m young, broke, and in love with wine. The same was true a little more than a year ago when I was studying abroad in gloomy Edinburgh. The pervasive gray underfoot and overhead was threatening to turn me into a chain-smoking, sun-starved zombie, so I planned a three-week jaunt across the continent. I had a good friend studying in Paris at the time, so we joined forces and ventured into the French countryside, searching for sunnier pastures — and vineyards.

Rendered practically destitute by the weakness of the dollar against the Euro, we nixed the pricey train to Bordeaux and set out in a rental car for famed Burgundy. With nothing more than some faded Mapquest print-outs to guide us, we ended up in a small town in the northwestern corner of the Beaujolais region. See also: not Burgundy.

I’d been looking forward to drinking good wine and the general opinion of Beaujolais is that it is a simple wine; the table wine of Parisian bistros — light, fruity, and easy to drink. My only encounters with the variety came from a Christmas tradition: my mother, who drank nothing but cheap California Chardonnays, bought a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau every year around the holidays.

Although we were disappointed, we’d spent most of the day getting hopelessly lost so we called it a day and hung up our hats. There were vines as far as the eye could see, the countryside was breathtaking, and the little town was effortlessly charming. I doubted I’d find anything revelatory in our travels but I was relieved on behalf of my friend, a white-wine purist so, Beaujolais, I figured, might actually be a good compromise.

After the first sip it became clear that my disappointment had been uncalled-for. Delicate, floral, tightly structured, and redolent of fresh raspberries and strawberries, this was some delicious wine. At tasting after tasting, wild roses, violets, and peonies perfumed my glass while the wine’s acid woke up my tongue and, for the first time, I tasted the pleasant tang of granite. Light but velvety, the wine had none of that sticky, saccharine aftertaste I’d come to expect from Beaujolais Nouveau.

Beaujolais is the name of the region, but the wine is actually made from a grape called Gamay. The Gamay grape is not a diva; it’s relatively easy to grow, rigorous, and versatile. Her flavor is delicate but not often considered as elegant as her cousin, Pinot Noir. It’s naturally high in acidity and low in tannins; although it may dance on the tongue, it won’t cloy.

The region itself is large and can be easily split along the North/South divide by soil type (rocky and dry in the North and richer clay in the South). The southern parts produce wines that fall under the appellation of plain-and-basic Beaujolais and are generally lighter and fruiter — this is where the grapes that go into Beaujolais Nouveau are grown.

The Northern half produces wine under two different appellations: Beaujolais Villages and Cru Beaujolais. The former is usually of higher quality than plain Beaujolais, but not as highly regarded as the latter. Cru Beaujolais are broken down even further into ten specific appellations, each representing a distinct area and usually named after a nearby town. From North to South these appellations are: Julienas, Saint-Amour, Chenas, Moulin a Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Regnie, Cote de Brouilly, and Brouilly.

We were lucky enough to stumble right into the heart of this Northern region, so we were tasting the best that Beaujolais has to offer. Just like people, grape vines reflect the way they were brought up; the Gamay vines that are grown on the rocky and acidic soil of these northern areas have to struggle a little more to produce fruit. That struggle is reflected in the fruit and manifests itself as a more complex and structured wine.

Beaujolais is an excellent starter wine; it’s not intimidating, not meant for aging, and you can find a great bottle for a wonderful price. If you’re mostly a white drinker, it’s a nice red to ease you into the heavier stuff. More experienced drinkers will appreciate the subtleties of this delicate wine; the structure is challenging to the palate and is a pleasant surprise in such a “light” wine.

By the end of our trip, we were both loyal Beaujolais drinkers. My friend swore off the whites and began diving into deeper, heavier profiles. For my part, I finally found something to take the edge off that gloomy Scottish fog.

Try These:

Fleurie is commonly referred to as the most feminine of the Cru Beaujolais; with the most floral nose, often of violets, ripe red fruit, and a velvety finish (Chateau des Deduits Fleurie Beaujolais 2006 $16.95 at Du Vin, Terres Dorees Fleurie 2008 $18.99 at winex.com).

Morgon wines are the darkest and richest of the Cru Beaujolais and are most similar to Burgundian wines; a peachy nose, earthy taste, and silky texture (Maison Louis Tete 2007 $14.99 at K+L Wine Merchants, Domaine Georges Descombes Morgon 2007 $19.99 plonkwinemerchants.com).

Lastly, Cote De Brouilly is somewhere in between —  not as earthy as Morgon wines tend to be but richer than a typical Fleurie (my personal favorite is the smoky 2006 Chateau de Thivin $14.00 but also good is the more lively 2008 from the same winemakers at $18.00 and Daniel Bouland’s 2008 $20 at plonkwinemerchants.com).