Tipping the Scale

What’s in your glass may outweigh what’s on your plate

Wine makes a great meal better. Just ask any oenophile/foodie. The pressing question is, “What will ruin a meal more: bad food or bad wine?”

It’s a quandary that I have experienced many times and still struggle with the answer. As wine/food enthusiasts, we have the advantage of a slightly stacked deck. After all, we buy good ingredients to cook with; and we have experience with wines and knowledge on selecting them. So the instances of one of them being dreadfully bad are thankfully rare.

However, the question does rear its ugly head on occasion. Usually it’s when you receive an invitation to a new friend’s house for dinner. Or it could be that relative you seldom see that is hosting a dinner party. There seems to be an obvious answer: Enough wine, especially good wine, and you don’t care about the food.

But it’s much more complicated than that. Many variables might come into play, for example, if the meat is so overcooked you can barely choke it down.

At what point do you look like the lush who is only guzzling wine and not eating the food? And if you drink too much of the good wine, you risk pushing the boundary where a verbal slip insulting the chef is spoken just a little too loudly. I get nervous just thinking about it. 

On the other hand, what do you do when the food is great and the wine is wretched? The quagmire grows stickier when, being the wine aficionado you are, you bring a bottle of great wine and it mysteriously disappears to the land of “the good stuff to be consumed when the guests leave.” You are left to drink what may be pink-colored turpentine (at least that’s what it tastes like) and count the minutes as the clock inches ever so slowly forward, all the time wishing you had just a sip of the chardonnay you brought the host. The food is delicious, but all you think about is how much better it would be if it were paired with the right wine. It’s excruciating. 

So what’s the answer? I’ll take the over-cooked pot roast, rubbery shrimp, and Brussels Sprout Surprise as long as I can wash the taste away with my favorite pinot noir … or zinfandel … or cabernet.

Here are four standouts guaranteed to make your dinner (good or bad) better:

The Patz and Hall 2008 Dutton Ranch Chardonnay (about $32) is an elegant wine full of finesse and purity of flavors. Its flavors of kiwi, apple, peach, and pear combine with a trace of minerality and crisp acidity that make it a perfect companion for grilled halibut with a citrus sauce or even pasta with a rich cream sauce. 

Australian super-winemakers Sarah and Sparky Marquis founded Mollydooker (“left handed” in Aussie) and burst onto the wine scene in 2007 with their debut 2005 vintage that immediately earned rave reviews and a 95+ score from The Wine Advocate. The 2009 Mollydooker The Boxer Shiraz (about $30) is ripe, racy, and superconcentrated. Brimming with intense flavors of blueberry, blackberry, licorice, and spice, it begs to be served with a juicy, grilled rib-eye steak.

Duckhorn Vineyards has been producing super premium Napa Valley wines for more than 34 years. The first real pioneer of Napa Valley merlot, Duckhorn recently expanded its affordable Decoy line of wines to include zinfandel and pinot noir. The 2008 Decoy Napa Valley Zinfandel (about $24) is an incredible value. Flavors of jammy strawberry and raspberry are complemented by toasty vanilla, spice, and pepper. When you’ve just got to have pizza or ribs, you’ve got to have this wine.

Despite growing some of the finest grapes in the Santa Rita Hills for nearly two decades, Melville Winery has kept a pretty low profile. Sticking firmly to the philosophy that wines are made in the vineyard, its low yields and minimal intervention produce wines of great distinction, including the 2009 Melville Estate Pinot Noir (about $32). Darker and richer than past vintages, it packs a wallop of black cherry, raspberry, spice, and floral notes. You’ll know you are drinking a serious pinot, as the flavor lingers over an incredibly long finish. It’s absolutely perfect with roast duck or herbed rack of American lamb.

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