There are Dummies books for everything, from using Microsoft Word, to growing roses, and now for pairing food & wine. I don’t consider myself a dummy in the food & wine pairing realm, having spent many years in the South World Wine Society executive, taking WSET courses, and attending many wine and food pairing seminars over the year. But I am also interested to learn something new. I was sent the “Pairing Food & Wine for Dummies” by John Szabo in late December, and have been slowly reading through it.
Who is John Szabo?
John Szabo, comes with great street creds. He is a Master Sommelier (MS), one of only 188 in the world currently, and the first MS in Canada. From John Szabo’s website, “John’s chalk-full Google calendar includes writing, restaurant & private client consulting, teaching, speaking, and traveling the wine regions of the world. John is a principal reviewer for and partner in WineAlign.com, and his keyboard strokes appear regularly on Winefox.ca, Wine Access, CityBites and Niagara & County Grapevine magazines, and occasionally elsewhere. You’ll also hear him regularly on Classical 96.3FM radio.
Beyond the word, John designs wine cellars and manages private wine collections, leads luxury wine tours to the world’s top regions, buys wine for the Sommelier Service Wine Club, is co-owner of CellarPoint Ltd., a proprietary software system for restaurant beverage program management, and is currently beverage director for the Trump Toronto and the Terroni Group. In his spare time he enjoys visiting his small vineyard in Eger, Hungary; as a holder of a 2nd degree black belt in Karate, his grapes are well protected, too.” (http://www.johnszabo.com/)
With all these things that John does, I’m surprised he had time to write this book. He must be very disciplined, and I’m sure the karate training helps.
This book is divided into 6 parts, and depending on your level of food & wine pairing knowledge, and interest you can mix and match these parts to fit your needs. The parts are:
- Appreciating the Marriage of Food and Wine: The Nose Knows
- The Nuts and Bolts: Developing Strategies for Food and Wine Pairing
- Sorting Out the World of Wine
- Uncovering the Best Wine Bets with World Cuisine (and cheese)
- Party Time! Pairing with Friends… and Professionals
- The Part of Tens
Part 1 gets you into the basics of food & wine pairing, but also covers how you smell, taste, and touch food & wine, and a little experiment for you to see how food & wine interact together. It is an easy to read section and if you are a novice, a section you should read from this book.
Part 2 covers the serious nuts and bolts about successful food & wine pairing. This is a large territory to cover. Are you a wine person wanting to select food to go with your bottle, or are you a foodie, wanting to find the perfect bottle to match to your meal? Are you going to a party where there will be a wide range of foods to sample? What kind of wine do you bring in this case? John skillfully leads you to the answers to these questions. Food is not always that simple to pair with wine. Sometimes it is the sauce or condiments that can be your guide, and sometimes it can be the strong flavour or aroma of the food itself.
I folded several corners of the book from this section, in particular when John talked about spices and which ones had similar profiles and could pair with the same type/style of wines. John also takes you through a few classic food & wine pairings from around the world, such as oysters and sparkling wines.
You also learn about drinking young vs aged wine, and the best temperatures to serve wine. For example, would you serve an oaked California Chardonnay at the same temperature as French Champagne?
Part 3 helps breaks the world of wine into categories that share similar characteristics. This is a useful tool as wines that share similar characteristics, will likely be good pairings for the same food you are pairing it with. I won’t get into the categories, but he does cover still red, white, rose, sparkling, and dessert/fortified wines. One thing I like from this chapter is that John provides a pairing tree chart for the style of wine (e.g. lightweight, crisp white), and the different types of food that would pair with it.
Part 4 is another large section out of the book. I would treat it more as a reference section when you are planning a party, or if you are going to go to a restaurant that specializes in some cuisine from around the world. If you are going to a French restaurant, you may want to check their menu online and then check the Chapter in this section to see which wines, or style of wines are a good pairing according to John. For example, if you really like French bouillabaisse, would you pair an oaked Chardonnay or an aromatic, fruity white, or how about a rose? John will let you know in this section. I wouldn’t try to read through this section from first to last page, as it can be dry reading. Reference it as needed.
Part 5 helps you to find the best value wine in a restaurant, how to pick the right bottle(s) of wine for your host/party, and finally how you can go about to become an accredited sommelier. In restaurants, when you view the wine list, there are always going to be over inflated prices for some wines and aggressive prices for other wines. John gives the analogy of a casino, and how you try to find the game in the casino with the lowest house edge; It’s black jack, and steer away from the game with the highest house edge; That is keno. His advice here is good if you are trying to find a bottle on your own. He also mentions asking the restaurant sommelier, but for many small restaurants, there are just servers, the chef, and the owner, who may know very little about wine, so this may not work. As an example, I went to an Italian restaurant in Vancouver, and scoured over the menu before ordering a bottle of Falanghina (a white Italian grape). The server who was taking my order, stood stunned at me, never hearing this wine before, and even had to ask another person in the restaurant, who then checked if they did indeed have this wine; which they did. So they must of had this wine on the list for a long time from recommendation of their wine supplier, but nobody ever ordered it. It was delicious, and enjoyed by me and my guests. If there is a sommelier at the restaurant, John gives you the questions you could ask to draw out their recommendations.
On the topic of going to a party or throwing a party, John gives good advice on types of wines to bring, or to serve, and typical price range. Is the party for family, or a corporate event? This also matters for the wines you bring. How much wine to bring? How to tell if someone has had a few too many glasses of wine? This is an interesting chapter I think for many people who want to maximize party pleasure.
Maybe you are considering a new job, or a first job? Should you be a sommelier? John talks about the types of jobs you could hold with a sommelier’s designation. It is not just working in a restaurant. Other options could wine wine write, tour guide, winery rep, and more. He then goes into further details about the 4 levels of qualification for the Court of Master Sommeliers.
Part 6 is called The Parts of Tens. It is a quick reference section for you when you may need to make some quick wine or food decisions. The first part of this section covers 10 food-friendly wines. You will probably have heard of many of these grape varieties, but may not know their varietal character and what type of food it pairs with. This section will give you that info. I’ve noted that all the wines have low, or no, tannins, may have high acidity, and all have marked fruit flavour. The other section covers 10 foods that flatter wines. John selects 5 dishes for red wines and five dishes for white wines. With each of the dishes, John suggests which style of red or white wine to enjoy with it. As an example, a well cooked, roast beef, full of protein, fat and salt, and no complicated sauces, would go with an aged red wine. I won’t divulge any more of John’s hints here.
Overall I would say that this book is a good read for those people just getting into food & wine. It has a lot of basic information that they should be educated in order to know what works well together, and why it works well together. For those of us that are more educated on the wine and food side, Part 4, the reference section on suggested wine styles to pair with food from around the world is quite useful. Enjoy!