I’ve done a lot of wine tastings in 10 years of importing and retailing. From pouring in a shop that sells our wines to guided wine tastings in people’s homes. I’ve served as entertainment for corporate events, bridal showers, and birthday parties, and as a handy source of alcohol for slightly drunk people at wine and food shows.
You might think these different situations/venues would lead to many different questions from people. But by and large, they boil down to just a few categories. The one most asked by far is some variation on “What would you serve with that wine?”
It’s a great conversation starter. As you know, I can go on at length about wine and food, so I love to launch in. I start by asking what kinds of things people like to cook and eat, and we go from there. I hope I’ve led people to try food and wine combinations they might not have thought of before.
While we’re talking, though, especially when I’m pouring in a market that sells food as well as wine, I’ll see a bunch of people quickly picking random bottles off the shelves to drink with the food in their baskets. So other than a way to make polite conversation, what is it about tasting a wine that makes people more curious – and to some extent, anxious – about what to serve with it? And why, even if the wine is relatively inexpensive, are they afraid of making a pairing mistake?
Part of it is that once people taste a wine, they’re more invested in potentially making it into an experience. I tend to ask people tasting how often they drink wine, and generally the people who stop to taste tend not to drink wine routinely with meals. This was a surprise to me initially, because I thought that habitual wine drinkers would be the ones tasting. But people also seem to look at the tasting as an educational opportunity, so I guess it makes sense. And since wine with meals probably feels more like it’s a special occasion thing to them, they want the food to be special, too. Or at least not just something thrown on the table with minimal thought beforehand.
It reminds me of something I heard just two years ago at a wine conference: for most people, wine still is not like other beverages or foods. This despite the fact that we wine writers and wine sellers have tried hard over the years to demystify wine. I’d like to think we’ve succeeded somewhat. More people ask questions at tastings than when I started out. And while many used to preface their questions with “I don’t know anything about wine, but…” or “This is probably going to seem like a dumb question,” I don’t hear those anymore.
But clearly we’re not even halfway there yet. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, and I still think that food is probably the best entrée to wine. Certainly, more people drinking local wine as they increasingly eat locally-grown food should help. And more travel to places where people have wine in all price ranges with their meals as a matter of course, too. I’d love to see the day when newspaper food sections ask the food and wine writers to spend a few minutes pairing the week’s recommended wines with particular recipes in the same issue. (And if they’re lucky enough to have beer and cocktail writers, get them in on it too.)
On the other hand, I don’t want us all to go too far in making wine absolutely ordinary. As someone in the business, wine still has magic for me, and I don’t want that magic to disappear entirely for my customers. Or the idea that wine makes a meal more special, because I think it does. But I’d definitely like to eliminate people’s fears of “bad” food and wine pairings, or that there are only a few carefully chosen options with any given meal.
I can’t not give a recipe after that lead-in, can I?
I’ve been cooking a lot lately, especially things to go with wine. After all, toasting 10 years requires plenty of food! I’ll have a bunch of new things to share in coming posts. But this particular dish is something that’s so easy I had to put it up sooner rather than later, Roasted Tomatoes with Feta.
Cy and I were out in California visiting friends in early April and of course there were already some tomatoes available. But they weren’t yet the wonderful tomatoes they’re probably getting now. Still, when our friends Davey and Cameron roasted the tomatoes with Feta as a side for lamb, they turned out beautifully. And I realized that’s probably for the best. After all, why cook a really magnificent tomato? You’ll want them for your tomato, cheddar cheese, and mayo sandwiches. Or at least Cy and I will, anyway.
So, while we’re in the pre-tomato season, there’s no better time to prep your taste buds for the glories to come. I made the recipe using grape tomatoes, which are always at least passable. And I found Campari tomatoes at a local supermarket, they’re generally good tasting, sweet, and not too acidic. The combination of Campari and grape tomatoes proved to be ideal once they were roasted, and a little bit of red wine vinegar at the end brought everything together.
The prep and cooking couldn’t be much easier. Slice the Camparis, halve the grape tomatoes, crumble the feta, strip the leaves off some herbs, and you’re good to go. Twenty to 30 minutes in a hot oven and you’re done. You can double or triple the amount of tomatoes depending on the size of both the baking dish and the crowd you’re feeding. And if the dish is safe to put on the grill, go ahead and keep the oven off.
All sorts of wine work really well here, but I’m going to recommend Cave la Vinsobraise Côtes du Rhône Blanc ($13). Cave la Vinsobraise was one of First Vine’s first producers, and is the only one of the originals we’re still buying from. The wine is equal parts Viognier, Marsanne, and Grenache Blanc. In a long-ago blog post I touted the virtue-out-of-necessity of Rhône white blends. They draw on the strengths of their constituent varietals, since it’s rare that any one of them will have the right balance of fruit, nuttiness, acidity, floral notes, etc., on its own. Winemakers vary the blend from year to year if necessary (within AOC parameters, anyway), making good wines even in off years. I think they’re not nearly as well-known here in the U.S. as they should be.
As I said at the end of my last 10th anniversary post, thank you all for the support over the years. And I hope to meet more of you at tastings to come.
Serves 4-6 as a side dish or as a bruschetta topping
18 ounces Campari tomatoes (1 or 2 packages, depending on size), or 4 Roma tomatoes, cored and sliced
2 pints grape tomatoes, halved
Leaves from 3 sprigs of fresh thyme
Leaves from 3 sprigs of fresh oregano
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil
4-6 ounces crumbled Feta cheese, depending on your taste
½ teaspoon red wine vinegar
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Use somee olive oil to oil the bottom and sides of a 13 x 9-inch ceramic or glass baking dish. Ceramic-coated cast iron works well, too. Layer the sliced Campari tomatoes in the dish. Drizzle olive oil over the tomatoes, then salt and pepper them. Sprinkle the fresh herbs on, and about 1/3 of the Feta. Make the next layer with the grape tomato halves. Drizzle with oil, salt and pepper the tomatoes, and sprinkle on the remaining Feta.
Bake at least 20 minutes, up to 30 minutes. The Feta will be lightly browned, the tomatoes will have shriveled but not be dried out, and most of the juices will have evaporated. Remove the dish from the oven, and drizzle the vinegar over the top. Let sit for a few minutes, then serve.