When it comes to pairing wine with food, former sommelier Brian Smith knows a thing or two. The Chief Wine Officer of Club W—a wine club-turned-winemaking outfit based in California—Smith has a penchant for experimenting with exotic grape varieties and styles, like a recently released white Zinfandel and Valdiguié-based Pét-Nat. Because Club W internationally sources grapes to craft small lot wines (which it delivers directly to your door), Smith has many opportunities to play with unique pairings and flavors. To take advantage of his globe-trotting palate, we tapped Smith for his expert wine and food pairing tips.
Mismatch your wine and food.
I’m usually reaching for wines with bright acidity and freshness depending on the meal. Typically, you pair either similar or contrasting flavors in food and wine. I’m a fan of the latter. I like to smash and clash. Acidity helps you do that, so reach for lighter reds like Gamay, Valdiguié and cool-climate Syrah, and vibrant whites like Albariño and dry Riesling. I think you run into issues with tannin and grip in red wines and lighter fish or seafood. I could do the easy and classic pairing of roast chicken with Faury Saint-Joseph every night.
Reach for Pét-Nat.
This year, we made our first-ever Pét-Nat. We worked with a small lot of 40-year-old Valdiguié from Paso Robles, running it through a basket press and sending it right to tank. When it was still fermenting with about 1.5 grams of sugar in it, we hand-bottled. I’ve never tasted anything like it. It’s a wild, bubbly rosé with fresh-picked berry and herbaceous notes. It’s the kombucha of wine. At any rate, Club W just did a dinner with the talented Chef Michael Bryant (of L.A.’s The Churchill) and challenged him to pair a dish with this wine. He landed on harissa-seared scallops with pancetta and hollandaise, an unlikely pairing but it was absolutely off the chain.
Always start with sparkling.
A great pairing rule is to always start with sparkling wine or French rosé—they wake up the palate and add a celebratory element to any meal. I love Champagne and fried chicken. In fact, anything salty and fried is delicious with Champagne. I’m also a big fan of pairing off-dry wines with spicy Asian dishes. We made a white Zinfandel this year called Ruza that’s super fun with anything from Thai spare ribs to curry. It has a little sweetness to tackle the spice and heat.
Don’t be afraid to experiment.
I would say try different things. Pop a couple of bottles with dinner and bounce back and forth between different wines and elements on the plate. This is the best way to really understand the difference a great pairing can make. Serving one dish with one wine, it is really hard to understand because you can’t compare and contrast. Trying a few bottles lets you see how much wine and food affect each other.