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Chefs on the Importance of Having Wine Knowledge

Welcome to Vintage America, a column in which Eater Wine Editor Talia Baiocchi takes a hyperfresh look at all things wine-related.
[Photo: Le Pigeon]

By nature of the job, a sommelier has to understand a restaurant's food in order to create a cohesive beverage menu — while the chef, by most accounts, can know nothing about wine and still create a successful food menu. But in a recent interview with Eater, David McMillan, one-half of the restaurant Joe Beef in Montreal, suggests that chefs would be well served to spend as much time in the wine cellar as they do in the kitchen. "It's super important to be interested in both of the things that are going into the customer's mouth. Being good in a kitchen is important, but understanding the role of wine is tantamount for a restaurant, in my opinion."

So how important is wine knowledge to a chef? Can understanding how wine affects food change the way that a chef thinks about cooking? Eater posed this question to several chefs around the country, to get an idea not only of how they think about wine, but how they participate in their respective beverage programs.

Here, now, Gabriel Rucker (Le Pigeon and Little Bird, Portland), Alex Stupak (Empellon and Empellon Cocina, NYC), David McMillan (Joe Beef, Montreal), Matt Accarrino (SPQR, San Francisco), and Nick Balla (Bar Tartine, San Francisco).

gabriel-rucker-eater-hot-topics.jpgGabriel Rucker, Le Pigeon and Little Bird, Portland, Oregon
Is wine knowledge important for a chef?
Yes, wine knowledge is very important. I might not know producers or esoteric grapes off the top of my head, but a general understanding and a palate for wine is essential to my job.
How involved are you in the beverage programs?
Andy [Fortgang] and I talk frequently about wines and taste together. Me being from Napa we always have a couple of what I call "hometown wines" on the menu. And it often works both ways and Andy gets in the kitchen with me.
How has learning about wine impacted your food?
Learning about wines has definitely helped me as a chef and restaurant owner. Wine
is such a big part of the experience that people have when they come to eat that I
would be an idiot not to want to understand that aspect of my businesses. Also, it's
very nice to know how to order when out to dinner.
What are you drinking lately?
Hermitage, Riesling that smells like gasoline and Burgundy, always.

Stupak.jpgAlex Stupak, Empellon and Empellon Cocina, NYC
Is wine knowledge important for a chef?
It's important unless you have experts helping you along the way. My wine knowledge is actually quite limited, but through my friend Natalie [Tapken] I have the privilege of learning whatever I want. What's most important to me is having an opinion and a direction.
How involved are you in the beverage programs?
Very. Everything a customer will experience has to pass through me. This way if something is wrong I'm always the one to blame. I rely strongly on others to select our wines, but I taste and approve everything.
Has learning about wine impacted your food?
In general, yes, but less so with Mexican cuisine. In my opinion, mezcal and tequila are far more natural pairings (I know, I'm sorry) with Mexican food. Regardless, wine lovers do come to my restaurants and will tell me things like "This section of your menu is very pinot noir friendly." Because of interactions like this I go back, taste and try to understand why they might think that.
[Image: Krieger]

McMillan.jpgDavid McMillan, Joe Beef, Montreal
Is wine knowledge important for a chef?
Wine knowledge is of great importance; it's HALF the reason a customer comes to a restaurant and food, no matter how great it is, is boring without wine to tweak it. And vice versa, food without wine is simply feed.
How has wine impacted your ideas about cooking?
In Montreal we have to pay attention as much attention to wine sales as we do to what we cook. Montrealers are generally quite wine savvy and have Old World palates, so we ultimately cook to a Burgundy drinker with Beaujolais accents and we cook to white wines that are high in acid with little to no oak from Chablis, village-level white Burgundy, Sancerre, and Alsace.
What are you drinking lately?
Laurent Tribut Chablis from 2010, Metras Moulin-a-Vent 2010, Saumaize-Michelin Mâcon Villages 2010, Pépière Granite de Clisson 2010, Dard and Ribo St. Joseph 2009, Norman Hardie County Pinot Noir (Prince Edward County, Ontario) and his Melon or Riesling 2009 or 2010. Hardie is a enigma and the wines are perplexingly good.
[Image: Chuck Ortiz]

Accarino.jpgMatt Accarrino, SPQR, San Francisco
Is wine knowledge important for a chef?
Understanding wine and how it can enhance a meal or preparation of dish encompasses a broad set of skills. I find it valuable to have a base of knowledge, but also think it's important to have a skilled team of people to help.
How has learning/knowing about wine impacted your food?
Traveling and spending time cooking in Europe—especially in Italy—where you are tasting regional foods with the wines of the same area has helped me develop flavor memories and references. Almost without thinking those experiences—how I felt and what I experienced when I was there—play into how I cook to pair with wine.
Do you think about how your food will pair with the beverage program when creating dishes?
Honestly, no. I try to keep the flavors and intensities in my food away from extremes. Within that large middle there are so many options and there will almost always be a match. I'm also lucky because Shelley [Lindgren] understands my cooking style and wraps the wine program around it.
What are you drinking lately?
I love crisp white wines in general. Regions I'm thinking a lot about now: Friuli, Le Marche, Slovenia and Croatia.
[Image: Ed Anderson]

balla.jpgNick Balla, Bar Tartine, San Francisco
Is wine knowledge important for a chef?
At Bar Tartine, our vision is to run a restaurant as a cohesive unit where all the staff members understand all aspects of the operation. The chef is responsible for understanding the direction and meaning of the beverage program, and the front of house management is responsible for understanding the back of the house.
How involved are you in the beverage program?
We all often taste together and if something in particular stands out to one of us it will often end up on the list. We have relationships with many of our beverage purveyors. We get lamb from one winemaker, we have a garden at another winery, and we get olives from another, and we processed nearly a ton of apricots for two of our favorite local brewers to make beers for the restaurant.
How has learning/knowing about wine impacted your food?
It's been an important part of learning about and understanding my palate.

Talia Baiocchi is Eater's Wine Editor. Find her on Twitter at @TaliaBaiocchi and over at Eater NY where she covers the treacherous world of New York wine lists via her Decanted column.

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