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Pairings, Personified



Sean Thackrey and Christian Caiazzo.

Photos by Tim Porter

Do food and wine people complement each other, like the best of food and wine pairings? Or not so much? We talked to three food-and-wine pairs—the human kind­—to find out.

“Do you have any idea how boring wine writers are?” My heart sank a little when I read that line in Ruth Reichl’s delicious second memoir, Comfort Me with Apples. The speaker is Reichl’s younger self—a fledgling food writer living in Berkeley in the late 1970s, just as Alice Waters and Chez Panisse were putting the Bay Area and California on the world’s culinary map.

I was new to wine writing when I read Reichl’s words, living happily under the illusion that foodies and wine folk all amicably occupied the same epicurean universe. But Reichl’s dismissive comment made me wonder about the differences between the two. Is one essentially an artist, the other more of an academic? Are chefs the true epicures, with wine representing a more scholarly, scientific pursuit? Or do food and wine people simply complement each other, like the best of food and wine pairings?

 Like most things food and wine oriented, it depends on whom you ask. We asked three food-and-wine pairs, personified—a couple, a mother and son, two friends—who read like a cast of characters from, well, a Ruth Reichl memoir. Their answers will tantalize your palate—whichever way it leans.

 

 The Couple

“Wine is part of the table.”

Doug Fletcher, vice president of wine making for the Terlato Wine Group and Janet Fletcher, food writer for the San Francisco Chronicle and author or coauthor of 18 books on food and wine.

Twenty-some years ago, a young winemaker named Doug Fletcher decided to celebrate his 30th birthday with a tasting of white Burgundies at the home of a friend. “I didn’t get the chance to taste white Burgundies very often, so I was paying attention to what they were like,” recalls Doug. “They were expensive, and I needed to have a taste memory for them.”

Janet, who was then Janet Kessel and had met Doug only recently, attended that white Burgundy tasting—and she has her own very distinct taste memory of those French wines.

“I thought they all smelled like rotting cheese!” she says with a laugh. “Everyone else was enthusing about these wines. So I was certainly not very wine-knowledgeable when I first met Doug.”

Janet Fletcher knows from cheese. For eight years a staff food writer and the author of the San Francisco Chronicle’s Cheese Course column, she trained at the Culinary Institute of America, and her résumé includes a stint as a cook at Chez Panisse. Her writing for the Chronicle has earned her three James Beard Awards; her extensive author and coauthor credits include The Niman Ranch Cookbook and The Cheese Course.

On wine-related knowledge, Doug proved a willing tutor. He’s made wine at Napa’s Chimney Rock Winery since 1987 and was named vice president of winemaking for the Terlato Wine Group, Chimney Rock’s parent company, in 2006. The couple’s official first date was, fittingly, another tasting—of Burgundies from France and pinot noirs from Oregon and California at David Bruce Winery in Los Gatos.

Janet says that thanks to Doug she’s come a long way from turning up her nose at expensive white Burgundies. “After Doug came along, there I was talking about wine with a winemaker every night,” she says, “and 30 years of that has really expanded my wine knowledge.”

Her culinary focus has had a comparable influence on Doug. “Janet’s food aesthetic has changed—or tempered maybe—my approach to wine making,” he says. “Wine is part of the table, and it needs to be made in a way that fits in. Over the last 30 years, I think most evenings (there’s been) some talk about how wine works with food. Our evening entertainment is to cook and have wine together.”

In addition to her culinary expertise, Janet is a certified master gardener, and dinner at the Fletchers’ Napa Valley home often features something from her expansive garden. “We eat simply, but we take a lot of time,” says Janet, who usually prepares the evening meal and lets Doug pick the wine. “We’re at the table for a long time. We share a bottle of wine every night, and it just is part of the glue that’s kept our marriage together. To have that quiet couple of hours at the end of the day.”

What's on the Menu? A simple weekday supper: A salad or cooked chard or kale from the garden, a simple pasta with another fresh vegetable or a little sausage and tomato sauce (both homemade). Wine pairing: Chimney Rock rosé (in the summer) or cabernet sauvignon.

The Mother and Son

“Food and wine was our house.”

Joyce Goldstein, food consultant and author or coauthor of 26 books on food and wine; and Evan Goldstein, master sommelier and president and chief education officer of Full Circle Wine Solutions.

France versus Italy. No, it’s not a World Cup match; it’s an ongoing debate between Joyce and Evan Goldstein—usually unspoken but revealed through carefully made choices about everything from professional projects to what’s for dinner. For Joyce, who won the 1994 James Beard Award for best chef in California while presiding over San Francisco’s fondly remembered Square One restaurant, Italy represents both comfort and passion. It’s where she lived during her formative years of learning to cook, and its cuisine and culture are what she found herself researching while creating menus for Square One. “I do Moroccan cooking, Greek cooking, Turkish cooking, Spanish, Portuguese…we did Provence—we did a lot of stuff from Southern France. But when push comes to shove, what’s my comfort food? Of course it’s Italian,” she says.

“The same emotional attachment that she has to Italy? I have to France,” says Evan, who opened Square One with his mother in 1984, developed the restaurant’s award-winning wine list and became its sommelier. Evan lived in Paris for a time during his late teens and early 20s, and he believes his affinity for things French is closely related to his choice of profession. “It’s (rooted?) more in the sense that with a few notable exceptions of grape varieties—Nebbiolo in Italy, Tempranillo in Spain, et cetera—most of the world’s benchmarks for wine are all French.”

France may deserve partial credit for Evan’s ample professional success—in addition to his master sommelier status and wine consulting business, he has authored several books on food and wine, both on his own and with his mom. Still, Joyce has had a little something to do with it, too, seeing as how she started bringing Evan to wine tastings when he was 12. Ask about the role food and wine played in the house where Evan grew up, and the answer is emphatic.

“Food and wine was our house!” says Joyce. She taught cooking classes out of their kitchen and later their basement and has maintained a wine cellar since 1966.

Evan thinks this childhood immersion and early career in the food world make him better at his job today. “We have an old adage in the business that most wine people know a lot about wine and very little about food, and most food people know a ton about food and very little about wine. So if you’re ‘bilingual,’ if you will, within the two, it gives you a tremendous advantage.”

It also makes for some pretty enviable celebrations. For Joyce’s recent birthday, the family went to San Francisco’s Aziza—bringing along a 1986 Clos du Pape that Evan chose from Joyce’s cellar because he knew it would pair well with executive chef Mourad Lahlou’s menu. “It was delicious,” says Joyce, noting that Evan brought a 1944 Port from his own cellar. Instantly, she’s caught in a reverie—already planning the family’s next celebratory meal. “We have to do the ’34 Port,” she says with a sigh. “Next time.”

What's on the Menu? A simple weekday supper: At Evan’s house, roasted chicken, rice or couscous and vegetables on the side; at Joyce’s, a pasta, risotto or farro served with a salad. And no meal at either home is complete without a cheese plate, either for dessert or as an intermezzo before dessert. Wine pairing: the best of whatever Evan’s had to open for work that day.

 The Friends

“Fully committed to the people around us.”

When chef Christian Caiazzo began hatching plans to open a locavore Italian eatery in Point Reyes, putting Sean Thackrey’s wines on the wine list was a no-brainer. A Bolinas resident and former art dealer whose first winery release was the 1981 vintage blend Aquila, Thackrey can now count über-critic Robert Parker as a devotee (he called the 2007 vintage of Thackrey’s Orion red blend “spectacular”), and Caiazzo had served Thackrey’s much-praised Pleiades red blend at his wedding in 2002.

After Osteria Stellina’s 2008 opening, Thackrey’s wine sold itself—the restaurant easily went through six cases of Pleiades a week in the summer of 2009. Meanwhile Caiazzo, a veteran of San Francisco’s Postrio and New York’s Union Square Cafe, drew raves from food critics, locals and tourists alike—and this year Stellina won a spot on the San Francisco Chronicle’s top 100 restaurants list.

If Thackrey and Caiazzo’s West Marin successes put them on each other’s radar, a recent fundraising dinner for Marin Academy gave the two men a chance to reconnect and share ideas. The meal took place at Devil’s Gulch Ranch in Nicasio and featured Devil’s Gulch venison and pork, as well as vegetables from Jesse Kuhn of Marin Roots Farm. Caiazzo cooked, and Thackrey provided the wine: Andromeda, a pinot noir made with grapes grown at Devil’s Gulch. The menu was an apt metaphor for the dedication to community the two men share.

“We’re both fully committed to the people around us,” says Caiazzo. “We give our donations [of food and wine] to the local people; we take care of the people who come in and are dedicated customers.  So if somebody comes in and they expect all these beautiful displays on the plate instead of simple Heathware with some meat and some sauce and some vegetables, I’m sorry, but—”

“That’s not what we do here,” interjects Thackrey.

“Yeah, what we do is what my neighbor wants, you know?  That’s what my kids’ friends’ parents want.”

Although they hail from different generations and opposite coasts—Caiazzo is 41 and was raised in Connecticut, Thackrey is 68 and from Los Angeles—they are iconoclasts cut from the same cloth, with the same irreverent attitude toward the traditions and rules of their chosen fields. And while their talents play off each other admirably, neither has much patience for what Thackrey calls the food-and-wine pairing “dogma.”

“If you follow the rules all the time, you’re never going to really expand your horizons to push the envelope or find out something that you may not have known before,” Caiazzo says.

“I’m really simple-minded about this,” Thackrey adds. “All I’m trying to do is make the most delicious wine I can possibly make from whatever the hell is right in front of me. You don’t make wine from preconceptions; you make it from grapes.”

What's on the Menu? A simple weekday supper: Black cod or rock cod caught by Bolinas fisherman Rob Knowles in Bodega Bay. Wine pairing: 2008 Coenobium, an Italian white made by the Cistercian Trappist sisters (advised by Umbrian winemaker Giampiero Bea).

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