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How about that pairing?

Last night was my third time to Mario Batali’s flagship Babbo, and words cannot express how delicious his pasta is.  I insist on the pasta tasting menu paired with his reserve wines, and each course is so perfect, it makes me want to give up on cooking forever.

Imagine watching Led Zeppelin in LA circa 1972.  Bonzo is absolutely wrecking another drum kit with his tree-trunk grade drumsticks, Page has sold his soul to the devil and plays like it with the devil’s own violin bow.  Plant lets out a high-pitched howl like an air raid siren in London during the war, and you just know something’s going on that is bigger than all of us.  That’s what it is like eating Mario Batali’s pasta.

But there is something else about the evening.  Perhaps it was the Run DMC playing when my Tagliatelle al Nero came out (paired with such a unique Gavi).  I don’t know if it was the White Stripes playing when my Garganelli Funghi Trifolati came out (paired with a gorgeous Baralo).  Maybe it was the AC/DC playing when my Pappardelle Bolognese came out (make no mistake–Batali’s Bolognese is the Sistine Chapel of pasta.  The world stops for his Bolognese.).

The point is, while all this amazing pasta is happening on the table, while all this beautiful wine is happening, the place is abuzz with casual, fun energy.  The music is not only unpretentious, it rocks!  You feel like Mario just plugged in his iPod and threw together the most gorgeous dinner party ever.

So here’s to a beautiful bowl of pasta, and here’s to pairing it with Italy’s finest grape juice.  And what’s more, here’s to rocking out while you do it.  A tip of my hat, Mario.  You’re doing great work.

The fine art of wine pairing is a much-debated topic, and in various roles over the years, I have been asked to contribute my take.  As a starting point, I subscribe heartily to the “drink what you like” school, and I would never condone instructing someone that the pairing he or she enjoys is “wrong.”

That said, I do think wine pairing “theory” isn’t out there for no reason.  For one thing, if you’re not bringing a strong preference to the table, and you want to know what might be a good match for what you’re eating, well, wine pairing guidelines can really help.  Matching acidity levels in the wine to fat content might be a bit advanced, but let’s keep it as simple as flavor intensity levels.

Flavor intensity levels?

Sure! In one sentence, you want the intensity levels of your wine to be roughly in line with that of your food so that one doesn’t walk all over the other.  Let’s take a couple extreme cases.

If you’re eating a delicate piece of Halibut without any sort of rich sauces (perhaps some herbs and a squeeze of lemon), you don’t want a heavy, oak-rageous California Chardonnay (though I love them with other foods!) beating your fish up.  You will walk away thinking your fish tasted strangely like vanilla and missed opportunity.  Try something light like a Pinot Gris from Oregon, or if you like something a touch sweeter perhaps a California Voignier.

But let’s not forget the other side of the spectrum.  Never mind  steak, which we agree pairs classically well with a gorgeous Bordeaux (yes, a red one!).  I am talking about spicy food.  What about the darkest, murkiest, unholiest curry in India?  What about the four-star spicy Thai dish your foodie home-boy is cooking up with his wife next Friday?  What do you bring then?  What wine goes well with a dirty Texas chili cook-off?

Bottom line: If you’re food is going to punch it, make sure your wine punches back.

They say wines have different tasting profiles with food than without.  Believe me that this is twice as true with the spicier flavors, as the entire profile of the wine changes when you are in those dark caves of chaotic flavor.  Try the St. Francis Merlot or Zin (every ounce a step-on-the-gas style American red).  Open up a weighty Shiraz from McLaren Vale in Australia.  The D’Arenberg Dead Arm is an absolute beast, albeit a beautiful beast.

Or, try one of the biggest styles of Chateauneuf-du-pape that you can find.  I like Beaucastel as a stand-by, but I am open.  A good Chateauneuf-du-pape tends to have an earthier character than, for example, an American Zin, so pair that with a rich spectrum of spices found in South Indian and North Indian food alike.

I encourage you to be bold with your cooking as well as your drinking (speaking of flavor here, not necessarily quantity–enjoy in moderation).  So go out there and get after it!

adam neary

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

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