Learn how to craft a party menu around excellent wine and food pairings
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Designed for wine
In a career that’s spanned dude ranch cook, chef to George Lucas, and co-owner of Cafe La Haye in Sonoma, John McReynolds has learned that a successful food-and-wine pairing takes you beyond the sum parts of the meal. “You make something magical happen by matching the right wine with the right food.”
The magic plays out as he cooks for a small group of friends on the winery’s private grounds (its Silver Cloud Vineyard property nearby is open to the public by appointment). “I don’t think there’s any other beverage in the world that has as much complexity in flavor and aroma as wine,” says McReynolds. “You take a sip and eat a bite of food, and it hits on all the senses.”
Click ahead for recipes and wine recommendations, plus tips on how to throw your own pairings party.
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Goat Cheese, Artichoke, and Olive Bruschetta
As delicious as they are, artichokes have a compound that makes wine taste sweet. Tangy goat cheese brings both into balance. McReynolds leaves one end of the toasts free of toppings so fingers stay clean.
Pairing: Try with Stone Edge Farm Sauvignon Blanc 2013(Sonoma Valley, $30), which has refreshing citrus acidity, herbal notes, and creamy oak, or with J. Rickards Winery 2014 Croft Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc ($19).
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Green Salad with Almonds, Charred Onion, and Pomegranates
With its light texture and “green” flavor, lettuce alone can be a challenge with wine, especially a red. McReynolds pulls it off by adding rich textures, savory flavors, and a verjus dressing (juice from unripe wine grapes), which has a softer acidity than vinegar.
Pairing: Sip Stone Edge Farm “Surround” Cabernet Sauvignon 2011(Sonoma Valley, $50), with flavors ofripe red fruit, a touch of tobacco, and balanced oak in the background,or Simi 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon ($24)).
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Wine-Braised Beef Short Ribs
This classic braise, adapted from Stone Edge Farm Cookbook($60; stoneedgefarm.com), tastes even more flavorful made a day ahead, and chilling makes it easier to discard the fat. For the cooking wine, McReynolds believes that quality matters: “Certainly above $5 a bottle but maybe not $85,” he jokes. He serves the ribs with steamed potatoes, carrots glazed in herb butter, watercress, and a rémoulade salad.
Though the ice cream is fantastic on its own, McReynolds turns it into a sophisticated dessert with the addition of caramelized walnuts and a drizzle of saba—ripe wine-grape juice cooked down to a fruity syrup. He makes his own saba each autumn, but you can buy saba at gourmet grocery stores (or substitute good-quality balsamic vinegar).
For McReynolds, pulling off a memorable meal comes down to a few principles.
Start with food
Plan your menu based on what’s in season, and then choose the wines.
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Body trumps color
For pairings, McReynolds’ most important consideration is matching body: lighter-bodied wines with lighter foods, and vice versa. But adding rich, savory ingredients (roasted nuts, cheese, and griddled vegetables, say) can also make a salad red wine–friendly.
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Remember the base notes
Each course should have exciting flashes, but not so many strong flavors that it’s distracting. (Think rich meat plus potatoes.)
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Something crisp or raw cleanses the palate.
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For a party, about a half-bottle of wine per person total is a good rule of thumb, “though my friends might want more,” McReynolds confesses. Aim for three different wines over the course of a meal, poured from lightest to darkest.
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Keep it simple
Stick to dishes that aren’t too complicated and, though it may sound obvious, prep as much as you can before guests arrive; their ring at the door is “not the time to crack open the pomegranates and wrestle out the seeds.”