San Francisco Chronicle / Michelle Locke, 2010.04.25 These winemakers love grapes, not meat.
Jon Grant is the winemaker at Couloir in Napa Valley, Calif. He combines his 2007 Pinot Noir from Anderson Valley with a mire poix risotto he is preparing at his St. Helena, Calif. home. Photo: Brant Ward, The Chronicle.
It's the classic pairing mantra: red with beef, white with chicken or fish. But what if the winemaker is a vegetarian?
As winemaker Thomas Houseman of Anne Amie Vineyards in Carlton, Ore., points out, winemaking is "a pretty carnocentric club." But he says you don't have to be a meat-eater to make or enjoy good wine.
"Anything that you can pair with meat, if you think about it stylistically, it's easy enough to pair with either vegetables or meat alternatives," says Houseman, a former cook and a vegetarian since high school.
Winemaker Jon Grant stopped eating red meat at age 12 and went vegan 15 years ago. None of which stops him from turning out reds - traditionally paired with hearty meats - as the owner of St. Helena-based Grant Family Wines and as assistant winemaker at Turley Wine Cellars.
"Pinot Noir and mushrooms are a great go-to," he says. "Wild mushroom risotto with an understated California Pinot Noir can be quite lovely."
Winemakers differ on how big a role being vegetarian or vegan plays in the cellar. For Grant, being vegan is part of a bigger philosophical approach.
"The interesting thing about this, at least for me, is it's almost like a lifestyle thing as well. I make my wines naturally. I don't inoculate, I don't acidulate and filter and fine (all techniques to manipulate wines). That is an example of the way I go about my life in general, that is minimal impact - just be conscious of where I am and just let things happen more organically."
Peter Wellington of Wellington Vineyards in Glen Ellen, vegetarian for more than 40 years, sees pros and cons to his diet.
"One advantage, I think, is actually probably a more sensitive palate to more subtle flavors," he says. "Disadvantages are, it limits making food and wine pairing suggestions. It makes it tougher to make those to the general public."
Houseman, on the other hand, thinks your palate is affected by the style of food you eat - a lot of spices, for instance - but doesn't think eating or not eating meat makes much of a difference.
Something all the vintners agree on: Winemaker dinners require careful navigation.
"Pinot Noir is always matched up with either pork or duck," Houseman says. "There are very few dinners that I go to that don't have pork or duck in them."
These dinners are usually long and elaborate; chefs tend to pull out all the tricks in their bag - lots of foie gras and "meat two ways."
The trick, vegetarian winemakers say, is to ask in advance for a meatless menu and make sure no one at the table feels the slightest bit uncomfortable. Houseman tries to eat "with as little fanfare as possible so that I don't call attention to myself. Really, I want the wines to show and I want people to have a great time. I don't want them to go, 'What are you having?' "
Grant feels the same way, although if the interest is friendly he doesn't mind talking about his choices.
"The last winemaker dinner I did was in Aspen. The people that were sitting immediately around me were actually jealous of the dishes I was getting" - roasted tomato soup, grilled vegetables and a fresh berry dessert.
Twenty years ago, Houseman remembers having to pack his own food for road trips. But these days, more and better vegetarian options abound.
"I love food," says Grant. "I've lost count of how many phenomenal meals I've had at the French Laundry." The Yountville restaurant, possessor of three Michelin stars, will make vegetarian or vegan tasting menus given sufficient advance notice - ideally when the reservation is made.
At Gather in Berkeley, a restaurant that serves vegan entrees as well as meat dishes, chef Sean Baker sees wine-vegetable pairing as challenging, but not impossible.
"I feel like we're pretty much always able to make a pairing. You can make wines work," he says. "Does it feel forced sometimes? It could, but there's always something out there."
Vegetarian food doesn't have to mean insipid. "We'll do stocks where we work on it all day long," Baker says. "Dried porcinis, roasted mushrooms, all these deep, earthy flavors and we cook it down with lots of merlot, lots of tomato paste. You come up with this stock that pretty much tastes a little bit nicer than a beef stock. Put some morels on that with any kind of nice Barbera."
As for wine itself, it's essentially a vegetarian product, although in some cases animal products such as egg whites and gelatin are used to fine the wine, a process that removes sediment.
Houseman fines reds when he thinks it necessary. Grant doesn't fine wines based on his philosophy of non-interference, although it isn't a deal-breaker for him when selecting other people's wines to drink. Wellington's wines are vegan.
For Grant, being vegan is "more of a philosophy than it is a practice," he says. "I'm doing what I can because I feel it's the right thing for me to be doing for me."
And although they're in the minority, they do sometimes find kindred spirits.
Wellington recalls going on a wine tour of France in the early 1980s and approaching the issue of dinner with some trepidation considering he was in the land of foie gras and beef daubes.
"Everywhere we went, even the top restaurants, I would tell them, 'Well, I'm a vegetarian,' and half the time the response was, 'Oh, the chef's a vegetarian, too!' " he says. "I gained so much weight. I ate like royalty."
Pairing without meat
Here are some tips for vegetarian food and wine matching.
-- Cooking styles can be a hint. If the traditional pairing is roasted meat, try roasted root vegetables instead. Instead of duck and Pinot Noir, try a platter of oven-roasted root vegetables. A meaty grilled portobello mushroom is another option.
-- Winemaker Thomas Houseman likes Pinot Noir with french fries. To go all out, toss the fries with truffle oil, salt and maybe a dusting of fennel pollen.
-- Pizza and rustic Tempranillo can be good partners. The same is true of a vegan pizza made with lots of vegetable toppings and soy cheese, says winemaker Jon Grant, a vegan.
-- For a challenging pairing like asparagus or artichoke, Grant adds lemon and salt to offset the umami, or savoriness, of the vegetables and bring the flavors into balance.
-- When in doubt, try sparkling wine.