Food and Wine Pairing – An interview with Jerry Comfort of Beringer Vineyards

On Saturday Nov 17th I met the official food and wine pairing expert.  Sure there are many sommeliers out there who can properly pair wine with food.  Sure there are many people out there who can tell you everything you need to know about every wine, then after much deliberation and scientific explanation, could tell you what food to pair with that wine.  But Mr. Jerry Comfort of the famous Beringer Vineyards in Napa Valley is the man you want to speak to. Hands down.  Not only is he smart and has studied wine and food for his entire professional life.  He has also spent 20 years at Beringer, first as their chef and following that he’s spent the past 10 years as an ambassador and wine educator.  He has also worked as the head chef at restaurants all over Napa Valley and San Francisco.   These days he teaches a 90 minute seminar on wine and food pairing which takes him all around the world. It’s quite the impressive resume.  However beyond all of that, there was one thing in particular that impressed me most about Jerry’s approach.  He simplifies it.  He takes a complicated subject like wine and food pairing and makes it easy to understand for the everyday drinker.  That is something I can appreciate and relate to.

Jerry was gracious enough to sit down for a one-on-one interview.  I have separated it into three parts which you can see below.  Following that I attended his 90 minute seminar at the Toronto Gourmet Food and Wine Show which was fantastic.  If you get the chance to catch his seminars, I would highly recommend it.  After spending this time with Jerry I almost feel as though I could call myself a food and wine pairing expert, but I will leave it to Jerry to tell you in his own words.

Part 1: A nice introduction to Jerry giving you a sense of just how knowledgeable he is.  He then takes you through some initial points behind his wine and food pairing philosophy.  Though not a substitute for his seminar this pretty much covers most of the key points.

Part 2: A little more insight into Jerry’s wine and food pairing philosophy including his answer to a very important question… “So what does one do? You’re going to a party and you’re in charge of bringing the wine, one white and one red, what do you bring?”

Part 3: Jerry takes the time to answer a few questions from our Twitter followers then caps off our discussion with some rapid fire random questions including “So what’s better wine on it’s own, or wine with food” and “The one region in the U.S. we might not know much about now, but need to watch out for.”

*Many thanks to the Hotel Le Germain on Mercer street for accommodating the interview in their lobby bar.  Very much appreciated.

As I mentioned following the interview I was in the audience for Jerry’s full seminar.  I encourage you to attend it the next time Jerry’s in town or if you find yourself in Napa.  I won’t ruin it for you but here are some bullet points, quotes, and key takeaways to help you the next time you look to pair wine with food.

  • Don’t pair to flavour, pair to taste (taste being sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami).
  • “The wine industry seems to have forgotten K-I-S-S, keep it simple stupid.” – Jerry
  • Don’t pair to a grape variety, pair to a wine style
  • There are only really 5 types of wine you need to know when pairing.  Sweet wine, dry white wine with no oak, dry white wine with oak, fruit forward reds with little or no oak, and high tannin, big body red with the use of oak
  • Simple wines are the easiest to pair, hence why table wine and restaurant house wine is simple
  • Wine doesn’t change food… food changes wine.  Try the wine first, then the food.  There is no change.  Go back to the wine and you will understand if you like the pairing or not
  • “So, sweet food makes wine suck?” – Some guy in the audience, though Jerry seemed to agree
  • “Food without salt, needs wine without oak.” – Jerry
  • “Food does not overpower wine when it is balanced.” – Jerry, referring to the proper use of salt in cooking
  • “Sugar in cooking is the devil to dry wine.” – Jerry
  • “When cooking, cook with the worst wine you have.” – Jerry
  • If the food is balanced the wine flavour doesn’t change. This is what you are seeking because if you like the wine and it doesn’t change you can drink any wine you want with your balanced meal
  • Try the Beringer Founders Estate Cabernet Sauvignon – $18.95 at the LCBO.  Made in the domestic Napa Valley style, but available at a fraction of the price of their pure Napa Cab
  • Most impressive fact: Beringer is the only winery in the world to have received a Wine Spectator #1 wine in the world label for both a white and a red wine

At the end of everything I had made my conclusion and it was this… If food is properly salted and has adequate acidity you can pair any wine with it.  Most foods essentially have this.  Think white fish salted with a touch of lemon, steak seasoned and served with a slight reduction, and pasta with parmesan cheese and a tomato sauce.  Jerry gives you many more examples but these represent “balanced foods”.  When you have balanced foods the wine flavour will remain unchanged.  Just try it.  Take a piece of apple, sprinkle it with salt and lemon.  Chances are you won’t like it but believe it or not you now have a balanced food.  Now try the wine, then the food (of course the food doesn’t change), then try the wine again.  Balance.  The wine remains unchanged showing all it’s original flavours.  When you have balanced food and thus wine flavours that remain unchanged you then have the easiest wine pairing job in the world… drink whatever you like or bring whatever it is your hosts like.  Then suddenly we are all wine pairing experts.

– Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman


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