More Chefs Have Wine in Mind

Chef John Wabeck with Duckhorn Merlot, his wine choice for horseradish.
Chef John Wabeck with Duckhorn Merlot, his wine choice for horseradish. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg
Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Chefs have always had the challenge of staying one step ahead of their customers. In years past, this pushed them to improve the variety and quality of their ingredients (think Alice Waters) and, later, to employ more dazzling cooking techniques (think Ferran Adri¿ and Jose Andres). As America's consumption of wine continues to rise, more chefs are pursuing a new strategy: tackling the study of wine with an intensity formerly reserved for their sommeliers.

Barton Seaver, chef of Hook in Georgetown, earned a certificate from the Sommelier Society of America as a way to control the dining experience, as he put it, "from plate to glass."

"To chefs, taste is our craft. Studying wine teaches you to really taste ingredients, something that is necessary for a rounded education," Seaver says. "At Hook, our food is very simple. But if I teach my cooks how wine and food pair, they can then understand not just the simplicity of the dish they're cooking, but its complexity as the diner experiences it."

International Wine Center President Mary Ewing-Mulligan says that over the past 25 years, chefs have been "uncommon" participants in the center's classes, which attract mostly other wine and hospitality professionals and serious consumers. But that's changing, and today there are typically a few chefs among every 100 students. The uptick reflects what's happening in the 18 other U.S. markets offering Wine & Spirits Education Trust courses, she says.

At the Washington Wine Academy, instructor and wine consultant Kelly Magyarics has also seen an increasing number of chefs pursue wine education. She observes that the former "reactive" approach of restaurant sommeliers offering wine suggestions to diners based on their specific orders is being replaced with a more active approach. Today, she notes, chefs are working hand in hand with sommeliers, keeping the restaurants' wine lists in the back of their minds when creating dishes and learning what will pair with their particular cuisines.

Bring up the subject of wine, and chef John Wabeck of New Heights restaurant in Woodley Park is as quick to tell you what he loves ("pinot noir is my first, second and third favorite grape") as what he detests (too much "wood, alcohol and extraction"). Wabeck has passed all but the final exam leading to the elite master sommelier designation, which has been awarded to only 124 people in its two-decade history.

Before setting out to independently taste a number of wines on Hook's and New Heights' wine lists, we turned to their chefs about recommended food pairings. Here are the best of them:

2006 Bucci Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore ($22): Under the category "Soft and Mineral," Hook's wine list features the 2004 Bucci Verdicchio, which Seaver deems his "current favorite Italian white" in a category that excites him in general, thanks to the notable variety and value it offers. "It's a great match with our seared bluefish with basil walnut pesto," says Seaver. More adventurous Chardonnay lovers will enjoy the fuller-bodied, mineral-laden 2006 with creamier seafood dishes.

2005 Pegasus Bay Riesling ($27): "I love Riesling with buckwheat," says Wabeck, by way of recommending either smoked trout or salmon over soba noodles in miso dressing. "This New Zealand Riesling, in its purity and linearity, echoes Japanese cuisine and provides a contrast of sweet with salty." With spicy Asian dishes, we endorse Magyarics's budget-conscious recommendation of crisp, peachy 2006 Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling ($10) from Washington State.

2006 Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($25): "Shellfish is great with sauvignon blanc," says Wabeck. "I'd add some cream and pumpkin seeds to counteract the wood" in this lightly oaked wine. We proved him right, pairing it with lobster ravioli with cream sauce, and mussels with white wine, cream and shallots.

NV Bellavista Franciacorta Cuvee Brut ($43): With this finely frothy champagne double, Seaver would pair Hook's wahoo crudo (raw fish) with pumpkinseed oil. In an ode to its Italian heritage, we enjoyed it with prosciutto.

2003 Duckhorn Vineyards Howell Mountain Napa Valley Merlot ($70): Wabeck was passionate about the combination of horseradish and Merlot, recommending a dish of filet mignon, mushrooms and horseradish. We ended up tasting this against a grilled hanger steak with horseradish cream, finding that the wine's tannins stood up beautifully to the rich steak, while its blueberry and cherry fruitiness soothed the pungency of the horseradish perfectly.

The wine lists at both Hook and New Heights feature NV Piper-Heidsieck Champagne Brut Rose Sauvage ($45), with a robustness we found ideal for rare filet mignon. Rose-loving Wabeck told us he'd pair it with "anything -- pink champagne is a no-brainer with food." Seaver went to the Mediterranean for his recommendation to pair with either a salad of roasted peppers stuffed with goat and cream cheeses and walnuts, or slow-roasted halibut with eggplant, Israeli couscous and mint.

For Wabeck, Seaver and an increasing number of chefs like them, wines have become the equivalent of a seasoning, albeit one with the power to elevate individual dishes and the entire restaurant experience to a whole new level.

Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page are the award-winning authors of "What to Drink With What You Eat." They can be reached through their Web site,, or

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