Wine and politics don't mix (wine and spicy dishes sometimes do, but we'll get to that). Consider the Summit Conference in Williamsburg this spring, when great American culinary art was to be accompanied by the most appropriate American wines. One of the chefs, Paul Prudhomme, of New Orleans, served Cajun popcorn (quick-fried crayfish tails), blackened redfish (rubbed with herbs and butter and seared in a white-hot skillet), and duck in pecan sauce. Prudhomme and wine writer Steve Taylor, after much experimentation, picked for this unique and amazing food a smoky 1981 Sanford Winery chardonnay for the crawfish and mayonnaise sauce, and a fruity 1981 Ventanna Vineyards sauvignon blanc for the fish. They discovered that red wines tasted bitter with the assertive sauce on the duck, made with pecan shells and imbued with its own dose of tannin. So they chose an equally assertive 1980 William Hill Winery chardonnay. The White House, as you might imagine, had its own ideas about what wine to serve. With the Cajun popcorn appeared (yuk!) sherry, from Christian Brothers. The 1980 Z D Winery chardonnay chosen by the White House was demolished by the redfish, according to Taylor. The duck sauce showed the youthful 1979 Acacia Wines pinot noir in a very bad light, and was generally passed over by the assembled guests.
Why were the recommendations of the chef and his advisers ignored? Inquiries were bounced from the White House to the State Department and back again; Michael Deaver, it seems, made the final decision, but was unavailable for comment. Taylor says that some wineries donated large quantities of wine for the assembled press, and they did not include those recommended by him and Prudhomme. Political favoritism, in Taylor'sopinion, masks a larger failing: "To me, this indicates that America still lacks the sophistication to put fine wines together with fine foods. An official from England or France would never have made that mistake."
Prudhomme and his wife, Kay Hinrichs, continue to search for the right American wines to serve in their restaurant, K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen. "Anything you drink," Prudhomme says, "should make the food taste better, make you happy, and not add to the weight on your stomach." They settled on a Joseph Phelps Vineyards cabernet for the redfish, jambalaya, and any smoked meat, and an old-style, fruity Summerhill Vineyards French colombard, or a chardonnay from Cartlidge and Browne, for seafood.
Another fine New Orleans restaurateur, Ella Brennan, owner of Commander's Palace, likes traditional-style chardonnays for shrimp, oysters and other seafoods, like those from Acacia, Alta Vineyard Cellar, Edna Valley Vineyard, Matanzas Creek Winery and Robert Mondavi Winery. "The big, fruity, buttery wines go better with our kind of food than the white burgundies," she says. They also go well with Chesapeake Bay fare. For game and veal she favors Duckhorn Vineyards' merlot, and the 1979 Jordon Vineyard cabernet.
Some of our local dishes are beyond the reach of wine, of course. When last in New Orleans I liked the chardonnay with Prudhomme's crab claws in mayonnaise sauce, and that old American stand-by, alligator sausage. However, a cayenne furnace known as rabbit Mamou blew away the perfectly respectable cabernet. Occasionally you have to settle for a glass of water.