A conversation with Elyce Zahn can be fattening. I probably gained a pound while chatting with her at a recent wine convention as she plied me with chocolates, some fruity and others nutty, and urged me to sip a different wine with each.
This is the type of experiment wine lovers enjoy, and Zahn fed a steady stream of vinophiles at the Zinfandel Experience, an annual event hosted by a trade group called Zinfandel Advocates and Producers. This year's tasting was held at Pier 27 in San Francisco, which allowed people to turn away from the chocolates and wine to enjoy a view of the Bay Bridge and Treasure Island on a clear January day before heading back into the fray.
"Describe the wine you just tasted," Zahn would cheerfully ask each new customer at the booth for her chocolate and confection company, CocoTutti. There were about two dozen zinfandels available at the table next to hers and hundreds more in the main hall. They varied from rich and savory to powerful fruit bombs packing an alcoholic punch. (I've yet to encounter a subtle zinfandel, though I spent a happy three days searching.) Based on the description of the wine's characteristics, she would suggest one of her confections.
"Is it old and dusty?" she asked Brian Russell, of Alexandria, Va., who was savoring a 1999 Ravenswood. She offered him a strawberry-balsamic chocolate.
"It brings out the fruit in the wine," Russell said after taking another sip. Russell recalled similar exercises at the former Curious Grape wine store in Shirlington, Va., and at Fabbioli winery in Loudoun County.
"Try this almond butter crunch with cinnamon," Zahn offered. "If there's no spice after you taste the wine again, it means there's a lot of spice in the wine to match the spice in the chocolate."
"You can pair chocolate with anything," Zahn told me. "It depends on the ingredient match, and breaking through the mind-set some people have that chocolate doesn't go well with wine." She uses many savory ingredients in her candies, including chile, curry, Lapsang souchong tea, fennel pollen and pink peppercorns. "And bacon, of course," she adds. "I've been trying to smoke honey, but it doesn't work."
Chocolate can draw out flavors in a wine we may not have noticed, and it can also point us to dishes to pair with wine. "Who would think of curry with cabernet?" Zahn asked rhetorically. But when a curry-flavored chocolate resonates with cab, "People — especially those who don't drink often — will say, 'I love curry, and I want to try it with this wine.' "
Zahn sells her creations online and through wineries, where she likes to play a "Dating Game." Customers are given a box with eight chocolates to pair with different wines. "You know five of them, but three are blind dates," she says.
"You're looking for the perfect marriage, flavors that have to be together. Best friends are fine, but they don't have to be together. Divorce is you thought it was a great idea initially, but then you experience it. Then there's the neighbor down the street you don't like — that's peppermint and cabernet. There are things that just don't go together."
You don't need fancy chocolates to do this at home. "Just take a few bars and break them up, then try them with whatever wines you enjoyed during dinner," Zahn advises.
That would also be fun with wines more traditionally suited to chocolate, such as port or a sweet fizzy red such as Brachetto. And don't be afraid to think outside the box of chocolates. One of the best chocolate pairings I've ever enjoyed was a chocolate brownie with an Italian pinot grigio. The dessert liberated a hidden beam of fruitiness in the wine.
And if sparkling wine is on your menu for Valentine's Day, Zahn has some pointers.
"Look at the color," she advises. "If the wine is a blanc de blanc, that's pretty clear, so look for a chocolate with lighter notes to it, filled chocolate especially. A lot of times I'll go to the lemon side, or lavender. If it's a blush, go for something that blushes, like strawberry. If it's something deeper, go for blackberry or raspberry. You can use the color of the wine as a helpful hint."
And it would get your Valentine's evening off to a fun and delicious start.