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Back in early April, thanks to a very generous employer, I found myself at a seven-course wine pairing dinner in a private dining room at Charlie Palmer's Aureole in Midtown. Sometimes I'm not sure how I get this lucky.
I'm really into food and wine, hence much of this blog. I like to think my taste is democratic; I'll just as quickly say yes to a brown-bagged bottle of St. Nicholas alongside a hunk of cheese and a french baguette in Riverside Park as I will to an actually thoughtful Murray's cheese & bubbles pairing class downtown. But if my budget weren't limited, would I still claim my taste buds as democratic? I'm not sure. Something about getting dressed up and going out to eat really spectacular, thoughtful food just indulges an array of childhood dreams.
Aureole indulged me. Alongside the mouth-watering foie gras, poached lobster, black cod and wagyu beef, I also had the chance to meet wine sommelier, or rather, taste-artist, Morgan Harris. Harris careened about the loud and demanding table with ease, presenting one by one the evening's various wine and food pairings. I was enthralled by the detailed description he provided for each wine and the ease in which he answered any and all of the table's questions. Afterward, he was kind enough to do a little Q&A with me, which you can now all use as back-pocket knowledge for your next cocktail party.
So, for beginners, what are the pillars of wine pairing? I always thought steak = red and chicken/fish = white. True?
Pairing is funny, people want it to work like arithmetic, e.g. "this plus this equals that," but it's really more of a "guiding principles" situation. In pairing any dish, there's no real "capital A" answer, and since our sense of taste is at least partially acculturated, everyone's going to have a slightly difference bias towards flavor combinations.
That being said, there are some general principles to look at:
A. Join or Contrast: Most pairing function on the dynamic of contrasting elements of the dish or harmonizing with them.
If you have a salad with a tart acidic dressing, you need to have a wine equally as acidic to keep up with or the wine won't taste like much. The acid in the dressing will overwhelm the wine.
Likewise, if you're dealing with fois gras or a rich, fatty pork belly, contrasting their salty-fatty-unctuous quality with something sweet-and-sour like harmoniously sweet german riesling can be really pleasant.
B. Ignore the protein (outside of it's fat content), focus on the saucing and sides:
I tend to think of proteins in terms of "volume" and attempt to correspond that to the intensity of whatever wine I'm pairing, but I don't really think of their flavor, unless it's really particular (mackerel, lamb, game meat). 32-day dry-aged porter house? That's kind of a 9. Salmon filet. A 6 or so, but following that, the most important part is the sauce and it's flavors. Do they seem white or red?
If the steak is in a cream "au poive" sauce with cheddar pomme dauphine, I might consider a really fat, rich white like Chateauneuf Blanc or a well-made California Viognier. Likewise, if the salmon has beet purée, hen of the woods mushrooms, and roasted fennel, I'm definitely thinking red Burgundy or Oregon Pinot Noir.
C. When in doubt, richer fuller whites without oak, or lighter, fresher reds, well-made rosé or bubbles.
If you don't know what everyone's eating, go with wines that play well with others. You might like the rich oak-and-black fruit power of Argentine Malbec, but it's a little inflexible at the table. None of the above wines are going to win a superlative, but they're most of what's in my personal cellar for every-day drinking
I kind of genuinely think there's a white and a red pairing for every dish, and don't forget about other beverages like bubbles, sherry, beer, and saké. But really in the end, just drink what you like and eat what you like, there aren't any "answers" and the only way to make a personal discovery is to take a risk.
How long can you really keep wine after it's been opened and what are the rules?
To best preserve wine, put everything in the fridge, red or white. Basically, oxygen is what's spoiling your wine when it's open for too long, kind of like browning an apple on the counter. All chemical reactions happen slower at lower temperatures. If you buy one of those vacuum hand-pumps, you can probably get about a week out of a bottle in your fridge. That being said, it's also depending bottling-to-bottling. The 1975 Margaux is going to spoil a lot quicker than the current-vintage New Zealand sauvignon blanc, just due to the delicate, mature nature of the former, and the robust youthful quality of the later.
But, to be honest, the four glasses in a bottle never last long enough between me and my sommelier roommate to keep anything around for long...
As for the industry, can you give us a quick synopsis of your background and how you came to a career as a sommelier? For many, it sounds like a dream job!
My undergraduate degree is from Emerson College in Theatre and Marketing; I studied the business side of things because I always knew I would need a way support myself while pursuing art. I've also always taken pride in whatever work I was doing, so even through restaurants weren't what I initially "wanted" to do, I wasn't going to suck at something I spent 30-40 hours a week on.
That lead to learning more about wine and starting to self-educate, which is great in New York because you have over 400 distributors who are all very interested in making sure you understand their product, not to mention the dozens of country advocacy organizations. The dynamic community at the Guild of Sommeliers (guildsomm.com) is a great resource for anyone looking to move into the beverage world. It's the best $100 you could spend on wine and beverage education. Almost all of my knowledge comes from self-educating within this framework, as well as the community around the exams for the Court of Master Sommeliers.
In 2011, I decided to move into wine full-time and managed a wine bar called Corkbuzz in Union Square for two years, and switched to fine dining in early 2014, where I currently work as Senior Sommelier at Aureole restaurant in midtown Manhattan.
Sounds like you really took advantage of your resources and studied hard to get where you are. But it's not all fun and games, is it?
I do believe the wine business is one of the most dynamic, fun industries on the planet, however, it's not all puppies and roses (or rosés?). Restaurant work is very demanding physically, to say nothing of the hours. Your typical New York sommelier works about 50 hours a week standard, with restaurant fine dining sommeliers regularly pushing over 65 hours a week .
I have friends who work in 3-star Michelin properties who have tables sit down for a 4+ hour meal at 10:00 PM, and their days start at 10:30 AM sometimes. This obviously has a big impact on your personal life. Try dating anyone in the 9-5/10-6 world when a short day for you is 3PM-1:30AM, and you always work weekends.
Starting sommeliers only make between $40,000 and $60,000 for at least the first 3-5 years, and if you stay in restaurants, very few jobs pay over $120K or so. Add to this zero paid vacation, spotty employer insurance, and a nearly complete lack of retirement benefits.
That being said, if you want to taste some of the greatest wine on the planet, meet incredible winemakers, travel lots, and have a strong understanding of the world's most magical agricultural product, then the wine business might be for you!
Okay more on wine... I have this $26 single glass aerator from Williams Sonoma that I'm obsessed with. Should I really be using it on every red? Also, how come I never see somm's aerate/decant wine at the table?
Aeration is one of those mystical wine tropes that you can't draw any hard-and-fast rules for. Almost no youthful wine will be harmed by decanting, but not all of them need it. You can certainly request your sommelier to decant anything (red or white) if you feel you like it. That's part of our service. Besides powerful reds, I'll often offer to decant rich, full whites to raise the temperature a little.
If I feel a wine is a little ungiving and mute, that's most often when I'll decant. For older, thick-skinned reds (Bordeaux, California Cabernet) decanting is a must since they'll always throw sediment, but delicate, perfumed fully-mature Burgundy from the 1970s or 80s will be "pop and pour" because I'd be kind of worried to lose the wine in the decanter before it's in anyone's glass. Delicate reds from that age bracket often smell amazing for about 15-30 minutes and then fall off a cliff.
I will always ask a guest before I decant something, since it's more of a gentle suggestion rather than a requirement, but I'll generally only offer for wines that I think are a) going to throw sediment, b) were really tight when I sounded the wine, c) need a temperature adjustment.
What's the rule about pairing cheese and wine?
You can't call anything in wine a hard-and-fast rule, but cheeses are definitely better (generally) with fruit-driven wines. Think about how jam or honey is often offered side-by-side with cheese. For me, great cheese whites are: dry or slightly off-dry German Riesling, anything from Alsace, Loire Chenin Blanc, lush-and-full styles of domestic Sauvignon Blanc (especially with goat cheese). In reds, definitely avoid anything too oaky or black: Beaujolais, Loire Valley Cabernet Franc, Cotes du Rhone, Montepulciano, and domestic Zinfandel are kind of all quintessential cheese reds for me. Another cheese "hack" is to look at where the cheese comes from and see if they make any wine there. "Grows together goes together" is one of the great hidden rules of pairing.
And now, for some rapid-fire pairing, selfishly based off my rotating diet.
- Traditional mac n' cheese: Fatty Cotes du Rhone Blanc
- Mozzarella & broccoli rabe on a baguette: Austrian Grüner Veltliner
- Guacamole: Modelo Especial, but well-made California Sauvignon Blanc if we have to do wine
- Lox & CC on a bagel: Blanc des Noirs Champagne
- Pepperoni pizza: Chianti
- Seared scallops and lemon risotto: Any fancy white Burgundy, but Puligny-Montrachet has my heart.
- Truffle fries: Blanc des Blancs Champagne (Fried stuff and Champagne, yo)
- Spicy mapotofu: Harmoniously sweet german riesling (You've got to put that fire out!)
- Coconut shrimp: Oaked White Rioja
- Traditional cannoli: Moscato d'Asti (there's a reason it's one of the most-sold wines in America; it's just yummy!)