Taking Wine Tasting Menus to Task

Photo by Krystel Encinares, via Unsplash

Photo by Krystel Encinares, via Unsplash

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or many who love to dine, the marriage of good food and wine is undeniable. A thoughtful wine pairing can elevate an already delicious dish to previously unknown heights. In fact, it was the experience of this very thing that inspired me to pursue a career in wine; a carefully chosen glass of Muscadet with steamed mussels changed my mind from “I don’t drink white wine” to a career path I could have never imagined.

There is a certain ephemeral charm about well-paired food and wine that draws us in and keeps us searching for those “perfect” pairings. In the restaurant world, the tasting menu is the ultimate playground for wine pairings. At the best of times, it allows the chef and restaurant to show off what they do best: to curate a vision and take the diner on a journey through their creative process, which can result in a synergistic experience akin to a seeing a ballet or the symphony—true art and worth the price.

Other times, tasting menus are burdensome, expensive, and overwrought, leaving the diner little time to engage with their companions.

During my time in the industry I have developed a complicated relationship with tasting menus. From my seat in the dining room (and more often as the person selecting and pouring the wine pairings) I have experienced both the best and the worst that tasting menus have to offer.

As a diner, I love when I can tell the restaurant staff is truly invested in their tasting menu program. They move with grace and know just how much attention to give and when. The food menu shows a thoughtful progression of flavors and a gradual crescendo of seasoning. The sommelier has carefully chosen wines to match the dishes and takes the time to explain their selection thoroughly enough to make it worth interrupting my conversation but without overwhelming everyone.

Photo by William West, via Unsplash

Photo by William West, via Unsplash

As the person behind the wine pairings, there is no greater thrill than turning someone onto a wine they otherwise wouldn’t have ordered, guiding someone new to wine through the selections’ different flavors, or weaving higher-end bottlings into the progression with funky, off-the-beaten-path selections to craft an engaging menu. When it all goes like clockwork, it is a wonder to behold.

But it doesn’t always go so smoothly.

Wine-paired tasting menus require a lot of engagement with diners and it can often feel intrusive to the guest experience. From changing out glassware to the presentation and pouring of the wine pairing for many—if not every—course (in addition to presenting, serving, and clearing each dish), it can sometimes feel like you are dining with the staff. As a guest, I have often found myself with a rainbow of glasses in front of me by the end of the meal because the wine pours were too heavy or there were simply too many pairings throughout.

Lately, I’ve been interested in exploring whether there’s a third way to engage in pairing for tasting menus—something between opting out of wine pairings altogether and fully committing to a new wine with every course (and the minefield that might entail). A chef friend of mine once told me that his strategy when dining at Michelin-starred, tasting menu-only restaurants was to give the sommelier his budget and tell them he would like a half bottle of two or three different wines that would pair well with a progression of courses. This method allows you to put yourself in the hands of the staff while also building in a little more control over your ultimate dining experience.

Similarly, I’ve seen restaurants changing their tactics, pairing one wine with two or three courses in a row, refilling your glass as you move through the meal. This strings flavors together and shows off the versatility of a wine, including how it might change its expression from dish to dish.

From both the diner and the restaurant perspectives, it seems like the third way might be paring down, putting fewer (but no less thoughtful) wine selections on the table.

Ultimately, it’s your big night out, to celebrate a special occasion (or just finally scheduling that babysitter for once), and the restaurant wants you to have a memorable and personalized experience; you shouldn’t feel trapped by your options.

Want to explore the third way? My insider advice to you: give the restaurant a call a couple days before your planned dinner. The more information they have about your reservation ahead of time, the easier it will be to tailor your experience. Ask if they are willing to sell half bottles or a pared down selection of wines to pair with your tasting menu. Even pairing half pours of the by-the-glass section is a good option, if you are looking to save a few dollars.

Remember, even if you want to experience a curated tasting menu, you don’t have to break the bank with wine pairings. A good sommelier will help you navigate that third way and, who knows, there’s always a chance you might stumble onto that elusive “perfect” pairing. And oh what a joy it will be.