Consider many of the world’s most iconic pairings of food and wine: foie gras and Sauternes, raw oysters and Muscadet, grilled lamb and Syrah—or recall almost any wine dinner you might have attended. Unless it was specifically vegetarian, most if not all of the pairings probably involved meat of some sort. For most sommeliers, pairing wine with animal protein is a daily demand. But what if you don’t eat meat? While you might think that would make the job nearly impossible, it turns out that vegetarian and pescetarian sommeliers have plenty of tricks for pairing the wines from their lists with the meat dishes their restaurants serve.
The Unfamiliar is Tricky
Sarah Farley is the wine director at Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Cafe in Los Olivos, California, and a lifelong vegetarian. Her inexperience with meat has required her to communicate more with the kitchen staff, which has often resulted in a deeper understanding of the dishes than a mere taste can provide. “I had the hardest time learning to pair with pork,” she says, explaining that she was challenged by the many possibilities that always seemed to vary according to how the pork was prepared. She says she also had to do some serious research on how to pair wines with cured meats. “This is where I really started learning to pair with the sauces and flavors instead of the base protein,” she says. Now she works closely with the chefs to get their take on the dishes as well. “It’s been a more academic and theoretical approach,” she says, “which still usually gets me to the same result as other somms that pair based on tasting the dish.”
That’s not to say that a vegetarian or pescatarian sommelier won’t have any first-hand experience with a meat dish. Scott Lefler is the head sommelier at Brooklyn’s Beasts and Bottles, and has been a pescetarian since 2004. He’s willing to set his dietary restrictions aside—to a certain extent—for the sake of the job. “I taste most of the dishes [so] I can be dialed in,” he says. But he also admits that he finds it particularly challenging to deal with the more exotic fare that’s a big part of modern dining. “The most difficult meat dishes for me are those that are of increasing process (mousses, foams, et cetera) or that utilize new creatures, organs, or parts that I haven’t had much experience with before,” he explains. “I am not opposed to trying the samples of this and that, though I don’t think I could do head cheese. At Public (also in New York City) we did a ‘Game, Guts, and Off-Cuts’ tasting menu with braised cock’s combs, heart, et cetera. I usually am game to try a touch of that stuff.”
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Most sommeliers consider cooking methods and sauces to be bigger determinants of a pairing than the protein itself. Lefler says that the cooking method is a big driver of where he looks for a match. “For me, the texture is perhaps the primary guide of what I look for in a pairing,” he says. “I feel that the old adage of white wines with fish and red wines with red meats works generally, because of the textures therein,” although flavors matter and can be disqualifiers for him. He feels that a poached meat dish requires a totally different approach than a seared or roasted option.
Tell the Truth
Trust is a vital element in the sommelier-guest relationship, and vegetarian sommeliers tend to agree that it’s important to be honest about inexperience or dietary restrictions when asked. “Everything is in the presentation,” says Farley. “I approach the pairings with the confidence of a trained professional, because I am one. I have been working with food and wine for over a decade and I have learned there are many ways to get to know your product well.” She concedes that the kitchen staff at the Cafe questions every pairing she does for their specials. “But it’s only because they are looking for an excuse to tease me for being vegetarian in the first place,” she says. “It’s all in good fun for them.”
Lefler says he brings up his vegetarian diet from time to time, “sometimes to emphasize how good the non-meat fixings may be on a dish.” He, too, says he receives a fair amount of ribbing from colleagues. “But that’s fine,” he says. “I typically don’t preach and after a decade I’m firmly happy about where I’m at with my consumption. I’ve never been treated poorly or skeptically by guests or colleagues though.”
Viva Las Veggies
Though they’re adept at wine and meat pairings, vegetarian sommeliers take particular delight in being able to design pairings around food they actually eat. Lefler’s enthusiasm for a current favorite is undeniable: “I love our huge roasted cauliflower head that’s painted with miso paste and sits on top of this rice à la minute with jasmine rice, cashews, pineapple that has sat with Thai chiles, and hearts of palm. Master sommelier Alex LaPratt was able to get the amazing 2016 Estate Trocken Riesling from Von Winning bottled in magnum just for us, and this explosively aromatic white busts through a lot of the salty and roasty aspects with zing!”
Farley also relishes pairing wine with veggie fare. One of her favorites is mushroom ravioli in a cream sauce paired with either an earthy Pinot Noir or an oaked (but not too buttery) Chardonnay with a good backbone of acidity.
Understanding what goes into a dish and how it’ll interact with a given wine is essential for any somm. For vegetarian somms, that may involve doing deeper reconnaissance on the dishes, such as asking the kitchen staff more questions about those that feature animal protein and paying extra attention to cooking methods, flavors, sauces, and textures. But otherwise, all of the usual techniques and training come into play to help create successful pairings.
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Zach Geballe is the sommelier at Seattle’s iconic Dahlia Lounge, the flagship of Tom Douglas Restaurants. He is also the wine educator for the Tom Douglas group, a freelance wine and spirits writer, and the host of the wine-focused podcast Disgorged.