Wine and Food Pairing Class at Yale

A veersion of this piece appeared in the Sommelier Journal in April 2012

Yale Wine and Food Pairing Seminar for Seniors 

Usually when we hear the words university and alcohol in one sentence we expect the news to be bad: wild parties, binge drinking and immature behavior.  But, of course, it does not have to be this way. That is why Yale University decided to be proactive and use wine and food pairing as a teachable opportunity. 

“Reality Bites” is a series of seminars created by Rafi Taherian, Yale’s Director of Food Service to prepare seniors for life after graduation. The first session was how to set up a basic kitchen. Others address formal business dining and etiquette, cooking locally in season, mixology, and wine and food pairing.  The latter was my assignment.

Because of my previous associations with Yale, working with Rafi on redesigning the salad bar in all twelve colleges, and because we had worked together at the CIA at Greystone he invited me to teach this session. Rafi knows my son Evan Goldstein, MS and had attended some of his wine seminars. He also knew of my passion for wine and food pairing and that I had created the recipes for Evan’s book Perfect Pairings. While having us both there to work with the seniors would have been the ideal setup, Evan was in Australia with the MS program, so it fell to me to   initiate the seniors into the world of fine dining and fun dining and to present wine in the context of a meal.    

First I asked for a list of wines that the university uses for its faculty catering events. I was hoping to select wines that were typical of their varietal, rather than odd balls. The inventory was somewhat limited but I was able to choose wines from their cellar except for the Pinot Noir which I asked them to purchase. Of course, there were budgetary constraints. The wines we had were Cava Segura Viudas brut, Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Macrostie Sonoma  Chardonnay 2009, Calera’s Central Coast Pinot Noir 2009 and a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from Buehler 2008.

Next I had to plan recipes versatile enough to work with at least two of the wines on the table. I wanted the food to be relatively easy to prepare ahead of time, with not too much a la minute tweaking, so as not to stress the catering team. I selected four dishes for the five wines. The first course was warm Gorgonzola custard with a salad of greens, pears and walnuts and walnut vinaigrette that used sherry and balsamic vinegars, no sharp red wine vinegar that would make the cheese and wines taste off. The second course was an herb and orange zest marinated fish on a bed of white beans. The third course was sauteed chicken with tomato sauce, pancetta, and basil. And the final course was a Sicilian lamb stew with red bell peppers and mushrooms

The venue for the tasting was the President’s Room at Woolsey Hall. The format was seven round tables each seating six. Over a hundred seniors had signed up but the room could not accommodate all of them.  

I then had some decisions to make on how to run this seminar. Because these students were super bright and inundated with paper work, I decided not to give hand outs describing each wine. I did not want them to spend time looking for characteristics that might not be present in our selected wines. I wanted this to be purely experiential. I would talk about each varietal in general terms, what range of foods they could be served with. I wanted them to taste each wine and to trust their own taste buds and form their own opinions, allowing for surprises and avoiding preconceptions. 

They were instructed to look at the wines’ color, to swirl, to sniff and then taste. We tasted the wines in sequence and talked about them .I solicited their impressions at every turn. After the initial tastings the food started to come out of the kitchen. What I wanted was for them to taste each dish with all of the wines to see what they liked and what they did not like. This is an old fashioned technique used in the 1970’s by Shirley Sarvis in her pioneering wine and food pairing classes at the Stanford Court Hotel. I gave them no caveats or preconditions of what was supposed to work with what.  

Their responses were right on the money. The Cava was ideal with the salad, better than any of the wines, and even better than the Sauvignon Blanc. The Cava’s previously undetected sweetness was revealed by the fruit in the salad and highlighted by the slightly funky cheese which they were previously wary of. Even though some of them did not like the Chardonnay upon the initial tasting, they enjoyed it with the fish. A few, however, liked the way the Pinot Noir picked up on the herbs in the marinade. Pinot Noir was their choice for the chicken, but some thought the Sauvignon Blanc worked well with the tomato sauce. And while the lamb stew was good with the Cabernet and the Pinot Noir as planned, many thought the Sauvignon Blanc was better in highlighting the peppers and the sauce, which unbeknownst to them had some white wine in the base.

Because I did not tell them what were supposed to be the best pairings, they created their own and trusted their palates. While most of them agreed on the most obvious matches, they were not afraid to like Sauvignon Blanc with lamb or Pinot Noir with fish. The evening ended with a raffle giveaway of five copies of Perfect Pairings and five bottles of wine. Everyone was happy. Later every senior who attended was sent copies of the recipes.

The senior in charge of coordinating this event wrote. “Last night was such a treat!! The food was delicious, the wine was great, and you taught me so much!!  However, I’m just so happy that the seniors who came got a chance to learn and be together in such a way. So often we forget about enjoyment, not only of the food we’re eating, or the alcohol we’re consuming, but also of learning and of the people around us. We let deadlines, stress and meetings take precedence! This event gave people an experience with enjoyment in a way we so rarely get around here– and it’s my hope that after seeing this, people will pursue it more and more often and create it as a possibility for their whole future.”  So be happy, sommeliers, that these are your future customers.

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