On November 16th 2012, I had the pleasure to sit down one-on-one with Jerry Comfort and let him take me through the intricacies of pairing wine with food. We met at the Westin Harbourfront Castle Hotel, shook hands and sat down around a low-laying table set with three glasses filled with water and white and red wines, aside was a plate with sliced red apple, lemon wedge and a salt shaker. I knew that we’ll be talking about pairing food with wine or pairing wine with food, but I didn’t expect a demonstration and certainly didn’t expect the presentation that followed, but before getting into that, I need to take a step back.
Jerry Comfort is a chef and a culinary master – it is not his profession, it is who he is and who he was born to be.
I asked Mr. Comfort “please tell me what were the events that led you to where you are today and what were the defining moments and people who shaped your career”. As he began to reply my question, he started off by humbly mentioning that he was lucky, that he always was at the right place at the right time. He moved to San Francisco in the late 70’s and took part in what became known as the ‘food revolution’ that resulted in so-called ‘Californian Cuisine’ and changed the way America ate. He worked at places that were instrumental in this movement – at Masa’s Restaurant together with Masa Kobayashi and then at Fournou’s Ovens family restaurant in 5-star Stanford Court Hotel. After some time, he decided to move to Napa to start a family and raise his two daughters. In Napa, Mr. Comfort worked in Domaine Chandon winery, before joining the Beringer Vineyards in 1991 as the executive chef of the Hudson House Culinary Arts Center also overseeing Chateau Souverain’s hospitality and restaurant. There, he worked together with Madeline Kamman – prominent chef and one of the defining people in his life. In the year 2000 he was promoted to Culinary Director of Foster’s Wine Estates Americas now Treasury Wine Estates (Beringer Vineyard’s parent company) and since 2004, Mr. Comfort is a director of department devoted to educating employees and consumers about wine and its relationship with food.
When it comes to wine-related achievements, Mr. Comfort’s decorations are just as colourful. He took classes at UC Davis, completed WSET, became certified wine educator and in 2003 completed the Master Sommelier Level 1 course of Court of Master Sommelier Programme.
Mr. Comfort started off by explaining that when it comes to wine with food pairings, there are preconceived, generalized notions like white wine goes with white meat, red wine with red meat – so-called ‘mirroring method’; or the ‘hit-or-miss’ method – Italian wine pairs well with Italian food, basically suggesting that food and wine from the same region go well together. Though these methods work most of the time, they don’t explain how they work, which becomes important in case the pairing is off. This is exactly what Mr. Comfort was pondering about and what made him break it down into basic components – essentially noting the science behind successful food and wine pairing. He published his work as ‘The Progressive Wine and Cheese Pairing Wheel’, ‘The Progressive Wine List’ and ‘The Progressive Food Menu’.
“Pair to the taste, not the flavour” – Jerry Comfort
Tastes stimulated by food react with tastes set-off by wine and either compliment or clash with each other – that is exactly what was shown to me with the sweet apple, lemon wedge and salt. Mr. Comfort began his demonstration “On a clean palate, take a sip of the oaked Founder’s Estate Chardonnay to see what the winemaker’s intention was when making this wine; what do you think? Now, take a small bite of the apple and tell me what you get”. “Wow, the tannins are now dominating the wine, the fruit is gone and all I get is acidity and strong tannins” – I replied. “Wash your palate and take a sip again”. “The original harmony of wine’s fruit, acidity and buttery oak is restored to what it was during the first sip” – I noted. “Try it now with the oak aged Founder’s Estate Cabernet Sauvignon”. We repeated this demonstration for both wines with the sweet apple, lemon and salt individually as well as doing combinations of apple-lemon and all three together, each time discussing how food’s taste affected the wine.
He then went on to explain that there are five categories of wine that have to be matched up with our five tastes – the off dry to sweet whites (sugar and acid), the dry whites (acid), the oaked whites (complexity, acid and tannins), the mild reds (mild acid, mild tannins) and the oaked reds (complexity and tannins). When it comes to food, each bite excites a combination of taste buds sensing saltines, sweetness, sourness, bitterness and protein/ – ‘pleasant savoury taste’ in Japanese, identified in 1908 by Kikunae Ikeda as a taste activated by the presence of L-glutamine – an amino acid abundant in protein rich foods. Tastes are not perceived equally, though all receptors may get activated equally, our brains will perceive them in an intensity hierarchy – bitterness > sourness > sweetness > saltines > umami. However, at unequal concentrations, some tastes can overpower/dull the sensation of others – salt dulls bitterness and counteracts sourness or sweet dulls sourness, while other tastes enhance others – salt enhances umami or sourness enhances bitterness, etc. Also, a taste can be desensitized, so called ‘taste saturation’ – e.g. sour food will drown the acidity in wine.
“Perfect food and wine pairing doesn’t exist, what exists is personal perfect pairing” – Jerry Comfort.
Knowing patron’s food and wine choice, a skilled chef can pair any wine with most foods by adjusting the acidity, salt level or the sweetness. Successful wine and food pairing is what distinguishes extraordinary dining experience from good dining experience, or what separates two neighbouring restaurants that utilize the same produce. The customer will leave completely satisfied without even knowing why. Mr. Comfort noted.
I asked Mr. Comfort what his ‘best’ or ‘preferred’ food and wine pairings are; after asking the second time without getting an answer, I realized that this is too simple of and too one-dimensional of a question. If I was to get an answer, it would surely be – I don’t have one, why limit myself when there are countless possibilities.
Also, I wanted to know what is Mr. Comfort’s opinion on ‘pairing food with wine’ vs. ‘pairing wine with food’. He told me: “Well, it depends, some customers come in and they have their mind-set on say a steak, while other customers will come in and open the wine menu before even looking at the food. It is then up to the server to knowledgeably suggest either the wine or the food”.
As I was leaving, I felt enlightened, yet at the same time humbled, I thought I would be told ‘this wine goes well with this food’, but instead I was shown the science behind why certain food and wine pairings work, while others don’t. Though I already know it, I think one day I will be able to say: “I met Jerry Comfort and he was one of the defining people in my life”.
I would like to express my gratitude to Jerry Comfort for his time and for the enjoyable afternoon – thank you. I also can’t thank Tammy Hackett enough (Canada PR Associate for Treasury Wine Estates) for setting this up, cheers.