Traditionalists don’t like it, people from the old school won’t do it, and I once had a legendary chef scold me for attempting it. Pairing red wine with fish, is it that scary of a thought?
If you don’t know me, I am not a chef, a traditionalist, or old-school, so I answer this question with an emphatic no! We do not have predetermined rules outlined by our ancestors. We also, as a melting pot nation, have access to wide varieties of cultural cuisines and beverages alike. So why stick to old stuffy rules?
We here at Restaurant Marc Forgione do not. With that being said I still get looks of bewilderment, dismissive head shakes, and even blatant questioning of my decision every time I bring out a red wine with a fish course.
Years ago, I was turned onto the idea while working with what I consider one of the best to ever button up chef whites, Gray Kunz. He served a branzino with a "pinot noir reduction." When I paired red wine with this dish at our private chefs table, he quickly informed me I better prove to him I know what I am doing before taking such risks on his loyal followers paying seriously for a Kunz-cooked meal. Another thing chef Kunz loved to pair with fish was kokum. This is a fruit from a plant in India that has been steeped in alcohol and dried. He liked this in small amounts on top of fish with sweet flavor profiles, like steamed black bass. What struck me is the kokum was bitter but also very astringent, just like tannins in a red wine. So then why couldn’t this dish support a red wine in place of the kokum?
Working with Marc Forgione is a pleasure because he is not only open but excited about new and fun ways to eat and drink. When I was hired to open his first restaurant we spent a lot of time experimenting with different food and beverage combinations. Over the years one of his fish dishes became so popular it found itself a staple here. The fish is a thick cut of Atlantic halibut that has been crusted in bread and served over cauliflower purée with sauce proposal. Sauce proposal is the key here; rich, tangy, salty. The sauce is then mounted with hazelnuts, golden raisins, and cauliflower fleurettes. This dish not only works with red wine, it excels with it. So two years ago we debuted the pairing at The James Beard House and served my dear friend Jamey Whetstone’s "Whetstone Wine Cellars, Jon Boat" pinot noir, from the Sonoma Coast in California.
The pairing was met with rave reviews and we never looked back. This is the standing fish dish on our tasting menu and we currently serve a different pinot noir: 2010 Alain Gueneau, Sancerre Rouge, Loire Valley, France. I still get the looks, but they change a lot after the first bite and sip.
Matthew Conway is the creator of www.underripe.com, a wine-focused website geared towards the under ripe millennial generation. He serves as general manager / sommelier at Restaurant Marc Forgione. Conway is also a writer currently on the editorial advisory board for Boulder, Colo.-based Sommelier Journal.