Pairing up: Just go for the pleasure

Although this confession will make me feel even more awkward and self-conscious, I have to admit that I haven't mastered the steps of pairing wine with food. Frankly, there just seems to be too many supposedly set-in-stone rules, and I'm too busy eating, drinking and dancing to memorize them.

OK. I am exaggerating about the dancing. In fact, I am about as good of a dancer as I am a taste matcher. Is that because of my physiology or IQ? If so, I can improve. But if success in these arenas depends on instinct, I'm lost.

Activities that should come naturally to me are a struggle. Just ask my long-suffering dance teacher, whom I'll call "Salsa John" only because he insists I don't use his last name. He tells me all the time that I need to shut down the analytical side of my brain and just go with what feels good. "Allow yourself to be guided," he says, grimacing and fighting off the death grip I have on his shoulders as I steer him into a wall.

Funny, when I quizzed Don Mixon of Madrone Mountain Winery and Jerry Evans of The Jacksonville Inn about wine pairing, they pretty much told me the same thing: Throw out the routine and just experience the pleasure.

Clutching my coveted bottle of 2008 Irvine Pinot Noir ($28) and feeling unsure about what to serve for my holiday dinner, I asked Mixon and Evans about their approaches to optimizing flavors in food and wine. Turns out, both men dance — well, drink — to a different beat.

"Some people are too opinionated on what the perfect parings are," says Evans, sitting outside his red-hued restaurant and wearing a tie with an image of Santa sledding down a candy cane. "I don't buy into that phony, sophisticated approach to wine. The rules may be that I must serve a white wine with salmon, but I prefer an Oregon pinot noir. And despite what critics say about it, the light, fruity Beaujolais nouveau is part of my holiday tradition."

Mixon, attorney-turned-winery owner that he is, wanted to explain how we ended up with some of the wine laws he likes to discard. He says that 300 years ago — he is thorough! — luxury foods were largely consumed by noble and gentry who also had the money to buy the best wines. This explains the long-held notion that oysters must be paired with Sauternes. "Personally, I'd rather have a muscadet or a Chablis with my oysters," says Mixon.

I spoke to Mixon and Evans independently, and both of them told me to listen to what the wine and food have to say — not bring any preconceived ideas into the process — and approach the activity from a sensual perspective. Again, echoes of what Salsa John told me a few hundred smashed feet ago.

Mixon goes one step further. He devises a "flavor map" to guide his wine-and-food duets. While drinking a 2010 Matrot Blanc de Bourgogne, he explains that on first sniff and taste, his brain detects oak, very ripe fruit and acid. He swallows, and the sensation of heat tells him that the alcohol is fairly high.

Then he starts over, reacting with his senses: The nose reminds him of buttered toast. As the wine enters his mouth, he thinks of tart, ripe, yellow plums. In the mid-palate, the minerality recalls the scent of classroom chalk, and the finish evokes memories of the beach and suntan oil. "I'm tasting and smelling coconuts," he says of the effect from toasted French oak barrels.

Retasting, he thinks about food: buttered toast = brown butter; minerals (chalk) = oysters or seaweed; fruits = yellow plums; coconut = toasted coconut.

From this, he creates a first course of poached oysters on buttered toast with diced yellow plum and coconut-vinegar mignonette. An entree could be skate wing in brown-butter sauce with yellow plum salsa and toasted coconut.

This flavor-mapping technique may take me some time. In the meantime, I will just apply what Salsa John tells me: Relax. Take small steps and practice, practice, practice.

EVENT: Karen Wickman of the Historic Prospect Hotel and Dinner House isn't a professionally trained chef, but she knows how to pack a restaurant. She relies on seasonal, comforting dishes made from scratch: "fresh, real, flavorful," she says. "No boxed or premade anything." For the soon-to-sell-out sixth annual Wine in the Woods ($75) Jan. 28, she'll prepare five courses to match wines from six Upper Rogue wineries. The appetizer will be house-smoked elk sausage, and dessert will include chocolate. Proceeds from the dinner support free, public harvest celebrations and other Second Saturday events at Upper Rogue wineries, vineyards and farms (

TASTED: With my New Year's resolution to sip more local, I promise not to drown out 2011 with my beloved Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin while warbling to Edith Piaf. Instead, I'll float into 2012 with sparklers and semisparklers made from Oregon-grown grapes. I'll pop an Argyle for "auld lang syne," then toast the Rogue's bounty with LongSword Vineyard Accolade ($20), Del Rio Rose Jolee ($15) and South Stage Cellars early muscat ($23). I will have to save my bottles from John Michael Champagne Cellars ($25 to $50) and Cuckoo's Nest Fizze ($13 for 500 milliliters) for summer's melon shooters and patiently wait until 2013 for Troon's brut to finish riddling. Happy New Year!

Reach columnist Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or email

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