Several years ago, I tagged along as my new husband’s +1 at a business dinner hosted by a bunch of bankers. I had no business being there, of course. I begged to come because Michael Voltaggio was going to be our private chef for the evening. High from his recent Top Chef win albeit laying low and keeping mum while the TV show aired, Mr. Voltaggio was biding his time with a stint at The Dining Room in Pasadena’s Langham Hotel. He prepared 7 intricate and visually stunning courses. Though I only have a specific recollection of some spherical thing that exploded in my mouth with a grape jelly-like goo, I do remember the food was beautiful, precise, delectable, and so expertly plated that I hesitated ruining its artistry with my clumsy fork.
Though dinner was exciting enough, the hero of the evening who saved us from uncomfortable dinner conversation about the sinking economy was our host and sommelier Anthony Giglio. He was brilliant: instructive but funny, serious but unpretentious. While I would be hard-pressed to remember any of the wines I sampled that evening (my husband remembers a wonderful Hawkes Bay Syrah), his philosophy and approach to wine is what stuck with me years later.
When he posed the question, “what is wine?” to our table of esteemed guests, responses included “an alcoholic beverage,” “nectar of the gods,” “poetry in a bottle,” and other such familiar retorts. But Mr. Giglio’s answer surprised me. “Wine is a condiment.” He explained that on his family’s dinner table (Italian family hailing from New Jersey), the wine was stationed next to the vinegar, olives, and oil. Never treated as a glass idol to be worshipped, wine was another condiment intended to make food taste better. Plain and simple, and spot on. Since that remarkable dinner, I try to approach each wine drinking opportunity with his philosophy in mind.
Wine is, and always has been, meant to be enjoyed with food. Sure, a glass of wine can stand alone as an after work wind down, but its real purpose is to complement what you are eating. As the self-proclaimed “wine wise guy” explained, in its basic form, the acid in wine brings balance to the fat in food. Consider a dull piece of fish, brought to life with a simple squeeze of lemon. Or the classic French fry, elevated to sublime when slathered in ketchup. Acid and fat. Finding the balance between the two is the key. (Eventually you can throw tannins, alcohol, and other things into the equation but let’s not get ahead of ourselves).
There are those who take pleasure in elevating and revering wine to such an extent that it seems unapproachable and snobbish to the rest of us. It needn’t be. Whether you’re enjoying foie gras toast paired with a decades old Sauternes, a honkin’ rib eye with an equally meaty Cab, or a bag of Doritos with a cheap bottle of Pinot, let the wine be your condiment at any meal you deem fit, even if it’s a Tuesday night. Wine can be as special or as habitual as you’d like (in moderation of course).
At our family’s dinner table, we typically enjoy a moderately priced bottle with our fish and chicken dishes during the week, and a special occasion red with our grilled meats on the weekend. Wine adds interest to both our meals and dinner conversations. Even our children, at 2 and 4 years old, have fun sniffing our glasses, picking out the notes (“carrots,” “strawberries,” “pee pee”), and joining the conversation. We talk about what we smell, what we taste, and how the wine enhances what we’re eating (no one is ever wrong). And while we devote a noticeable portion of our grocery budget to wine, if I’m going to the trouble of cooking dinner, I like to think my effort should be rewarded by popping open my favorite condiment.