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Sommelier Josh Wesson leads Taste of Vail seminar Saturday

Brenda Himelfarb
Daily Correspondent
Josh Wesson teaches participants how to pair wine and food at his April 11 Taste of Vail seminar.
Special to the Weekly |

If you go ...

What: Josh Wesson’s “Many Sips to Enlightenment” seminar, part of the Taste of Vail. takes place on Saturday, April 11, from 1 to 2:30 p.m. at Reservations required. See http://www.tasteofvail.com for more information.

Where: Cucina Rustica at the Lodge at Vail.

When: 1 to 2:30 p.m. Saturday.

Cost: $65.

More information: Visit http://www.tasteofvail.com.

At Taste of Vail today, sommelier Josh Wesson will present a seminar — titled “Many Sips to Enlightenment” — that will have guests eating, drinking and thinking about the blending of food and wine; what works best and why.

“One of the points that I’m going to make, is that there’s no one route to deliciousness,” Wesson said.

As Wesson tells it, his romance with wine began between college and graduate school when he “fell in” with an up-and-coming chef in Boston, who was putting together a restaurant called Panache.

“I helped stucco the walls and install the sinks and became part of this wonderful cooking family,” explained Wesson, a noted wine and food guru. “It was a great restaurant; open seven days a week, only for dinner, except for Sunday, when we did brunch. And it became incredibly important in shaping my attitude and taste toward great food and wonderful wine.

“For the first six months, we didn’t have a liquor license, so people brought their own bottles and would leave whatever they didn’t finish. So, my wine education really came in the form of these orphan bottles that were left in the restaurant as when people go to these ‘BYOB’ restaurant. They usually bring extraordinary wine because they’re not paying an extra cost. Almost every night, there would be close to a dozen wines for me to try. Then, I was able to go to France and look at the vineyards where I saw it all come to life and was able to taste incredible things. It was a remarkable transformative experience, which changed me forever.”

Wesson went on to graduate school in Rochester, New York, where “the height of gastronomy was chicken wings, and I couldn’t take it,” he said.

So Wesson dropped out of school, went back in the restaurant business in Manhattan at a place called The Quilted Giraffe, which, at the time, was the highest rated restaurant in the U.S. He worked his way up through the stations and ultimately became an assistant sommelier. Eventually, as Wesson puts it, he got his “15 minutes of fame,” when, in 1984, he won the Best Sommelier in America competition that the French government created.

“The rest is sort of my food and wine history,” Wesson said, with a smile. “And I never looked back.”

‘TRY WILDLY DIFFERENT WINES’

Over the years, Wesson has educated a coterie of wine and food lovers with his exceptional knowledge.

“I’ve done a seminar called ‘Is the Price Right?’ for, probably, 15 years,” said Wesson. “The seed of the seminar is that it’s very difficult to connect the price of wine to the quality of the wine in the glass. I pick 10 wines that are excellent examples of their type and wines that range from $10 to $100 a bottle — from sparkling to still, from white to red, that come from 10 different places in the world. The challenge is to taste the wine and attach a price tag to the individual glass. The best anyone has done over the course of the years that I’ve done this seminar is six out of 10. It’s just an impossible task because there’s no direct relationship between what you pay and the pleasure you receive.”

At today’s Taste of Vail seminar, Wesson hopes to open people’s minds — and palates — to the possibilities of wine and food pairings.

“My seminar will be about how wildly different wines can take the same food through different directions of deliciousness,” he said. “I’m going to begin with cheese — and then I’m going to make it more complex. The second food will be a little pile of pulled pork with a tangy barbecue sauce and I’m going to serve an off-dry white wine, and off-dry rose and a medium bodied, fruity red wine. And each one of them is going to reference a different taste in the pulled pork. It’s fun to try wildly different wines that come to a dish from different angles, in completely different ways.”

The fun continues with dessert.

“I’m going to finish with a bittersweet chocolate cake and have a dry pink cabernet, a sparkling shiraz, a sweet sherry and a port — and each one of these wines is going to hit the chocolate in a different way,” he said. “The wine is going to highlight different things in the food, and the food is going to highlight different things in the wine. Who’s to say which of the wines is the most delicious? But, one thing I can guarantee is that they’re all delicious. It’s going to be a lot of fun to have that kind of dialogue going on.”

Vail Daily: What wine goes with what, and why?

Josh Wesson: So often, the protein is secondary in terms of importance in the wine. More important is the wine matching to the way the food is prepared? As an example: pan blackening is a cooking technique as well as a seasoning technique. It you pan blackened pork, or lamb, or tilapia or salmon or chicken breast, the same wine is going to go with those proteins because you’re matching it to the seasoning and the cooking technique rather than the protein itself. So, you tell me how you’re cooking the lamb, and I can give you a better idea of what wine to match with it.

VD: What makes a wine the best?

JW: The notion of best is somewhat problematic when it comes to wine. There are extraordinary wines being made all over the world in any given year and many could vie for the position of being the best. There are no objective criteria for judging what the best is. What goes into making a wine extraordinary is the confluence of factors, some of which are controlled by a great winemaker and some that have to do with the luck of nature blessing a vintage with perfect weather conditions.

VD: How much does one have to pay for a good bottle of wine?

JW: A couple of years ago, I had three winemakers on a panel talking about what the absolute, maximum amount of money that could be lavished on a given bottle of wine — if you picked the best land, and you chose the best wine material and nurtured it in the best way and you harvested it by hand, and you used the best barrels and the best fermentation tanks and if everything could be absolutely state-of-the-art. And the answer came back that, including the bottles, the label and the cork; you could not spend more than $20 on a bottle of wine. No matter what you did to it, you couldn’t get a wine to cost more than that. So, if the maximum amount that you put into a bottle is $20, there’s no maximum amount you can charge for it. Connecting those two things becomes a pretty difficult proposition. I find that fascinating and I’ve devoted my professional life seeking out what that is. The sweet spot at a retail level, for finding wines that over-deliver is probably $15 to $25 — and you can dink richly. I think that’s where you get the biggest bang for your buck. If I had to spend the rest of my professional like dinking wines in that price range, I would not be an unhappy person, by any stretch. I’d be very happy!

VD: What do you like to drink?

JW: I’m an equal opportunity drinker. I love whites as much as I love red wines. I love rosés. I drink rosé all year long. I love sparkling wine, I love still wine, I love fortified wines. I really like the fact that wine is so multi-faceted and that so many different things can affect the way that a given wine tastes. It’s just endless and interesting to me. If you were to look in my refrigerator you would see wines from Austria next to a wine from Finger Lakes, next to wines from France, New Zealand. I recently tasted wines from Georgia and Long Island that were outstanding. Cabernet Franc is sort of emerging as the “go to” red wine. I’m completely enamored by wines that come from all sorts of places. So I don’t have favorites. I’m just open to deliciousness. It gets more compelling and interesting for me in each passing year. I’m always playing catch up.


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