This is a pairing story, in the end, but it begins with a bottle history. Nine years ago, in early 1998, after a catastrophic, soul-destroying breakup, a brief period of reflection, and the beginning of a promising new love, I moved into an apartment uphill from San Francisco’s Mission District. It was in a gorgeous old Victorian, pre-1906-earthquake, only blocks from my new love’s apartment—her name began with L—and I had two roommates. One of those roommates was Suzanne Groth, daughter of the Napa Valley’s Groth wine family.
Meanwhile, 3,000 miles away, in a fine Boston suburb, L’s father—still unknown to me, but a serious wine-lover—was buying and cellaring a magnum of Groth’s 1995 Cabernet Sauvignon (registration required).
Cut back to the Mission District: Suzanne turns out to be a great roommate, I love the apartment, and I fall completely in love with L. Horrid earlier-breakup long forgotten, hell-bitch ex-girlfriend now seeming an aberration, I propose to L and move into her tiny apartment and meet her father when he flies out to celebrate our engagement. Her mother is there, too, of course, but she’s not much into wine. Or at least not at my soon-to-be-father-in-law’s level.
Jump forward to 2005: L and I have a two-year-old daughter and another on the way, I positively love being married to L, and L’s parents have decided to sell the Boston place and retire to San Francisco. We’re all back in Boston in the weeks before the movers come, my father-in-law is concerned about transporting his considerable wine collection, and he hands me a bottle to carry to California on the plane: the magnum of Groth 1995 Cabernet Sauvignon. I’ve long since lost contact with Suzanne, but the bottle brings back powerful memories of that special moment—that blessed transition from bad-relationship hell to great-relationship joy.
Several months later, my father in law—now living in San Francisco—makes it clear that he considers that bottle a gift to me, and that I should enjoy it. So strong are my feelings around the bottle that I decide I should wait until I can cook a great dinner for my in-laws. A year passes, and the right dinner still hasn’t happened—although many other wonderful family dinners have. And then the bottle begins to seem a reproach: It is nearing the end of its reasonable cellaring period, I realize. In fact, it’s possible I’ve already missed the peak window. Anxiety rises. I tell myself I really must cook a special dinner.
Of course, I’m growing and evolving along with that wine, and I’m coming to feel what so many do: Drink the damn thing, whatever it is. Eat dessert first. When are we to live, if not now? So, one night, I’m down in the cellar fishing for a bottle. Friends are moving to Chicago soon—dear friends—and they’ve dropped by, last minute, for dinner. They’re not just friends, is the truth. L and I rent out a small apartment at the back of our house, and we’ve had a young couple there—M & F—for several years. They were on shaky terms when they arrived, and we didn’t know them well, but they’ve since gotten married and solidified their connection and we’ve all become great friends and M, in particular, has become a great wine-and-food buddy for me. So I’m going to miss them. And unfortunately, I’ve only had time to grab some great steaks at the store and whip up a salad. But suddenly, that Groth magnum is speaking to me. We’ll drink the whole thing in the spirit of fellowship and farewell! A last big vinous blowout for me and M!
And now for the pairing part: The wine’s tannins have receded into a restrained earthy quality, and its fruit has become surprisingly light and delicate, verging on crisp. Very strange. I’m loving the wine, of course—it’s wonderful stuff, by any measure, and we’re whipping through the magnum fast—but it’s a curiously delicate wine, after all these years. My steak, by contrast, is feeling too big and juicy. I don’t care much, because the food’s good and the wine’s great and the company’s better, but I’m taking notice: “Thought I had a good pairing here; turned out to be wrong.” Then I put out the salad. I had some gorgeous greens that night, from the farmers’ market, and I also had some truly outrageous strawberries, from a farmer I’ve known for 15 years. So I’d put the greens and strawberries together, and then balanced them out with some careful dressing work. And as soon as I took my first bite, I felt the curious tingle of surprise: 12 long years after its vintage, and 9 long years after I’d moved in with Suzanne Groth and found true love and then lost contact with Suzanne Groth, that grand Cabernet had somehow mellowed and brightened into an awe-inducing pairing for the strawberries. Or perhaps it was for the whole suite of flavors—the juicy steak leavened by crisp mizuna greens and simply brightened or accented by the strawberries. I’m not exactly sure. But whatever the answer, and whatever the role of the time and history and feeling that had gathered around that bottle as it aged and my life changed and the blessings piled up along with the pain, the pairing was pure magic and pure serendipity, the kind of thing I’ll never be able to plan and that I’ll always hope to savor again.