Joey Altman only meant to do his job when he took my call about pairing wine with grilled meat and fish. I had a big barbecue coming up, two couples with kids invited to the Napa place for the weekend, and Joey got roped in via my friends at Diageo—a transnational wine-and-spirits conglomerate you’ve probably never heard of, but that owns a ridiculous number of the world-famous booze brands you see in every liquor store everywhere from Hollywood to Houston to Hanoi, along with a lot of good wineries.
A dear friend runs the PR shop for Diageo’s wine labels. A lunatic, this friend—sportfisherman, hell-for-leather skier, Costco obsessive (it’s a long story, but it involved haunting multiple Costcos day after day, in multiple cities)—he’s also a ferocious lover of wine. Got me started buying by the case; brought mind-blowing bottles to my dinner parties.
When I told him about my upcoming weekend barbecue, he did what people in communications at companies like Diageo can do, when they’re feeling extra nice: He got me Joey Altman’s phone number. Altman is what you might call a fixture on the Bay Area restaurant scene, having cooked in a lot of great kitchens, hosted his own TV show for years, and founded a casual crêpe place, Ti Couz, that has become a mainstay of San Francisco Mission District nightlife. (My wife and I ate at Ti Couz on our first date.)
Not only did my friend hook me up with Altman; he also arranged delivery of the following wines:
Provenance Sauvignon Blanc
Sterling Sauvignon Blanc
Acacia Pinot Noir
Edna Valley Chardonnay
Edna Valley Pinot Noir
Trimbach Pinot Blanc
Chalone Pinot Noir
Bistro Pinot Noir
Canoe Ridge Merlot
Sagelands Cabernet Sauvignon
In addition to his TV show, Joey has a solid corporate gig: He does “education” work for Diageo. As far as I can tell, this means that he prepares menus and cooks meals for a huge range of winery functions and tastings, working endlessly in that interesting intersection of wine and food. It also means that he’s nice to people like me, who call looking for tips. So nice, in fact, that he offered to pop over and help with the grill. And when I confessed that the barbecue wasn’t at my place in San Francisco, and was instead in Napa, I think Altman was simply too polite to change his mind.
So there he was, at a table of strangers, on a warm midsummer’s night. And here’s what he had to say: When you’re matching wine to grilled foods, things are much less complicated than you might imagine, and a few tweaks can make almost any pairing work. The core insight, as Altman laid it out for us, is that flavor can be thought of the way you’d think of music, with the various components working like the levers on a graphic equalizer. You’ve got your bass notes, your midrange, and your treble notes, and if you make sure a food has all three, you’re going to be able to match almost any wine at all. I had some filet mignon, for example, and Altman’s take was that filet by itself shows excellent bass and midrange, and not much treble, so of course it’s a natural for those big, deep reds on my lineup of wines. On the other hand, if we brought up the treble with an acidic sauce or vegetable preparation, that Provenance Sauvignon Blanc would play a great melody atop the meat’s rumbling rhythm section. By contrast, Altman talked about ceviche: bright treble, but no bass, mostly chile and lime juice, meaning you’d pair it with the crisp, bright Trimbach and stay away from something like a buttery Chardonnay. But if you grilled the fish a little first, to bring in some basslike earth flavors, and did the same to the peppers and onions, lowering their musical register before mixing everything together, then you’d have a ceviche ready to pair with a much wider range of wines. And so on, with the following emerging as the night’s basic recommendations:
Tuna Steaks (if very simply prepared): Provenance Sauvignon Blanc, Sterling Sauvignon Blanc, Acacia Pinot Noir
Tuna Steaks (if grilled and served with aioli of some kind or a light cream-based sauce): Edna Valley Chardonnay, Trimbach Pinot Blanc
Salmon in Foil (prepared with lemon and butter): Acacia Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, Chalone Pinot Noir, Edna Valley Chardonnay or Pinot Noir
Italian Sausage: BV Zinfandel or Beauzeaux, Bistro Pinot Noir, Canoe Ridge Merlot
Burgers and Dogs: BV Zinfandel or Beauzeaux, Bistro Pinot Noir, Sagelands Cabernet Sauvignon