By Troy Knapp
The process of winemaking, essentially, is quite simple; these miraculous berries almost ferment themselves, with their natural yeast on the outside and the sugars and juice on the inside. When simply crushed, the elements combine and under the right environment can produce something that is mysterious and seductive.
Such a simple process, and the end result can yield extreme complexity in the glass. “Notes of caramel, butterscotch and honey with hints of orange blossom and baking spices, minerality and tropical fruit backed by racy acidity and a long finish that is dry on the palate” — that’s why it’s wine for me. Don’t get me wrong, a hand-crafted beer or cocktail can be quite delicious; however, wine is unique and its relation to food unparalleled.
The more I’ve learned about wine, the more I was seduced: intrigued to a level of excessiveness. As a chef, I felt this was crucial in the pursuit of a heightened experience. It was clear to me, that even if I perfected a dish, it is void of its overall pinnacle that only wine could provide. It was the theory of 1 + 1 = 3. I needed to know more. I started studying and, of course, tasting, quite a bit! Homework has never been so much fun. I had been in the hotel business for 20 years and had always enjoyed a great glass of wine. I had cooked for my fair share of winemaker dinners, lived close to the Central Coast wine region in California, which I visited regularly.
For all intents and purposes, I thought I was pretty well versed on wine. All that changed when I sat in a Las Vegas classroom with the Court of Master Sommeliers for the level one exam. Two days of high intensity lectures, blind tastings and service skills, all culminated with a theory exam that shook me up pretty good. I passed; however, at that moment I realized that although I had been around wine in a fairly high capacity for years, I had never truly actively studied it. If I wanted to learn and delve deeper into my passion I would have take this seriously and dedicate myself to a strict study regimen. There were doubts. Where would I fit this in to my already crazy life of being an executive chef, where a 65- to 70-hour work week was considered normal and still be a good spouse and a dedicated father to my two young children? My wife was extremely supportive and truly became my coach. I worked like crazy to absorb as much as I could to prepare for the next step.
Flash-forward one year later and I was on a flight to Seattle for the level two certification exam from the Court of Master Sommeliers. Everything I had worked for over the course of the previous year came down to one day of testing. The countless hours of studying, blind tasting and absorbing paid off; I passed the exam and was able to return home with the title of Certified Sommelier. Studying and tastings are now a routine part of my life and continued education will always be important in my passion for food and wine.
Wine pairing can be simple or complex, it all depends on how deep you want to go. A few common “safe” rules can take you far and faithfully deliver a consistent result. However, by delving deeper and taking a leap of faith, you just may create an experience of sheer and spectacular brilliance. This column will explore food and wine pairing possibilities, but more so, inspire you to go outside your comfort zone in the effort to create memorable and lasting experiences.
As the actor W.C. Fields said, “I cook with wine. Sometimes I even add it to the food.” Cheers!
Troy Knapp is executive chef at the Hyatt Hill Country Resort, including Antlers Lodge. He’s also a Certified Sommelier and Certified Specialist of Wine.