Successfully in the Red

Jeffery Lindenmuth / January 2007

When it comes to pairing wine with red meat, Jeffery Lindenmuth finds that red, in its many guises, still rules.

In 1935, E. J. Foote, in Will You Take Wine?, advised, "Serve claret with the meat courses, but never with fish. Game goes exceedingly well with claret, each flattering the other." This time-tested advice has served diners well. And while Bordeaux remains flattering to red meat, America, too, has proved full of complements, in the form of robust Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from the Napa Valley. Some 70 years later, these West Coast reds have become the standard with game and prime beef in American restaurants. And now, with the floodgates of red wine from around the world thrown open, "red with meat" is no longer an admonishment, but a celebratory cry, as sommeliers play matchmaker with this mutually magnetic pair.

At Michael Jordan's Steakhouse in the Mohegan Sun hotel and casino in Uncasville, Connecticut, general manager/wine director Mia McSherry finds some of today's California Cabernets to be of such massive proportion they dwarf the flavor of even hefty slabs of beef. "When you're having those big Cabs, sometimes they overpower the steak flavor," she says.

While their 300-bottle list remains entrenched in California Cabernet territory, McSherry likes to steer diners toward red blends, as well as Mourvèdre and Pinot Noir, especially to fraternize with the more nuanced flavors of the house "cowboy" steak. "That steak is multiflavored with chocolate mole sauce, a watercress/horseradish crust, and caramelized onion, so I like a lighter style wine because I want to taste the flavors." As the steakhouse list continues to grow, McSherry drives forward with one eye toward the classics, Bordeaux, and the other toward the frontier, Argentina. She's particularly fond of Viña Cobos Malbec, the result of an Argentinean exploit by California vintner Paul Hobbs, and the Cabernet Sauvignon dominated Château Cos-d'Estournel from Bordeaux.

Tim Love, chef/owner of The Lonesome Dove Western Bistro in Fort Worth, and who recently opened a second location in Manhattan, says he started off with basic red meat and familiar gamebirds, offering steak and the occasional quail, but having earned the trust of patrons now proffers lamb, red deer, wild boar, and kangaroo. "I think when you get into the leaner red meats, like buffalo and the red deer from New Zealand and some of the carefully managed lamb, it pushes you to get into these alternative red wines. With lean meat and less fat, the wine doesn't have to be as strong on the palate," says Love, who personally oversees the wine programs at his restaurants.

With lamb, he particularly enjoys GSM (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre) blends, especially those of Grant Burge in the Barossa Valley and Voyager Estate in Western Australia. As alternatives to beef and Napa Cabernet, "still the standard," Love recommends Cabernet Sauvignon from Washington State and the south of Oregon, where he is especially fond of Troon Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Biscuit Fire Reserve 2002. Love even dictates the creation of his own red blend, "Two T's," which is made for him by Napa's Trefethen Vineyards. The blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petit Verdot sells for $58 at his restaurants.

At FlatIron Grill, a casual steakhouse in Calistoga, California, general manager/wine buyer Lance Orton says that even within their California-centric list, including a page called Calistoga Neighbors saluting local wineries, he sees patrons looking beyond Cabernet Sauvignon. "A lot of people are getting into Pinot Meunier, Cabernet Franc, and Mourvèdre. We offer Jade Mountain Mourvèdre 2004, which is great with filet. It costs us $12 a bottle, and it sells really well by the glass for $8.50," says Orton.

Since adding such off-the-beaten-path varietal wines as Marshall Family Cab Franc and Domaine Chandon Pinot Meunier, Orton says diners and winemakers alike have taken notice of the by-the-glass program: "Our by-the-glass sales are stronger than ever because we've added better, more interesting wines. The distributors and winemakers are excited about getting their wines in front of the general public this way."

At Brannan's Grill, a sister restaurant to Flatiron Grill in Calistoga, general manager/wine director Joann Adams says steak and Cab reign supreme, but red meat and wine might also mean rabbit alla bolognese with pan-seared gnocchi paired with Pinot Noir. "The dish is rich and savory rather than spicy, with very lean meat, and many people order it instead of a steak. It's something that sets us apart," says Adams.

For rib eye and hanger steak diehards, Adams adds adventure to the meal by suggesting a red blend over the default Cabernet: "People are looking for something very special. I often don't put a wine on the menu because they love learning about something that not everyone has access to." One such under-the-radar wine that has proved to be a hit with steak lovers is Miner Family Vineyards Oracle ($90), a Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc.

With a résumé that includes the inauguration of the all-American wine list for Smith & Wollensky, Danielle Price, wine director for Wynn Las Vegas, says with aplomb, "I know my cuts of steak pretty well." And for the Wynn property SW Steakhouse at Wynn she has assembled a list of enviable reds including numerous vintages of cult Cabernet Screaming Eagle, first-growth Bordeaux Château Lafite-Rothschild, and Rhône gem Guigal La Turque, all priced with three zeros. "The steakhouse is the home for these types of big wines," says Price. "We have the clientele who drinks these wines all the time. Steak is a power dinner, and people want trophy wines."

And to that end, chef David Walzog seems content to let the wines lead the way. "The customers want you to not pull too many surprises. Even if it's a traditional item, it can be the best somebody's ever had, and we work at winning at that," says Walzog.

In the case of pairing red meat and red wine, there's little truth to the idea that opposites attract. They remain the ultimate power couple, the tannin of the wine slicing the fat of the meat and readying the palate for another bite. "When you talk about food and wine," says Price, "there's still nothing better than a perfectly grilled steak with a glass of red wine."