Learning about pairing with Vermont Wine Merchants' Mike Stolese
Vermont Wine Merchants ’ co-owner Mike Stolese didn’t go to school to learn about pairing wine and food — he learned it in the trenches. “I grew up in the restaurant industry,” he explains. “My father had restaurants, I owned a small pub.” Being friends with foodies has helped, too. “Having people over once and twice a week and doing cheese-and-wine dinners, you learn a lot through experimentation,” Stolese notes.
With Vermont Restaurant Week  right around the corner, we decided to ask Stolese for some tips on pairing wine and food. He’ll be a special guest at a dinner at 156 Bistro  that features wines from The Other Guys  — a label Vermont Wine Merchants distributes in the state — that go perfectly with the young restaurant’s contemporary American fare.
What are some basic principles when pairing wine with a meal?
You can either complement [the food] or go in the complete opposite direction. There are two answers for everything. It makes it fun; and it makes you not be wrong!
Do you think consumers know more about wine pairing than they used to?
I do, and I guess I have to give the Internet a lot of credit for that. A lot of people will go online and put in a wine pairing. Maybe they’re doing a steak au poivre, and it’s so easy to punch it into the computer and see what’s a good wine choice.
[At a grocery store], most of the “shelf talkers” we try to put out give a flavor profile, and I like to put on two or three pairing [suggestions]. It can be very intimidating walking into a store that has 600 to 700 bottles of wine, so the shelf talkers are very important, as are the people on the floor.
Can you suggest some surefire matches for newbies?
We’re coming into summer so we’re talking barbecue. Zinfandel is a no-brainer if you’re gonna throw a steak on the grill or barbecue ribs. There’s a power and a level of spiciness to zinfandel that holds up to whatever comes off the grill.
If you’re throwing on scallops, I’d probably lean toward something that has some acid, a verdicchio or a vermentino. They have a saline edge, and the good ones have some acidity. They’ll cut through whatever fat is going with that dish.
The hardest thing about this is sauces. If you’re throwing scallops on the grill it’s easy, but if there’s a marinade, it’s harder.
Have you ever tried a pairing that failed spectacularly?
Yes, actually. We had a super-strong soft cheese paired with a New Zealand sauvignon blanc, and it turned the sauvignon blanc undrinkable — the flavor profile [of the cheese] just trashed it. A vinho verde or a sparkling wine would have worked beautifully.
How do things work when you visit a restaurant client?
It depends on how comfortable they are with wine. At L’Amante  and Trattoria Delia they have very strong wine backgrounds, so they’ll say they’re looking for wines that fall into specific flavor profiles.
Others will leave it more up to me, and I love the challenge. We’ll look at menus and try to find things that will pair well. If it’s an Italian restaurant that has a lot of tomato-based pasta dishes, you’ll go with things like Chianti or barbera.
I’ll go with what I think will work perfectly, but I’ll also bring two, three, four options, because everybody’s palate is different. We let their palates do the talking. Wine’s one of those industries where it’s very palate specific. What I think might be perfect, they might think is a little too intense.
Did you help with the pairings for the 156 Bistro dinner?
Kevin [DesChenes] built a menu after trying the wines. We were sitting there [tasting], had a little bit of a dialogue, and came up with some great pairings.
Normally the food comes first and you pair the wine to the food. This was a little different, but not that uncommon, especially if the chef knows something about wine. Kevin really ran with this.
Is there a course at the 156 Bistro dinner you’re most excited about?
The petite filet with the crispy shallots is going to rock. And cabernet [with chocolate and black-cherry bread pudding] is very fun. It’s not a typical dessert wine, but cab with chocolate is great, and black cherry is one of the flavor profiles of a cabernet, anyway. That’s one of those things that pairs [similar flavors in the wine and food] rather than oppos[es].