Wining and dining: What to pair and how to diversify your palate

Lakeside at the Lone Eagle Grille perfectly seared sea scallops are paired with chardonnay for a light, summer meal. Contributed Photo: Lone Eagle Grille
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in the Summer 2018 edition of Tahoe Magazine. It was first published on this website in August 2018 and is presented in its original form.

Summer weather in Lake Tahoe calls for long days spent outside, plenty of down time for relaxation, enjoying friends and loved ones — and, of course, savoring bright and refreshing wines.

As you spend your days making memories at the beach, on the water and from elegant dining locales, it’s important to explore beyond the typical go-to options in order to get the most out of your cuisine experience.

And to do so, you basically need to throw everything you know about wine out the window. To take your pairing game to the next level, experts say the stereotypes of yesteryear no longer apply. Put simply: If you like it, drink it.

Gone are the days of pairing fish only with whites, steak only with reds and saving bubbles for a special occasion. These days, Tahoe-Truckee wine aficionados agree: The name of the game is accessibility, inclusion and appreciation for delicious flavors that don’t come at too high of a price.

This new generation of wine connoisseurs is spoiled by the availability of international varietals and encouraged to taste their way around the world with the people they like and love, because that is what wine is intended for.

Outdoor fun & games … and cheese & wine

Truckee River Winery suggests taking your pairing experience to the outdoors for a day of games paired with flights of various wines and charcuterie snacks. Contributed Photo: Truckee River Winery

Take a page from Truckee River Winery’s book and invite your friends and family to spend the day enjoying the backyard with lawn games, great company and delicious snacks.

Truckee River Winery knows all about soaking up the sunshine and participating in a little friendly competition on their bocce courts. The winery’s general manager and winemaker, Katy Carroll Jones, often helps guests organize appetizer evenings and pairing options.

“We have a large variety of cheeses, salami, cured meats and pickled veggies to produce the perfect charcuterie and cheese plate,” Jones said.

In the interest of accommodating a slew of wine and dining preferences, Jones recommends creating a smorgasbord of tasty crackers, cheeses, various toppings, veggies and fruit for your guests to arrange and sample alongside an array of wine varietals. This part’s easy, Jones says, because there’s no right or wrong way to play with your pairings in this fun and easy outdoor setting.

Pairing a four-course meal

The hilltop patio at Cottonwood Restaurant not only boasts an iconic view of Historic Downtown Truckee, it also lends itself to an afternoon pairing wines hand-selected by wine manager Gangadas Welch, with various seasonal gourmet dishes masterfully created by head chef Donovan Webb.

Wolfdale’s serves fresh fish and sashimi with light wines and celebrates 40 years of culinary excellence. Photo: Shea Evans /

Welch and Webb sat down recently with Tahoe Magazine to provide the following fun pairing options for four food courses:

Salad & rosé: Chef Webb whips up a beet and burrata salad, which his team recreates using heirloom tomatoes during the summertime. The salad’s peppery arugula, creamy burrata cheese and acidic beets pairs perfectly with Welch’s recommendation of a bright and dry rosé.

Appetizer & pinot noir: The chef’s savory Tuscan meatballs appetizer served with a bright heirloom tomato marinara sauce and topped with pecorino cheese is a wonderful exhibit of the claim that your appetizer selection does not always need to be a white wine. Welch recommends a lighter pinot noir for a table where guests are ordering fish, steak, sharing appetizers and salad — it is able to compliment an array of plates.

Creamy vegetable pasta & Sauvignon Blanc: Chef Webb’s summer vegetable primavera is served as a bed of summer squash “noodles” topped with sautéed vegetables, English pea ricotta and a delicious white wine butter sauce. As Welch explains, any time you are leaning toward a creamy pasta dish, it’s best to stay away from chardonnay, for example, as the fermentation process brings out vanilla flavors. As that flavor comes through, it drowns out the butter and cream.

At the Lone Eagle Grille, a shortrib grilled cheese is perfectly paired with a cabernet sauvignon. Contributed Photo: Lone Eagle Grille

Fish entrée & Albariño (white wine varietal): For this pairing, Webb sears a swordfish loin, giving it a delicious, salty, crusted texture; it’s served with sautéed English peas, fingerling potatoes, carrot and mushroom ragout with a golden balsamic beurre blanc. Welch opts for a bright, beautiful white grape wine from Rias Baixas (on the southwest coast of Galicia, Spain), which he describes as summer in a bottle. “This has been on the menu for three and a half years and probably won’t come off because it’s just so good — I would drink this in a snowstorm,” he says.

Fine Dining and Wine Pairing

As lead sommelier at the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe’s Lone Eagle Grille in Incline Village, Michelle Dreyer leads a team tasked with pairing wine with memorable culinary experiences.

Dreyer’s trained palate has come with years of training. In speaking with Tahoe Magazine, she boils things down into the following three main tips and hints:

• Plan your menu: What is the occasion? What is your clientele? Red or white? Start your menu off with lighter whites that have a nice acidity to them and are low in alcohol content. Top appetizer wine options include sauvignon blanc, riesling and chardonnay, which all pair well with lighter-style food, cheese, chicken, fish and vegetables.

• Sparkling wine: Don’t fear the bubbles, for not all sparkling wines are sweet and fruity. For a fun party idea, Dreyer recommends pairing sparkling wines with fried food or cheese, pickled vegetables and soups.

• Work up to bold reds: When transitioning from whites, rosé and sparkling, Dreyer recommends opting for a light pinot noir, then moving toward a heavier Napa cabernet, syrah or zinfandel, though she encourages people to be adventurous: “It depends on what you enjoy, there’s no wrong palate. (Trying new wines) can be intimidating, a tough crowd, and it shouldn’t be. You should enjoy wine with people you love and make memories – that’s the most important part.”

Cottonwood’s beet & burrata salad is also served using heirloom tomatoes during the summertime, and is perfectly complimented by a dry rosé. Photo: Cassandra Walker

Luxury or laid-back, it’s all about being free

Douglas Dale, owner and chef of Tahoe City’s Wolfdale’s Cuisine Unique since 1978, says it is a nightly exercise for his team to put together food and wine combinations about which they are passionate.

“Being in the industry for a long time, when it works, it’s like magic,” Dale says. “There are times when it doesn’t work or it’s just OK, and then there are other times that are like, ‘wow, what an unbelievable combination,’ and the customer reactions make you realize that it’s not just you.”

These days, people should be freer than ever to taste outside their typical boundaries, Dale says, while denying past taboo combinations.

“Stick with what tastes good,” he suggests. “People are so liberated in California, you do whatever you want — get a burger with an extremely expensive bottle of Champagne if you’d like.”

The Lake House in South Lake Tahoe is all about what tastes best, saying you don’t need to be a sommelier to choose a delicious wine and dish. Photo: Angelene Hall

He recommends that people looking to expand their wine knowledge do so region by region, since wines are easily imported from all over the world, which can be liberating or confusing.

Another good tip: Take advantage of half bottles and wines on the menu poured by the glass. Happy Hour is all about having fun — not quantity, Dale says — and should be taken as your opportunity to try wines from all over the world.

To keep your menu planning within reach, Dale offers an interesting perspective — pair food that is cooked for a long period of time with wine that has been aged for a long period of time.

Though there are countless recommendations, tales and legends surrounding wine and cuisine pairings, Dale is inspired by a Japanese proverb that says the thrill of the new taste will extend your life.

“The point is that a new taste is a real thrill,” he says.

Most importantly, you don’t need to be a sommelier to know what tastes good

Sometimes, all it takes is one impeccable meal pairing to turn you into a full-fledged foodie looking to get into wine. Such was the case for Jeff and Misty Sparrow, owners of The Lake House in South Lake Tahoe.

The best wine advice Wolfdale’s culinary leader can impart is that no matter how good the food or the wine, it’s best enjoyed in the company of those you care about. Photo: Shea Evans /

“We are not unusual in that we both fell in love with wine after a particularly excellent pairing,” Jeff recalls. “Sauternes and crème brûlée for me, a Napa cabernet sauvignon and venison for Misty.”

The pair offer an extensive wine selection and say that the trick to choosing the perfect wine is asking the right questions.

With vegetarian dishes, for example, the Sparrows go for general rules of thumb: pair earthy foods with earthy wines; spicy foods with lower alcohol and spicy noted wines; and citrusy wines with foods you might squeeze a lemon or lime on.

If you’re dining this summer at The Lake House, here are a few fun pairings the Sparrows recommend:

• Hamachi ceviche appetizer with a Trimbach riesling, as well as the Angeline sauvignon blanc.

• Jalapeño fried calamari with a buttery, oaky chardonnay like Butternut or Matchbook’s Arsonist, or even a brut sparkling wine like Gerard Bertrand “Thomas Jefferson” Cuvee.

• Chicken Marsala with a 2016 Walt La Brisa pinot noir.

• Steelhead trout paired with 2014 Trimbach riesling for a fruity wine with a dry clean finish.

• Ribeye with herb butter paired with 2012 Napa Silver Oak cabernet sauvignon, whose relatively high acidity pairs perfectly with the higher fat content of the protein.

No matter what your pairing, the Sparrows offer the following advice: As you sip and savor, remember that each bottle of wine is like an art piece — it’s the years of effort and expertise that makes it so special. And wine is only special when enjoyed alongside the people who you appreciate most.

Cassandra Walker is a former reporter for the Sierra Sun and former contributor for Tahoe Magazine.
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