Wining and Dining

We love wine. We love delicious food. What we don’t always love is fretting about which wines to pair with what dishes. That’s why we asked the professional to step in. 

Meet Citarella Wines & Spirits Director Michael Acheson. Acheson was raised in an Army family and has lived all over the world. The son of a trained chef and food scientist, he developed a deep appreciation for food at an early age. Whether it was a walleye fry at the VFW or a cookout behind the farmhouse, Acheson has had a passion for the culinary world his whole life. Like many college kids, he spent summers working in restaurants, and after a trip to Bordeaux in 2004 he realized wine was his true calling. Acheson spent the next two decades pursuing his passion in the world of hospitality, running wine programs for Michelin-starred restaurants on both coasts. 

Here, we ask him for a few wine pairing tips to get us through the holidays, as well as a few pairings for some of our favorite holiday Culinista dishes. 

The Culinistas: What are your tips for choosing wines to pair with a menu?

Michael Acheson: I’ll admit it, I’m partial to the classics. I want Champagne with oysters, red Burgundy with game bird, and northern Rhône Syrah with grilled lamb. It’s also helpful to remember that “what grows together goes together”, so if your cheese is a Crottin de Chavignol then Sancerre is a no-brainer, and that grilled Bistecca alla Fiorentina is just begging for Chianti Classico from a great producer in Radda or Gaiole.

TC: What’s the best way to cover your bases when you’re having guests over and you’re not sure what kind of wine they prefer?

MA: This is an easy one: make sure you have a ton of wine on hand! In all seriousness, you can’t go wrong with great Champagne and great wines of the Old World. Chances are the dedicated Sonoma Coast Pinot drinker isn’t going to refuse your 1er Cru Burg.

TC: What’s an unexpected wine people should be trying this year?

MA: I’ve been returning to my wine roots lately and have rediscovered my love for the white wines of the northern Rhône. The reds are incredibly fashionable these days, and for good reason, but there are amazing and unique white wines that get passed over and that’s a shame. Especially high on my list right now is the St. Joseph blanc from Aurelian Chatagnier. It’s absurdly delicious, a great value, and a tremendous food wine. This is a fun area to explore, and if you get the right Condrieu producer (Vernay comes to mind immediately) on the perfect night you can definitely have a truly memorable wine experience.

TC: What’s the best way to calculate how much wine to have on hand for a holiday dinner party or event?

MA: I always err on the side of caution here, as running out of wine is a personal nightmare of mine. And if you’re left with a few extra bottles in your cellar I’d consider that a plus! For my friends, it’s at least 1.5 bottles per person, as we’re inclined to open a bunch of different wines from across the spectrum so we can try everything. For most guests, you can probably get away with ¾ bottle per person, but to play it safe make sure the cellar is well stocked.

Here are a few of Acheson’s favorite pairings with a few of our favorite holiday dishes:

Grilled Veggie Couscous (zucchini, green bean, corn, pearled couscous, parmesan, basil, sumac, cumin, cayenne)

“This dish has some nice Mediterranean flavors, evoking the gorgeous countryside and rolling hills of where the Rhône feeds into the sea. A grenache-based Côtes du Rhône from Domaine la Manarine, the “Les Terres Saintes” has aromas and flavors of the garrigue that blend seamlessly with the couscous. Should you decide to shave fresh white truffles here then the pairing shifts to an older wine with more earthy flavors and aromas, like the Domaine de Marcoux Châteauneuf-du-Pape from 2000, an exceptional wine from an exceptional vintage.”

Mushroom Polenta (mushroom, polenta, garlic, parsley, white wine)

“This is a dish I can see being on menus across northern Italy, but the addition of the white Alba truffles places this pairing firmly in the territory of Piedmont. Instead of going the obvious route of Barolo or Barbaresco, let’s expand our minds, palates, and passports and head to the tiny appellation of Carema where we can drink Ferrando’s delicious “Etichetta Bianca” from the 2015 vintage. This has all the hallmarks of a classic Nebbiolo, with plenty of red florals, wild strawberry, and firm tannins, but with a slightly wild edge that sets it apart from its more famous brethren.”

Spicy Shrimp Cocktail (shrimp, tomato, orange, Worcestershire, horseradish, lemon, cayenne, onion powder

“This is a fun, simple appetizer so let’s not overthink things. I tend to be a fan of the Shrimp Cocktail spread at parties, and I’m always eager to grab a glass of bubbles from a passing waiter, making the bright and cheerful Brut Nature Reserva from Bertha a natural choice. This wine is straight-up delicious, full of apple and pear fruit and a fine bead. Should really bring out the heat of the horseradish!” 

Pomegranate Salmon (wild salmon, pomegranate, date, sesame seeds, shallot, lemon, cayenne, onion powder)

“Pinot Noir is generally a very fine partner for Salmon, and with a recipe that calls for pomegranate and dates something soft and fruit-forward from California sounds lovely. Joseph Swan has been making wines in his old school fashion for nearly 50 years now, and his Cuvée de Trois is a wonderful representation of what the Russian River Valley is all about. Ripe red cherries and strawberries abound, and with supple tannins, it’s a seamless complement to the salmon.”