Dessert wines, the awkward, misunderstood stepsister of their cooler, vastly more popular, dryer brethren, are often overlooked by restaurateurs and sommeliers, who balk at trying to push bottles that in the year 2000 made up less than 2% of all U.S. wine consumption (down from 70% in 1950.)
But Peter Birmingham, a 2011 James Beard semifinalist for his wine service at Hatfield's, is not cowed by the challenge of making the sweet wines seem sweet to his restaurant's well-heeled diners. In fact, Birmingham, the restaurant's general manager and beverage director, estimates that 70% of prix fixe or tasting menu diners go for a quaff of postprandial sweet (or fortified) stuff.
“Peter's really a poet,” says Karen Hatfield, the restaurant's pastry chef/proprietor, who works with Birmingham as he develops the after dinner pairings, which unlike those for the restaurant's savory dishes, are listed on the menu. “He's always drawing upon not only classic pairing kind of analogies, but all this life experience and memory and nostalgia and all that goes into these pairings.”
When he visits your table, Birmingham offers pairing advice that is strangely poetic, but decidedly apt. He might compare the mouth-feel of your forthcoming glass of vino to licking the back of a slippery, wet dolphin (come on, it kind of sounds nice) or a sweet auslese to a trip down Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. These funny, unexpected metaphors make a menu of otherwise esoteric bottles more accessible and appealing. To read more about how he does it, turn the page.
Squid Ink: Can you walk us through one of the pairings?
Peter Birmingham: One of the classics is this sugar & spice beignet. The recipe that Karen has, I hope I can, poach if I ever leave. It is one of the all time most perfect beignet recipes. Hers are so uniform, so it's like a gorgeous fried sponge. Perfect. And then the combination of spice elements that are on the outside are not only cinnamon and other aromatic spices with a super fine sugar, but the very first time I smelled that, it reminded me of being outside on the island of Madeira. Getting the wave of aged Madeira coming off the docks, where they were putting barrels onto ships, and that sense of the salt air and brilliant combination of all those aromas that are mouth-watering that made me immediately think of that dessert here.
SI: And how do you convey that to the servers? How are they talking about these pairings?
PB: The very first way to make sure everyone understands is to get a fork in their hands and a glass. And once they taste that, then it's the home run, because they believe in what they're tasting. They understand it, and they go, “Woah, this is incredible.” I always give everybody the background experience as well so that they can explain how it came to be, but the tactile hedonist experience is what sells the staff.
SI: What are the differences in the ways you think about pairing a dessert and a dish that one would eat earlier in the meal?
PB: Well, so many times that people tend to think of sweet wine, they think of classic Sauternes/foie gras pairing. Our foie gras is a very savory example, and there I'd always recommend that they go with a red wine, oddly enough. With the desserts, I think that there's different levels of sweetness that you have to consider that are part of the dessert, so that the wine is not necessarily any dryer than the dessert. Otherwise it will come off as astringent and bitter. I'm all for contrast. I love hot and cold. I love spirited kind of examples, as long as it's balanced. It's like any good marriage or relationship. You have to have a certain amount of compatibility, even if it's Tracy and Hepburn where it's got lots of frisson.
SI: What about the psychology of a diner at this point in the meal? They're slightly sated; they're maybe a little drunk.
PB: I would say at that point in time, you've either gotten their confidence or they're completely determined not to have anything else. Once you have their confidence and their trust, they're willing to go the extra mile and that's where so many times people who don't normally have dessert, but we are renowned for our desserts like nobody's business, they have to.
SI: And once they take that leap, they're often willing to take the leap to having a wine?
PB: In for a penny, in for a pound.
SI: Why do you think in general people don't take a drink with dessert?
PB: I think that most restaurateurs don't see the potential of it as revenue stream, and I think they also tend to see it as terrifying, “Maybe I might lose money because I've chosen the wrong thing. I'm going to have something that's going to go bad because the staff won't get behind it.” And it's just a matter of them not educating themselves or caring enough to educate themselves. To be quite frank, it's like that beautiful handbag or those gorgeous shoes that goes with that dress. It's the final accessory to your experience that makes the total look or the total meal that much more special.
SI: In terms of the bottom line, how do you guys deal with the dessert wines?
PB: I tend to not mark them up as much because I want it to be accessible to add on to the dessert. I also have been doing this for a while, and I know certain producers that have the capability for allowing wines that are going to have stability, and they can accept the oxygen and still hold up over a period of three or four days.
SI: What's an after dinner wine that's blown your mind recently?
PB: I'm not a person who's a point whore. And I find that the more points, the more ill-at-ease I become with a wine. But this Gunderloch Trockenbeerenauslese.
SI: Such a name.
PB: It has a five minute finish once you sip it. Just a sip, and if you can let the world go away for a minute and focus on it, you will probably have the reveal of thirty different flavors in your mouth simultaneously that are honeysuckle to blossoms to unctuous richness, grilled nuts, dried exotic fruits like passion fruit and pineapple. It just goes on and on and on.
The winery bottled them in four-ounce cologne bottles because after three vintages in a row that were more heroic than the last, they were thinking, who's going to drink a half bottle of this? It's like too much. It's like just too much of everything, and literally that four-ounce bottle is probably enough for four people to easily enjoy over the course of a half an hour.
SI: For those of us at home wanting some self-edification, where should we start? What are good starter bottles for this time of year?
PB: I would say, go immediately to Germany. Almost all of the wines are lower in alcohol, under 10%, which is ideal in Southern California hot climate days. Serve them chilled, like somewhere in the mid-40s. I would start with Spätlese, which is late-picked and then I would go to that auslese (JJ. Prüm.)
Definitely look to Hungary. The Tokaji-Aszu. Best values across the board for quality dessert wines, and they have different types of sweetness levels. They go from three to six and they're called puttonyos. Talk about amazing with cheeses. Thrilling combination with cheeses. The higher the puttonyos, the richer and sweeter the wine. Personally I kind of like the three with savory food and certain bloomy, ripe cheese, and as it gets sweeter, then it has to be accurately paired with creamier richer style bleu or aged goat cheeses. Anything with dried fruit or fruit cake. Wow. It's like crazy delicious together. But who likes fruit cake anymore?
SI: Right here.
PB: Bless you.