“I DON'T BELIEVE IN WINE TASTINGS,” says Joshua Wesson. Round spectacles with a tiny rim of tortoiseshell and hair in a three-quarter part give him an anachronistic appearance, as if he just finished defending Brian Donleavy in a courtroom scene from a film of half a century ago.
“This is the only country I know where having wine with a meal is seen as something novel,” he says. “For most of the world it’s just another agricultural crop. Here it’s been translated into an alcoholic beverage or something merely collectible.”
Wesson’s parents worked for the United Nations, and travelled with their son throughout northern Europe. “In every country we visited, I saw wine served as a natural part of the whole process of eating and enjoying life.”
An urge to bring wine closer to the American table led to Wesson’s winning 1984's “Sommelier of the Year” Award, scoring ahead of 500 contestants. A year later he was chosen one of the five best in France’s “International Sommelier” competition.
Then he and co-author David Rosengarten locked themselves into a room for two years to sample a frightening range of food and wine combinations in order to write their book, dispelling the notion that the rules of pairing are somehow sacred.
“David and I put on a couple of lobster bibs and tasted everything. And assumed nothing. We made a list of all the food rules we knew, like only champagne goes with caviar, or don’t drink wine with salad. And we were surprised to discover that a lot of these rules just weren’t valid.”
“They may have been a couple of centuries ago, when fewer kinds of wine were being produced. Today there’s enough variety to find what works for you.”
Although Wesson approaches the subject with a drollery unusual in the rarefied ambience of the wine world, he is sincerely passionate about his subject. And the first thing he wants to do is get rid of that rarefication.
“In my seminars I really aim for mid-palate,” he says. “I want to share my tricks and tidbits with every person in the room.” Still, he took the group that gathered last Saturday afternoon by surprise when he started right out by asking who in the audience was in love. And nobody sent a hand skyward.
“That rough in Albany, eh?” He obligingly described the process of falling in love and the subsequent feature of marriage – then deftly related that to the marriages of food and wine, good and bad.
A tray of food samples and a selection of wines was set at every place, and matchings good, bad and mediocre were assembled. Most important: Wesson described why the combinations worked or failed by describing food and grape characteristics, the functions of the human nose and tongue, and the criteria for food enhancement.
Along with hilarious ad-libs and stories. Like the time he was cooking dinner for a new girlfriend due to arrive shortly, “and I was really messing things up. It was a Julia Child recipe, and I was living in Cambridge at the time, so I looked her up in the phone book and called her to ask for help.”
“‘I’ll be right over,’ she said.” Wesson does Child with the ease of a Rich Little.
“She came over and finished the dinner just as the girl was arriving. Not only was the date still a disaster – the girl also thought I had the weirdest mother she ever met.”
Wesson blames English tradition on the American fear of wine. “I mean, they imposed a class system on it. The rich drank wine, the poor drank gin. And the rich went and pedigreed the wines, separating it even further from the masses. That’s why we associate wine with big English estates and servants for the cellars.”
His eyes brighten and he throws his arms up. “In France, wine drinking is based on what’s growing next door. If you couldn’t get food, you always had a potable beverage.”
For Wesson, wine discovery was a more personal journey. “I started drinking red wine with fish at a very early age,” he says. “The wine was Manischewitz. You can guess what the fish was.”
– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 13 February 1990