Created in partnership with the California Wine Institute.

Chad Walsh—sommelier of Agern in New York City—on his approach to matching the state’s offbeat bottles with food...

California wine pairings: Unconventional matches

It may seem unusual for a restaurant with a Nordic bent to stock its cellar with strictly American wines, but that’s exactly what Icelandic chef Gunnar Gíslason did in his Michelin starred Agern, located in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal.

In building a California-heavy wine list to match Gíslason’s food, sommelier Chad Walsh has found that the old rules of white with fish and red with meat don’t apply and that today’s bottles pair with bright and nuanced flavors better than ever.

Textured whites

“Nordic food in general tends to have a lot of acidity,” says Walsh, “whether that’s from whey, vinegars or other pickling liquids. That works well with styles of New world wine that are riper. They balance each other out. That has been kind of a fun coincidence.” He turns to towards white wines with texture—of which there are plenty in California—for cured dishes.

“Littorai’s Sonoma Coast Chardonnay is a great example,” he says. “We do a black bass that’s lightly cured, with cucumber, sunflower seeds and hoisin, which brings an umami quality. That wine is light enough that it doesn’t overpower the flavors but rich enough that it can match it in weight.”

Agern restaurant

Agern restaurant. Credit: Agern Instagram

Scale back the oak for earthy flavors

Although the smoky, baking spice quality of a heavily oaked wine might seem like a natural fit for earthy ingredients like sunchokes or mushrooms, Walsh finds it mollifies the flavor.

“When a wine lays off the oak and lets the fruit come through, it picks up the earthiness and complements the dish,” he says. For bitter elements, such as endive in a salad, he looks to Grüner Veltliner and Riesling. “Tatomer’s Vandenberg Riesling is just stunning,” he says.

A new solution for steak

“Our steak is 60 days dry aged, so it has a funky, blue cheese-like intensity, and it actually appreciates a lighter red more than a big one,” says Walsh. His go-to? A Beaujolais-esque wine like Broc Cellars’ Valdiguié.

“Because it’s partially carbonic, it expresses more wild berries and fresh fruit, and being lighter in body, it gives the steak a chance to express its own minerality and personality that might be obscured by a richer wine,” he says.

California wine pairing

Try steak with lighter reds. Credit: California Wine Institute

Cabernet and Syrah with vegetables

Some of the dishes Walsh has had the most success with pairing with full bodied wines are on Agern’s vegetable menu. “We’re doing a squash right now with a pesto made from various seeds,” he says. “It can handle a big wine, and I like it with the Stolpman Syrah from Ballard Canyon or even some of the richer Cabs.”

Slow cooking the vegetable in question gives it the unctuousness it needs to make the pairing work, he adds.