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Patina in Los Angeles serves chestnut agnolotti with a crisp and silky white wine.

Vegetarian Pairings

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A bountiful autumn harvest is easily complemented by a wide range of wines.

By Kristine Hansen September 2015 Wine

Inside the sleek Bacchus in downtown Milwaukee, across the street from the soaring wings of the Santiago Calatrava–designed Milwaukee Art Museum and Lake Michigan’s glittering shoreline, vegetables are never shunned into second place. Given equal props in pairing with the lengthy wine list are hearty entrées like Ramp Gnocci with English Peas, Spring Onions, Sheep’s Milk Ricotta, and Gremolata ($26.95) or Crispy Fried Tofu with Jicama Salad, Salsa Verde, and Queso Fresco ($24.95), either of which stands as strong as the Strauss Veal Chop with Baby Potato Salad and Mustard Vinaigrette ($42.95) on the regular menu.

Whether seated in the main dining room or under the glass-enclosed conservatory, diners can order from the special vegetarian menu that is arranged by courses—small plates, Wisconsin artisan cheeses, salads, and entrées. And then they can choose sweet endings off the dessert menu. This vegetarian-friendly focus is a departure from many fine-dining restaurants that boast an impressive wine list—but offer few choices for diners who don’t eat meat or fish.

“Our chefs go out of the way to [visit] the farmers’ market or call our produce vendors and say, ‘What do you have that’s really good right now?’” explains Katie
Espinosa, the restaurant’s general manager and sommelier, as she talks about building the vegetarian menu on demand. Additionally, the chef’s six-course menu—plus an amuse-bouche and petit fours—costs $75-$85; wine pairings are an additional $35-$45. Substitutions can be made for vegetarian diners attending the restaurant’s wine-dinner series, too.

Nightly, 24 wines are poured by the glass, and a section of the wine list called “Sommelier’s Favorites” spans Napa, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Australia.

The vegetarian-friendly vibe exists year-round, not just in autumn when local farmers’ markets are in full swing, and is a testament to Espinosa’s belief that a menu lacking meat and fish shouldn’t be reduced to a casual setting. Her philosophy is underscored by the expensive bubbles she likes to pair with vegetable dishes.

“I’m a huge Champagne fan. It goes with anything, especially a multi-course meal, starting with something light on through to heavier courses, including rich sauces,” she says.

With roasted root vegetables, she sees a lot of pairing potential. “Root vegetables have a nice earthiness, a nice nuttiness, so I try to pick something that has a little oak to it, like a Chardonnay,” Espinosa says. Among her favorite red wines to pair with vegetables is Pinot Noir, Grenache/Garnacha, and slightly chilled Beaujolais, for its “pomegranate and cherry notes.”

Similarly, Patina in Los Angeles—where there is a thriving meat-free foodie community—also caters to vegetarians with a three- or five-course prix fixe menu. Wine pairings ($30–$65) are prescribed by sommelier Silvestre Fernandes based on what he learns about a diner’s palate. The entire meal is a theatrical event, with dishes like 63°C Duck Egg cooked in Earl Grey tea and Couscous with Eggplant Caviar, perfect for its setting inside the Walt Disney Concert Hall, home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Patina pours 14 white wines and 16 red wines by the glass. Chardonnay and Viognier are two of Fernandes’ favorite picks for vegetarian diners. His philosophy about matching wines from the 52-page list with vegetarian food is to keep an eye on not overpowering a vegetable’s earthy nuances. “You need to take a very simple approach. The chef is playing a progression of flavors. Start with light vegetables and finish with roasted or braised vegetables,” he says. What he likes best is to shock people with surprise pairings, like serving red wine with a main course that’s not meat. “People always think vegetables with white wine are the best, but that’s not always the case.”

Jeffrey Bencus, lead sommelier at Lago by Julian Serrano inside The Bellagio in Las Vegas, couldn’t agree more that simplicity wins out. “Many vegetables have delicate flavors so it is best to avoid heavily oaked or highly alcoholic wines,” Bencus says. At Lago, pairing the Punte de Asparagi with Terlan Vorberg Pinot Blanc is a personal favorite.

“Wines from the region of Alto Adige (in Northern Italy) seem to work well with vegetables, and the Caponata (a sweet and sour vegetable mix) paired with a glass of Barbera d’Asti is another great combination,” says Bencus, who manages a list that includes 31 wines by the glass plus around 600 bottle selections from regions in France, Washington, Oregon, and California.

“Fall vegetables are heartier and can handle earthier flavors,” Bencus continues. “Light to medium-bodied reds like Barbera, Nebbiolo, and Pinot Noir can work well. Richer-bodied and more aromatic white wines, such as Fiano di Avellino, can also succeed quite nicely. Gewürztraminer can work, as well as Viognier, in matching pumpkin dishes.”

As with any wine-pairing concept, the art is in the hand of the sommelier or beverage director. Mark Grande, general manager of the 5-year-old Bondir in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who says the neighborhood has a “strong vegetarian clientele,” keeps a few guidelines in mind each time crops are pulled from the restaurant’s garden.

“I like to pair wines with vegetables that have some weight and character … staying away from anything heavily influenced by oak or with fruit characteristics being in the forefront,” he says. “With heartier vegetables like parsnip, rutabaga, eggplant, carrot, cauliflower, and beans, I like to match the richness and present complementary flavors.”

For heavy greens, like broccoli rabe, collards, and arugula, as well as spicy dishes, he selects a “spicy and earthy” red like 2012 Rocco di Carpeneto Barbara, Piedmont, Italy. With vegetables such as zucchini, beets, and cucumbers, Grande finds they pair well with “light, fruity reds and zesty whites” such as a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir or French Sauvignon Blanc. Among his favorite white wines to sip with vegetables is 2013 Pierre Gaillard Saint-Peray, a Roussanne/Marsanne blend from France’s Rhone region. “They don’t kill it with oak, but it’s rich and very aromatic,” Grande notes. Or, any choice with flowers, minerals, and slate is often a good match, he says.

His current pairing favorite is Albariño with a parsnips three-ways dish—puréed, a lightly charred parsnip steak, and glazed. “That’s a nice, clean line, very linear,” he says.

While there isn’t a set vegetarian tasting menu at Bondir to try out these wine pairings, the four-course prix fixe experience is mostly vegetarian. “Anyone can come in and be completely satisfied, whether they are vegetarian or not,” Grande says.

Many fine-dining restaurants are reluctant to define themselves as a vegetarian restaurant and rarely will they market vegetarian leanings. That’s because meats and fishes are also on the menu and one of the worst things a restaurant can do is develop too narrow a niche—thus alienating others. “Our goal is to remain versatile. We promote wines to pair with any combination of flavors including the vegetarian selections,” Bencus says.