A Matter of Taste—Musing on Palate Expression with Sommeliers Amy Racine and Bobby Conroy

Teasing apart the way we taste.

July 8, 2015 ● 4 min read

"My first memorable wine experience was at a Smith & Wollensky's when I was 17," Amy Racine says. 

“I’m not sure how I was able to get away with ordering it, but it was a glass of Trimbach gerwürztraminer. I don’t know the vintage, but I had it with steak…”

She grimaces, and breaks out into a laugh. “It must have been awful, but I was super jazzed. Gerwürztraminer was my favorite grape after that, for years and years.”

Racine is reclined in one of the flimsy metal chairs—the silver ones that morph into supercharged, eye-melting reflectors in the midday sun—at a nondescript café in Union Square plaza. It’s her day off, but Bobby Conroy, decked out in a suit and seated across from her, has yet to start his shift. They are both high level sommeliers at top-notch San Francisco restaurants—she at Sons & Daughters and he at Benu—where lavish attention is paid to the wine and beverage pairings on offer, and the pressure is usually on to blow minds.

“There’s this misconception that food and wine pairing is this really artistic thing,” Conroy says. “You have these palates of wine and flavor profiles to work with and you scheme it all together, and magically something happens. It’s really not about that at all.”

Rather than use their palates to manifest something from scratch like Schick or Kostow, they use them like ciphers, tinkering and tweaking until they send a sip of wine careening toward a big ol’ X-marks-the-spot in the dish.

“Every dish has an opening. Every dish has an entry point in which the beverage can come in and either play in a friendly way, just sit there and be neutral, or push the flavors away from itself,” he continues. “All you need to do is find out where that opening is.”Sommeliers are typically among the first mentioned when you hear talk of Supertasters, those mythical genetic anomalies living among us, existing on another plane of heightened senses. They pick up notes of chicken wire and wilted lilac and exotic sounding chemicals, while you pick up, you know, red wine.But to hear Racine and Conroy explain it, it’s more about the grunt work. Making the rounds, sitting with wine reps, constantly tasting and re-tasting, in order to better direct the customer to a tailored flavor experience.    

“For me, it’s 80% practice with the wine,” says Racine, who originally entered the CIA at Greystone as a culinary arts student, before being lured away by the siren song of the wine program. “I don’t think anyone is born with it.”

Pairing 101 is usually presented as a two-pronged approach. You either go all in on contrast, providing a yin-yang experience for your taste buds, or you bet on synergy, aligning similar flavors that continue to build upon each other. Both require heavy lifting from your palate's memory.

“We had this discussion a while ago, and never revisited it, actually,” Racine says with a hint of mischief, turning to Conroy. “I can’t remember exactly what you said, but it was something like, the flavor of the wine and the flavor of the dish is the most important thing when it comes to pairing. You don’t think a contrast is a pairing.”

“It’s an anti-pairing,” he says, shaking his head. “To me, it would dishonor the hard work of the kitchen to have a wine come in and erase those flavors or take away from them. What I’d much rather have is a wine that can enter in and add an extra layer, but in doing so, elongate what the kitchen is already trying to achieve. It’s about settling in to the flavors that are already on the plate.”

Racine tends to take a broader approach.

“I think the sense of winemaking or terroir is important in how it makes you feel, especially when compared to how that dish is making you feel,” she says. "I pair off structure as well."

“Don’t get me wrong, structure is super important. What grows together, goes together kind of thing,” Conroy agrees. “If you’re doing octopus a la plancha and you pour albariño with it, it’s a no-brainer. Nobody’s going to be like, ‘Man, they really don’t know what they’re doing!’”

But this is major league San Francisco we’re talking about here, land of “You think that’s cool? Watch this,” and most of the food they work with is not so straightforward.

“It becomes more obvious the longer you work with the chef, and understand their aesthetic,” he adds. “You might get an ingredient list that, on paper, looks completely unreasonable, and you wonder how the hell you’re going to pair it, but when you know the chef, you know that everything is going to have it’s place in the dish.”

In other words, if you know the locksmith, the keyhole you’re looking for will be easier to find. Racine remembers pairing malvasia from the Canary Islands, a lean, dry, briny white wine, with abalone. “There were sea grapes on the plate, and a fumé of some sort,” she explains. “The whole thing just tasted like the ocean.”

It’s a textbook Racine pairing: a classic like-with-like (briny wine to match briny seaweeds and mollusks), subtly blended with the emotional heart of the dish. Drink that malvasia, and it’s like you’ve spent the day on the beach, with a thin film of salty air coating your face. The sea grapes are a brackish kick to the dome, much like the first time you ate shit surfing. Suddenly you recall your childhood neighbor who would pry open and tenderize fresh abalone steaks with the butt of a wicked, curved knife, then toss the shells on the porch to use as ashtrays. All of this happens in the micro-space of one bite and one sip. 

A crucial part of the success of that pairing had been the flexibility of the wine and its ability to catapult the rest of the meal into realization. Not so intense that it overshadows the next selection, but legitimate enough to throw out the first pitch. Even so, Racine is hesitant to say it was a perfect fit.

“I never think, ‘This pairing is meant to be. I’ve got it,’” she says. “I’m always looking for something different. I’ll change a wine with a dish nine times.”

Hitting that sweet spot is only one part of palate expression for these two. When your job is to lift the veil and show someone a connection they weren’t necessarily aware of, you’re appealing to their sense of self, their memories, not just taste.

“I always think it’s important to remember that what it means to be a good sommelier very often has very little to do with wine,” Conroy says. “It’s about being a bit of a Jedi. It’s about all those little intangibles that really make a service successful, because people remember how you make them feel.”

By Cassandra Landry. Illustration by Elizabeth Graeber. |
Originally published by MISE magazine