Michael Green makes people suck lemons. ¶ The wine and spirits consultant for Gourmet magazine for nearly two decades, Green spent a morning recently in Tampa talking about food and wine pairing in a private dining room at Fleming's Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar. With him was Judi Gallagher, a Sarasota food writer and culinary director of ABC 7 News at Noon. The two met 10 years ago at a food and wine event and were immediately simpatico. ¶ "She and I share similar philosophies about what food and wine are about," said Green, as he nursed a Starbucks venti. "They are about comfort, and community, and love." ¶ Reconnecting several months ago, Gallagher suggested Green come to the Tampa/Sarasota area from his home in New York, because, as she says, "the food scene in this part of Florida is changing dramatically."
After a whirlwind tour of local restaurants, the pair sat down to discuss new thoughts on how best to pair wines with foods, especially Florida's indigenous foods.
This is where the lemon-sucking came in. When considering how best to pair the state's citrus with wine, he chose a white from La Mancha, Spain's largest wine region, but one that is not well known outside of that country. Home of Manchego cheese, saffron and Don Quixote, it also is home to a white grape called airen, a wine made from which he poured alongside a plate of lemon wedges.
"Suck a lemon, then taste the wine. The lemon lends the wine a little more fruit and a little more weight, softening the wine's acidity. What would you pair this wine with? I'd say local fish, like a pan-seared snapper with a Meyer lemon vinaigrette."
Gallagher interjects that Florida is one of the largest producers of red potatoes, so she might suggest roasting some as an accompaniment, but adding in a little citrus to heighten the spud's flavor.
After this, that same white was paired with a frito misto of fried Florida shrimp and delicately battered wheels of lemon, then a fruity young red was sampled alongside Fleming's housemade burrata (like a soft mozzarella) with charred grape tomatoes and peppery arugula, a contrast of spicy and fruity and rich.
"My food and wine pairing philosophy was not always in synch with the magazine's," Green admits. "They believed in very traditional pairings, light foods with white wines, full with reds. My philosophy is very different. When you bring a wine and food together, they change. And hopefully a balance will be achieved."
As he recounts it, Green has been in the wine industry illegally since he was 6 years old.
"When my dad was a student at Columbia, he made his money working at the country's oldest wine shop, Acker Merrall and Condit in New York City. He worked there for 40 years. And I helped."
Eventually going away to school in Virginia and at Cambridge, he returned to New York and, as he remembers, "felt lost." He wanted to go back to Europe.
"My dad said, 'Michael, it's your life journey, but let me make one recommendation. You've never visited a winery.' So I went to Alsace and spent time at Hugel et Fils. There I learned that a glass of wine is not only about its taste. It's a lesson in history, politics and art. A glass of wine is a connection to other people."
Re-energized, Green returned to New York and the wine shop as a wine buyer and educator, until, at age 26, Gourmet came calling. He worked with the magazine until it ceased publication in 2009, upon which he reinvented himself as a playwright (two wine-themed plays under his belt) and lecturer.
"I've always been resilient. I think of myself as a serial entrepreneur."
These days, Green spends his time leading corporate wine-and-food-pairing events, as well as appearing on the Today Show, the Food Network and elsewhere as an expert on the subject.
He concedes that, although every state in the country has at least one licensed winery, Florida is a hard state in which to drink "local."
"The idea of terroir is so misunderstood. At the end of the day, there are other issues. You want to drink a wine that tastes true to its place."
Knowledge is power
According to Green, the most important tool in selecting wines is figuring out styles you like and then educating yourself about the world of possibilities.
"When I teach, I often do, 'If you like that, then try this.' "
Right now, Green is bullish about the wines from La Mancha, the airen grapes especially, which he thinks suits summer in the Tampa Bay area.
"It's a varietal that mostly goes into Spanish brandy. A little like vinho verde without the spritz, it's clean, light, dry and 11 percent alcohol. Most airen are available for under $8.99, a number of them available in the Tampa area.
He's also excited about a style of wines made of tempranillo, the noble grape of Spain.
"There is a category called 'joven,' which means young. It's like a young Beaujolais, with bright, gripping tannins."
Green has a number of other suggestions from newish and emerging wine-growing regions.
"The trick is about finding undiscovered grapes or undiscovered real estate in the world. For people who like fruit-forward wines, try those from Mendoza, Argentina. And Chile has come around to having real differentiated character with the carmenere grape."
But, he says, it's not about buying "cheap" wines from these regions. Here's a great example: "If you like cabernet sauvignon, buy a Chilean $20 cab, not a $10 cab, and it will compete elegantly against pricey ones from California."
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293.