Pairing Food with Wine: The Art of Creating the Vintners’ Holidays Menu in Yosemite

Each fall, wine enthusiasts gather in Yosemite for Vintners’ Holidays at The Ahwahnee and enjoy educational wine tasting seminars and a chance to meet some of California’s most esteemed vintners. Part of the event includes a five-course gala dinner that highlights the wines of the featured vintners. Since the wines are the star, The Ahwahnee’s executive chef, Percy Whatley, crafts the menu around the wines being poured — not the other way around. Read on to learn more about Percy and how he goes about developing the delicious Vintners’ Holidays menu.

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Q: How long have you been creating the menu for the Vintner’s Holidays Gala Dinner?
A: Since I was given the opportunity to lead the kitchen in 2005.

Q: For the Vintners’ Holidays Gala Dinner, you are creating the menu based on the wines that will be served. How does this work?
A: With Vintner’s Holidays, the winemakers give us information about the wine that they plan to pour for the gala meal and we solicit any feedback that they may have regarding what types of food and flavors pair well with the wines. I take that information and create the particular dish for that wine with their expert feedback. Usually the information is specific with regard to a particular ingredient, such as Lobster with a Sauvignon Blanc. This gives me the ability to put some of my personal finesse into the garnishes and other flavor profiles to enhance the wine and food experience. It really is a lot of fun.

Q: What are you looking for when pairing food and wine?
A: There are subtleties in wines that need to be found and engaged with when writing the menus for these dinners. Many of these subtleties are typical of the various wines being poured. Some may be a little more acidic than typical, or tannic, or more “oaky,” or more malo-lactic (buttery). Some wines are blended and are not typical at all. But overall, I am looking for the right degree of lightness or richness to a dish compared to the wine being poured. The garnishes in the dish should complement the center of the plate as well, which in turn will complement the wine and the layers of flavors within the wine’s body.

Q: What are a few of your favorite wine and food pairings?
A: Lamb with Zinfandel, scallops with Pinot Gris, pork belly with Pinot Noir, light buttery pasta dish with Chardonnay. There are a number of other international wines that I like a lot, Albariño, Barolo, Lambrusco, Valpolicella, Vinho Verde, and Malbec to name a few.

Q: Do you think wine is better served with food? Why?
A: Red wines definitely need food, otherwise your palate is tired after one glass. White wines aren’t as tannic and can be enjoyed without food, but food helps your palate process the sensory overload that happens when you drink wine. Whether it is a canapé of pate with your glass of Merlot, or a caviar blini with your sparkling brut, those little bites of food create an entirely different experience on your palate vs. just drinking the wine.

Q: Can you share a few tips on pairing wine?
A: Keep your food simply prepared without overcomplicating the preparation of it. If it is a steak, then simple salt and pepper seasoning, seared or grilled to your desired temperature, and rested well. Enjoy it with wine that is the right temperature, not too cold, not too warm. Let the wine sit in your mouth for a few seconds before swallowing it so you can really get the subtle flavors of the wine. Do this before your first bite of food, then take a bite and repeat.  How was that second sip of wine?
What is most important is to drink wine that you like because if you like it, it is a good wine. Then have food that you like with it. Generally this is what makes a good pairing, especially if you enjoy it with family and friends — that is the true joy of good wine and food!

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To taste Percy’s wine and food pairing yourself, join us for Vintners’ Holidays in Yosemite in November or December.

Vintners’ Holidays in Yosemite: Managing the Wining & Dining at The Ahwahnee

If you have ever attended Vintners’ Holidays at The Ahwahnee in Yosemite, pat yourself on the back for choosing one of California’s most treasured landscapes to do your wine tasting. Napa Valley notwithstanding, Yosemite Valley offers the National Historic Landmark Ahwahnee hotel as one of the premier venues to taste California wines. Each fall for the past 35 years, California vintners have gathered in Yosemite National Park to share their knowledge (and their wine!) with park visitors. For the past four years, Kathy Langley has managed the Vintners’ Holidays event for The Ahwahnee, and as you may imagine, she really enjoys her work! Kathy shared her views on the event in the interview below.

Q1: How many years have you been involved in planning the event?
A1: Four years as the Food & Wine Events Manager [Kathy worked many years as a concierge at The Ahwahnee involved in the events prior to becoming the manager].

Q2:What makes The Ahwahnee a venue that a wine lover must check out at least once?
A2: Enjoying wine is a good thing. Enjoying wine in Yosemite is a great thing!

Q3:What do you look for when looking for speakers to present their wines?
A3: A variety of wines, grape-growing regions, and personalities

Q4: Do you have a certain session you are looking forward to and what do each have to offer guests?
A4: That’s really a difficult question to answer as each session has something unique to offer. However, at Session 4, Joy Sterling of Iron Horse Vineyards will be pouring their Summit Cuvee in honor of Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s ascent of the Dawn Wall on El Capitan in Yosemite. Kevin is a Sonoma County boy, born and raised.

Q5: What is your favorite part of the event?
A5: Getting the first of six sessions started. That’s really seeing the fruits of my labor come to life!

Q6: Do you have a certain wine that is your favorite?
A6: The one in my glass!

Q7: What special memories do you have attending and help organizing the event? A7: Getting to know the vintners and their families. I’ve had the privilege of seeing their children grow up over the years of their visits to Yosemite for Vintners’ Holidays.

Q8: How does the executive chef at The Ahwahnee make it over-the-top when pairing food and wine?
A8: Chef Percy Whatley has an amazing palate and is a real wizard at pairing. The vintners agree, in that their comments with regard to the pairing of the wine is typically, “He nailed it!”

Q9: What makes Vintners’ Holidays different from other wine events?
A9: The opportunity to meet the actual winemakers and proprietors of the wineries. There are very few events that feature the actual winemakers.

Q10: How does the scenery and The Ahwahnee’s history add to the venue?
A10: Tasting seminars are held in the Great Lounge – what a spectacular place to sip wine! Most events of this type are held in hotel banquet rooms – not exactly a warm and fuzzy place to be! Here you sip…look at Half Dome…sip again…look at Yosemite Falls.

Q11: Why do you think it has continued all these years?
A11: The combination of wine and Yosemite with The Ahwahnee as the event venue is pretty hard to beat. Over the course of two or three days, guests run into the vintners in the bar, elevator, hallways, etc. That kind of access is not common at wine events.

Q12: What do you have to say about the judges and speakers this year?
A12: With Peter Marks, Evan Goldstein and Dan Berger, there is plenty of history in Yosemite. They have all participated for a number of years. Fred Dame, who some may recognize from the film “Somm“, was a moderator in the early years of Vintners’ Holidays and returns this year, as he did in 2014.

Q13: And anything else you would like to add?
A13: I can’t wait for the event!