The Vegan Somm

Hello hello!  The world of wine is a never ending push to the limits of human ability, nature's will and a desire to drink this beautiful nectar we call wine.  Wine and food is a huge part of my life and I'm sure just about everyone else in this forum.  Being able to pair wine with food to give a guest that jaw dropping experience that they take with them forever is our jobs.  But for some, it has it's challenges.  

People are really becoming aware of the food they eat.  They want to know where it comes from, who grew or raised it, what farming practices are used and a million other questions.  I absolutely love that people are putting thought into the who/what/when/why/how of the food they eat.  But what does this do for those who limit or completely cut off a large part of the food world from their diet?  Either through personal, medical or philosophical reasons, people are changing the way they eat and more importantly WHAT they eat. 

I know there are others out there who have a limited animal product diet and others who abstain completely.  What does this do for your ability to pair wine with food?  We all know that tannins love fat and what grows together goes together.  But what about if you have not eaten a steak in 15 years?  Or never had oysters?  How can this affect your ability to pair wines with food at a personal level.  

Any other insight from others would be lovely.  

  • Make sure not to tell them that egg whites, gelatin, and fish bladders are regularly used to clarify, filter, and stabilize wine!

  • I work as a vegetarian Somm - never eaten meat.

    Undoubtedly this is the biggest challenge of my job, but as far as I am concerned it is just a challenge - not an absolute hindrance.

    When working with pairings in this way, I find that I simply have to firstly, work with the technicalities of the pairing (fat and tannin, salt and acid, etc.) as well as trying to use my imagination a bit - there are countless times Sommeliers I know will be pairing wine for a dish they have not tried, it is really the same principle. I also think that smelling the food can be of massive help to understanding the aroma profile of the dish, as does talking to people (the chefs who have made it etc.) in order to understand the dish better...

    A challenge? Yes.

    Does limiting your diet hinder your ability to Somm? No. I still have a real interest and appreciation for non-meat dishes, I don't feel like my dietary choices stop my appreciation of non-vegetarian cuisine, or my opportunity to pair wines with this.

    I'm sure many others will disagree, but personally, that's how I consider the position to work...

  • Did you see this thread?

    Some good thoughts on the topic. 

  • I was the private chef for a couple who were pescetarian and had a massive cellar of (almost) exclusively big CA reds.  Also, the guy had major issues digesting rich foods, so cheese and butter had to be kept to an absolute minimum.  As such, I had to lean heavily on mushrooms, roasted veggies (cauliflower is the most meat like, IMO), and things like Sichuan black beans (making a veggie stock with these and roasted tomato in it is a pretty damned good mock beef stock).  Also other sources of umami like sea veggies.

    At the end of the day, we typically have to compromise with pairings as it is.  After all, people are often asking for suggestions for a bottle despite everyone getting different entrees anyway.  So, it is rare that we get to actually suggest a spot-on pairing as it is.  Maybe spot on for one or two people's entrees, but not the whole table.  

    So, honestly, it kind of starts in the kitchen.  If your restaurant short-arms the veggie offerings (how many otherwise good restaurants just do a "veggie option" that is essentially the garnishes/sides from all the other entrees?).  If that's what you're working with, then you're already behind the 8 ball.  If, on the other hand, your kitchen is taking it seriously and coaxing richness from veggies, then you've got something to work with.

  • I love this conversation! As someone who was raised vegetarian (and mostly vegan at that), I feel like we are always left out of "fine dining". After years of working in the food and wine industry, it's easy to know the classics. Work with the chef, know the basics, and I definitely second the opinion of using your nose! And, just like meat eaters, after a while you just learn from trial and error as well as customer/staff feedback. 

    The phrase "How can this affect your ability to pair wines with a food at a personal level.", is also a little silly. I pair my plant based foods with wine (including big tannic reds) every day with excellent results. The industry just doesn't seem to recognize vegan food as food. :-)

  • My fondest wish (as a vegetarian) is that society continues to move towards a way of eating in which meat is not the centerpiece! That being said I try to pay attention to cooking method, sauces and side dishes, as well as learning by rote, if not taste, what classic pairings are. 

  • Phil,

    The restaurant I work for caters very heavily to vegans/vegetarians, and I felt that our wine menu should as well. I indicate all vegan wines on my menu [in my opinion, being 100% transparent builds trust with a guest a lot more than "lying" by omission]. I've found it to be tremendously successful with my guests that prescribe to a plant-based lifestyle, and it also gives me the chance to chat more with and educate those who may not be aware that the juice they're drinking has very likely been fined with gelatin, egg whites, et. al. has been a major help to me in addition to straight up emailing wineries/winemakers. 

  • I am curious, I've heard that many Vegans will not eat processed white sugar because they use bone char to help bleach the sugar.  So what about wines that have undergone Chaptalization?  I am assuming these would not qualify as Vegan, but how do you know which wines have and have not undergone Chaptalization?  

  • I cant count the number of times I have read the description of a new dish our chefs want to add to the menu and in my head I know I have the perfect wine for that dish, only to try the dish and the wine together and be shocked that they are not as good of a match as I thought they would be. If you don't test out the match's you think will work you'll never be able to fix the ones that don't.

  • Has anyone ever worked somewhere that you couldn't taste everything, or in some cases anything from the menu?  Yet you still need to sell food and wine.  Has anyone ever worked where sampling adult beverages from vendors was prohibited?  Yet you still need to buy and sell.  Yes, it's more difficult, but people do it every day.

    I get it.  But the situation is not that unusual.