Pairing vegetables with wine: An interview with The Wine Militia

Published May 25, 2021

Lamar Engel, Advanced Certified Sommelier, Owner of The Wone Militia (Image courtesy of The Wine Militia)

Gardyn interviewed Advanced Certified Sommelier, Experience Producer, and Owner of The Wine Militia,  Lamar Engel to prove that wine doesn’t have to be complicated or boring. In fact, wine can be paired with everyone and everything – including vegetables.

Forever disrupting the wine industry, Lamar’s take on drinking and eating well revolves around the mindset that people are more hungry for new experiences. Lamar is not only a mentor to young wine professionals and sommeliers, he’s managed movie director and winemaker Francis Ford Coppola’s winery estate and curated Mr. Coppola’s personal wine cellar.

Yet despite his impressive accolades and client list, Lamar and The Wine Militia are rooted in California delivering fun, whimsical, and down-to-earth wine education and events for everyone.

"This idea of only drinking what you like means there is no room for growth or evolution of palate which is actually counter intuitive to how our palate developed in the first place."

Gardyn: Wine doesn’t have to be pretentious, does it? Why are people so intimidated by the idea of consuming (and selecting) wine?

Lamar Engel: Great question. Wine has always been a ‘pedestalized’ industry and has a deep history of pretentious behavior and ritual dating back to the time the first kings and emperors ruled.

Cupbearers were akin to what we know of as sommeliers today, albeit had a more treacherous occupation and dare I say a higher turnover as well. Their main job was to taste the wines and the foods of the court before it touched the lips of their rulers. This points to a myriad of ways they would have to familiarize themselves with arsenics, political angles, as well as have a broad knowledge of the guest list within the court.

Believe it or not – this birthed superstitions which in turn gave birth to ceremonial practices that began to lift this beverage up higher than it probably should have been.

As history progressed, it seems that wine has been used and sold as a bartering tool as well as an everyday part of life, yet a lot of scandals have surrounded this industry on a world stage. The vast history of this beverage created a stage for mystery and unattainable knowledge for many in the past. With the advent of the internet – this has become less and less a common occurrence although pretension still exists.

We like to hear that folks are reading more about wines and are trying to describe the sensations that they love when they drink and eat. With more openness to try and describe this experience, the easier it is for folks to share what they learn about winemaking choosing wines hopefully less intense of a moment and more of an adventure.

Gardyn: Gardyn is very green-focused and while we’re not opposed to meat, fruits and vegetables are at the top of our daily menus. Any tips when pairing wine with leafier meals?

LE: Love this question. If folks are enjoying ‘green’ or ‘leafy’ cuisine, we always lean to a few staples. Honestly, we wished someone told us about these wines earlier in our wine journey as they unlocked doors to other wines that we would never have heard of.

Grüner Veltliner is your best friend here. Austrian in origin and common enough to find in a wine market. It is surprisingly easy on the wallet and brings a ton of freshness and balanced acidity to the composition of greener vegetables. Other considerations would be Albariño, Riesling (Dry), Chenin Blanc (Loire Valley or South African). Some Sauvignon Blancs are wildly popular but it’s worth mentioning that California styles are our choice for this.

Gardyn: Are there any “no-no” veggies that make the magic grape taste less than delightful?

Wasabi Root

LE: Wasabi Root – People have a hard time enough with wasabi as it is but if we understand what it is and what it does then we can approach this a little differently. When one puts wasabi in the mouth it garners a reaction on the palate doesn’t it? It is a food item that plays on our pain reception which makes adding an alcohol to the mix an additional potential pain response mechanism.

If you are daring and willing – we recommend bringing the sting and heat down with lighter-in-alcohol wines that offer a touch of sweetness. It sounds backward, but also offering an element of effervescence will aid the experience and create cohesion between more flavors.

Gardyn: Do you have any favorite fail-safe dishes you like to pair with particular blends?

LE: I really wish I did. Blends are fun but can definitely be daunting when looking at this in a ‘digital’ or ‘wooden’ manner or trying to place blends in a category. We need to think more ‘analog’ about what works in the blend and what doesn’t with the food composition. I try to approach a blended wine with a dish more like a song with a band (like a producer, perhaps) and figure out what amazing parts need the volume knobs turned up here or there with the dish/wine offer ways to enhance this. 

Salt, Acid, Fat, Sweetness, Umami, etc – think of an EQ board that you get to play DJ for a moment and it really is that…a moment. Sometimes they work and sometimes the rhythm of the pairing is off but that is why this wine journey is so fun and that needs to be approached with an open mind.

Gardyn: Any strategies for selecting wine when you’re out to dinner and have no clue what to order with your dish? Finish this sentence… “When in doubt, go with _______.”

LE: Pinot Noir, Syrah, or Bubbles. Sorry I just realized that was 3. Ridiculous as it sounds I would probably show up with 3 bottles.

Gardyn: We love your mission of connecting guests with past memories by creating new ones, how can experiencing flavorful wine and fresh food help us connect more with each other?

LE: Thank you! We wish more folks would catch the wave like this as you have! I reluctantly use the word ‘educate’ when speaking to this and would rather use the words ‘deputize’ and ‘evangelize’ folks on new sensory experiences.

I met many leaders in the wine industry and was super disappointed with their narrow-mindedness being shocked that they would acquiesce for folks to ‘drink what they like’ which I agree with on one side, but on the contrary, disagree with 100%.

Here is why.

This idea of only drinking what you like means there is no room for growth or evolution of palate which is actually counterintuitive to how our palate developed in the first place.

Cut scene to me as a boy trying broccoli for the first time. I hated the taste of broccoli but now absolutely love including this [vegetable] within the food compositions we have daily. Additionally, the lazy ‘drink what you like’ mentality forgoes the option to seek out new wines and discover wines in a new way. 

I highly recommend opening up multiple bottles in a setting with friends or family to hear the reactions and insights and then deputize those to do the same the next time we meet. Sharing the wine and breaking bread is what this beverage is all about.

Opening up multiple bottles of wine helps expand the conversation over taste and flavor preferences. (Image courtesy of The Wine Militia)

Gardyn: We’re living in a flat and digital world, one that’s often lacking experiences that tap into the senses. What do you want your guests to take away from in-person and virtual wine tasting experiences?

LE: I love this question. Now more than ever we are craving human connection. To think of opening up a bottle of wine is a simple way to continue the story of the human experience is now an understatement. 

We have found that by bringing more elements of authentic storytelling into our experiences and events; both virtually and in-person, we are re-threading some of that lost time that we not together from this past year, but also, re-threading the bonds for so many folks that have not been at the table sharing with others for many years. These bottles are like little memory capsules that when opened with the right person can invoke all sorts of emotions and memories that are like a cinematic movie …in short stories.

Gardyn: Now for some fun! Name your top 3 movies to watch paired with your favorite blend…

LE: Ha – this could be interesting. I personally like to mix it up and do wine & movie pairings very different.

Movie #1: 1984 – Based on the George Orwell novel Directed by Michael Radford

I would pair this movie with Pinotage. Many folks dislike Pinotage and oftentimes misunderstand it. Upon first taste one might think “what the heck is this?” and for that reason, this movie is all sorts of relevant for the here and now. The scenes are disjointed and unsettling at times. The storyline and history of this novel are distorted and about mismatched lovers living in a dystopian time. This reminds me so much of Pinotage – a cross between rough and borderline criminal Cinsaut and hapless romantic Pinot Noir.

Movie #2: Dune – Based on the book by Frank Herbert 

I was infatuated with this movie when I was younger and was honestly the one movie I would watch over and over again. For that I would pair this movie with Grenache Blanc. This white grape is something I am obsessed with and have tasted and tried presumably every region that grows Grenache Blanc. They are incredible. Yes, different in some ways, but the thumbprint is the same. It reminds me of the constance of a feeling a movie or song gives…it never gets old.

Movie #3: Blade Runner 2049 

Ok, just go with me on this. Côte Rôtie 100%. Syrah & Viognier – often time co-fermented together. Some think this actually makes the wines lighter and softer. I have found this to be further from the truth. The bio-physiology of Viognier is strange – there are carbon ions that have actually been studied in this grape that prove the grape amplifies its partner Syrah both aromatically, but also deepens the inky hues of the red grape and amplify its silkiness while still being a bit spicy. How is that possible?

It’s a miracle, and upon sipping is full of twists and turns. This movie is exactly that for me. At first, the cinematics are bold and can be odd and a bit out of place and time, but then refine with fullness in dreamlike qualities. The story is dripping with complexity and oddities which nod back to the first Blade Runner and although the reboot is very different it still stays true to the original context and purity of the film. It sips like Côte Rôtie.

Discover more about Lamar Engel and virtual wine tasting experiences at The Wine Militia and get unpretentiously inspired about wine on Instagram

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