Pairing is a beautiful thing: A chat with Hen of the Wood wine specialist William McNeil

Euphoria. It seems an appropriate word to describe the first time I had a meal with an extremely well paired glass of wine. The dish: A sirloin strip, cooked medium rare in a crust of Kona coffee. The wine: a Zinfandel blend from California. Like my wife and I (we were celebrating a wedding anniversary that night), the two paired beautifully! [INSERT ‘AWW’ SOUND HERE]

Mind you, I never could have chosen the pairing on my own. While I feel confident in my selection of food, wine is a very new world to me. I only began to appreciate the nuances of a well made bottle of wine over the last few years. So, when the time comes to pair, I look to those in the know. The wine specialist. The sommelier.

Weeks ago, I had the opportunity to dine at Hen of the Wood in Waterbury, Vermont. The meal that evening was sublime (Have I mentioned how much I loved that duck sausage and polenta?). The food was only part of the show, though. While Hen of the Wood may not have the biggest wine list I’ve ever seen, it is a list that holds true to the most important element of the work a sommelier performs: pairing.

I was fortunate to get some time with wine specialist and co-owner William McNeil. We had the chance to talk a little about what goes in to being a sommelier, how pairing impacts the dinning experience, and a full day worth of food memories.

William McNeil and Eric Warnstedt – Photo by Curtis Salvard

Foodie Journal: So, it definitely seems like being involved with the food industry, especially running a restaurant, takes a lot of dedication. For most I’ve spoken to, there seems to be a real love of food. Where did your love of food come from?
William McNeil: Well, I guess it’s just something you know. Like when you know you want to ask someone to marry you. I have been in the food industry since I was fourteen and fell in love with it at the Culinary Institute of America. Things started finally ‘clicking’ there and I knew it was what I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing.

FJ: How’d you get your start in the food industry?
WM: I got my start at the Sirloin Saloon as a dishwasher when I was fourteen. It was my first real job, and it opened my eyes to the basics of food preparation. I also started cooking there when I was seventeen and learned how to temp a steak real quick.

FJ: In doing some prep for this interview, I saw that you were pushing towards becoming a Master Sommelier. Can you speak a little to what goes in to becoming a Master Sommelier and how hard it is?
WM: Well to be completely honest, at one point in my life I thought that was the calling. I did my studying, passed the first level and then prepared for the second. I have still yet to take the second.  I will, but I think that is as far as I am planning to take it.  Being a Master Sommelier is a huge honor to anyone you receives it, and I highly respect them.  You study for years to attain it, and most people do not make it. To me, well it just doesn’t do it for me anymore. The more I developed my love affair with wine, the more I want to support the winemakers and farmers who work as hard as we do.  These are the same producers that work the land without the use of chemicals, and care for what they are doing.  They produce wine with no added sulfites and indigenous yeasts.  These ‘natural’ wines are the true representation of that wine. With that said, I prefer to look at my wine studies in a ‘natural’ way, and not over done or over extracted, like many of these exams out there are. My studies will always continue, and will always represent the small guys out there.

FJ: As any foodie, I can attest to how a good wine, or even a beer for that matter, can enhance a meal. Why does pairing matter so much to the dining experience? Have you ever come across a dish that was almost impossible to pair with?
WM: Pairing is a beautiful thing. When you find that balance of a fat and an acid, then fruit and spice, and finally elegance and balance, you can really match every element in a single dish. It truly is amazing! Is there always one bottle that will pair the best?  Yes, but there are many that would pair great as well.  The one thing I have learned about this ‘prefect pairing’ is that it’s different to every guest. My perfect bottle might be something that the guest hates, because they simply don’t like their wine to taste like mushrooms, wet hay, or be overly acidic, which I happen to love and I feel  works great with the food we serve at Hen of the Wood.  Then it is the job of my servers and myself to find the perfect pairing for that guest, meeting their tastes.  This can be done, and compromises will be made on both sides.  I will say though that there is not a single bottle on our wine list that does not pair with something we are offering.

FJ: Oenophiles are always on the look out for a new ‘favorite’. Do you have a favorite wine, or is it just too tough to pick just one?
WM: I can’t pick a single wine.  It depends if I am eating or not, and what I’m eating. I can tell you that there are a couple of great importers out there that I love to support and would recommend anything in their portfolios. Just look at the back label and look for these folks: Louis Dressner, Jenny & Francois, SelectioNaturel, Neil Rosenthal and Kermit Lynch. That’s just to name a few favorites.

FJ: I’ll make matters even more difficult… how about picking a food memory or experience? Is there a particular food memory, a specific meal or even the preparation of one, that stands out in your mind as a great food memory for you?
WM: A favorite food experience? I would have to say it was one entire day, actually. Eric and I were in San Fransisco and eating more than anyone should do in a single day, but we only had two days there.  We started with coffee at Blue Bottle in the Ferry Building. Then lunch at Catogna, sister restaurant to Quince. Drinks at Comstock Saloon, followed by first dinner at Camino in Oakland. Drinks at Bar Argicole, and finally second dinner at Frances.  That single day opened my eyes to so many things. From service to restaurant design, cocktails to food, it opened my eyes more than I ever imagined seeing in Vermont in an entire year.  Everyday I remember something that we saw on that trip and end up talking about it.

William McNeil is wine specialist and co-owner of Hen of the Wood. It is located at 92 Stowe Street in Waterbury, Vermont.

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