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.

Keeping it local: A conversation with Hen of the Wood Chef/Co-owner Eric Warnstedt

To Chef Eric: You had me at duck sausage.

I can still taste the dish even two months later. A duck sausage and polenta appetizer with a sunny-side up duck egg. It was amazingly rich. Incredibly delicious. Locally sourced.

Pretty much every dish on the menu at Hen of the Wood in Waterbury, Vermont is locally sourced. It’s a passion of executive chef and co-owner Eric Warnstedt, so much so that he couldn’t imagine running the restaurant in any other way. Diners and growers alike have the pleasure of reaping the benefits of this dedicated chef and his team.

I had the opportunity to speak with Chef Eric. During our interview we discuss where his love of food came from, why local sourcing matters so much to him, and his (many) favorite food experiences.

Special thanks to Chef Matt Jennings for recommending Hen of the Wood. Always trust the chef!

Eric Warnstedt and William McNeil – Photo by Curtis Salvard

Foodie Journal: So, when did you discover that you had a love for food that would lead you to becoming a chef, and how’d you get your start?
Eric Warnstedt: At some point in college, my junior year I think, I applied for a job at a new restaurant. They hired me, but put me in the kitchen. I had zero restaurant experience and was just looking for a job.  It clicked, though, and I did really well. Then I got fired for drinking while dining there. I was under 21 at the time. But, he hired me back though. Shortly after, I decided to finish up college and go to culinary school.

We ate well as a family but not necessarily from a ‘high-end’ restaurant standpoint. We always had good steaks, stone crabs, oysters and lobster, etc. And, really the connection with food and environmental stewardship has been with me since day one. I knew immediately that the focus was going to be on local, seasonal food.

FJ: You’re considered one of the best chefs in the region, so much so that you’ve been nominated for the James Beard Award for Best Chef of New England for four years. Do awards, or any of the labels that come with it, impact chefs in any noticeable way?
EW: That’s a hard question to quantify.  There are many great chefs that for whatever reason seem to go unnoticed.  The acknowledgement feels great and definitely helps keep the ball rolling from a motivational standpoint. From a business standpoint it obviously does help to get the word out.

FJ: You really seem to have a love for Vermont. You were an integral part in the planning of the Stowe Food & Wine Festival. You make a serious effort to serve locally sourced EVERYTHING at Hen of the Wood. What is it about Vermont that hooked you?
EW: I love Vermont – I mean, I really love Vermont.  This region has been great to me and my restaurant and I do my best to give as much back as I possibly can.  We are very involved in our regions fundraising efforts and at the end of the day I feel really good about how much we support our regions producers.

From the farmers to the cheese makers, ranchers to the brewers, it really feels like we have the best of the best.  It is continually inspiring.

FJ: You obviously are very dedicated to local sourcing – why do you feel it is so important?
EW: The local thing is the only option.  It isn’t a trend or a fad.  It is what gives us an identity. It’s what connects us to the past, keeps us focused on the present, and ensures our food’s future. Seems so simple.

FJ: Its a hard question to answer for many of the chefs I’ve spoke with, but is there a memory or experience with food that really stands out above the rest for you? Something you wouldn’t mind sharing?
EW: We are so lucky to have memorable food experiences on a regular basis. We may not make that much money but we definitely live like kings.  I have great memories of my dad banging stone crabs with a hammer in our garage in southern Florida. More recent memories are of roasting whole pigs for charity events, making lobster scrambled eggs for breakfast in Maine, seeing endless bags of porcinis being delivered when the weather is just right, pressing apples for cider in the fall with friends, drinking natural wines while gorging ourselves at places like Joe Beef in Montreal. The list is endless! Sorry to not give you one good story!

Open since 2005, Eric opened Hen of the Wood, along with co-owner and wine specialist William McNeil. It is located at 92 Stowe Street in Waterbury, Vermont.