Reflections on being a sommelier: Michael Dolinski (From our archives)

Michael Dolinski, Beverage Director, at Junoon restaurant In New York, relishes the unique challenges of pairing Indian cuisine with wine

Michael Dolinski

Each day I don a suit and tie and head to work at the most challenging and interesting job I’ve ever held. I am the Wine Director at one of the top restaurants in New York City. While that alone is a challenge, what makes this job particularly interesting, is that the restaurant in question is Junoon, a modern Indian restaurant and currently one of the few Indian restaurants in the world to hold a Michelin Star.

Beginning the conversation about wine in an Indian restaurant is never simple. The Sommelier gets put in the position of having to make the case for why wine is the right beverage. Cultural and religious factors related to alcohol aside, wine is not really part of the Indian culinary tradition and there aren’t “classic” food and wine pairings in the way that there are in most European cuisines. Complicating matters further is that much of the experience many people have in trying to pair wine with Indian dishes is unsuccessful. As a result, many of our guests come in with the preconceived notion that the best beverage for the cuisine is beer or water and won’t even consider wine. Even if guests do want wine, they usually don’t expect a sommelier to be available to assist them. Either way, I often end up having to explain my presence before I can even say a word about the wine list.

Once the wine conversation does begin, there are new challenges. Misconceptions float around about how to pair wine with many Asian cuisines, including the weird notion in the United States that somehow “Asian Cuisine” is a single dish with a single best pairing. When a guest greets the sommelier in a French restaurant, they would never ask “What goes better with European food, red or white?” It’s not too hard to see that this question is absurd, it depends on the dish. Yet people ask me daily what goes better with Indian cuisine, red or white. It’s really the same question, but it seems to make sense to people. Perhaps it’s at least in part due to the fact that if they admit that Indian cuisine is best paired dish by dish, it becomes incredibly intimidating.

I also encounter questions like “Can you tell me where the Gewurztraminers are in the list? I have a friend who knows everything about wine and he said that’s the best wine for Indian food.”  I’m tempted to ask: “What does your friend actually know about Indian cooking, spices, or techniques? Has he been to Junoon? Does he know the actual dish you’ve ordered?”

Here in New York, a prominent local magazine recently interviewed some of the top sommeliers in the city and had them do pairings for a variety of Indian dishes. Most were sommeliers I know and respect, some are even personal friends. Although they are some of the very best sommeliers in the world, from the article, it was clear that they didn’t taste the dishes and they didn’t test the pairings. I’m pretty sure that none of the sommeliers interviewed has ever worked in an Indian Restaurant or knows much of anything about Indian cuisine.

In many ways it’s hard to blame our guests. After all, this is the information they’re getting. There are great sommeliers in the world, many of whom are incredibly knowledgeable and talented. There are great Indian chefs, producing some of the most exciting food in the world from an amazing palette of ingredients. And rarely, if ever, do you find anyone who can bridge the gap with any understanding of both worlds.

This is exactly my challenge as well. I was raised and trained, as are most sommeliers, in a purely European culinary environment. When we first opened Junoon, I had absolutely no experience with the Indian kitchen. Virtually all of the flavours, textures, cooking methods and complex layers of spice that give Indian cuisine its rich palate were completely new to me. However, I did have
over 15 years of experience in the wine trade. It was with that knowledge that I set out to try to deconstruct new flavours and figure out how to pair them with wine. My view is rooted in a firm belief that wine is a beverage to accompany food, whether that food is Indian, French, Chinese or anything else. The sommelier’s challenge is to understand what the flavours and structural elements are in a dish and find the right wine to complement them.

Most important in this process is to begin with a standard for what a pairing should accomplish. For me that means the dish and the wine must each contribute flavours and textures that create a complete combination, a sensory experience that is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s not about finding a wine that can merely survive the spices, and it’s most certainly not about changing Indian dishes to make them easier to pair.

I can never hope to understand the whole of Indian cookery, the subject is simply too vast.
I can, however, try to understand each dish, working with the chef to learn how the flavours are constructed. The joy of what I do is to then find a wine that has particular components, both in flavour and structure, that can become actual parts of that dish. The process of learning how to do this is the key to bridging the divide between the cuisine and the wine.

At first it was incredibly hard. Many of the truly great European dishes are composed of only six or eight ingredients. I quickly realised that this would be much harder when a dish had (as I discovered is common in India) more than 20 different ingredients. Over time, I became more confident as I came to understand that any dish, regardless of where in the world it originates, begins with a base and builds flavours upon that base. European dishes are almost always built from a major protein element, so you learn to pair wine with chicken, meat or fish. Indian cuisine is more likely to build from bases that begin with onions, garlic, coconut milk or particular spices. So I’ve learned to pair to those elements in ways that often surprise my guests. Our Lamb Boti Kebab is perfect, paired with an off-dry German Riesling and our Nadru Kofte is delicious with a spicy, bold Austrian Blaufränkisch.

Balance is another issue I consider in building wine and food pairings. European chefs find such Indian staples as tamarind and turmeric very difficult and they often use far more salt than their Indian counterparts. The resulting dishes are thus salty and lack much that is bitter or sour to balance the salt. This is well suited to the chemistry of many wines which will fix that balance with acidity and tannin. Most European dishes don’t actually reach their full potential until you add an appropriate glass of wine. In a relative sense, this makes the sommelier’s job a bit easier. In contrast, Indian cuisine is often built on delicate and incredibly intricate balances and wine has to be selected carefully so as to avoid upsetting that balance. Closely considering the tannin, acid and sugar levels in a particular wine relative to how the balance in a particular dish is constructed is essential to making good pairings with Indian dishes.

Wine is slowly making its way into Indian thought and culture, and Indian cuisine is revolutionising the cuisine of the rest of the world. This is the reality of being a sommelier in the 21st century and I feel truly privileged to be able to be on what I consider the forefront of world cuisine.

(This article first appeared in Sommelier India, August-September 2015)