Paired to Perfection

Wine Country’s “Ferment of Desire” for Lamb

Paired to Perfection

By Jacqueline Harp

Can flock owners find synergies between the marketing of their lamb or mutton and the marketing done by the wine industry in their locality, state, or region? The community commonly includes wineries, vineyards, restaurants, tasting rooms, farmers markets and on-farm sellers.

Seneca Lake, the largest of the New York Finger Lakes, is surrounded by a superb wine trail, craft brewers, distilleries, and restaurants. Many are all-stars in the food, wine and hospitality industries. A few were willing to share with sheep! readers their valuable expertise about marketing lamb, including insider knowledge of the techniques of pairing lamb and wine.

Flock marketers can use the insights they’ve shared here to explore and research the market in their own regions to better communicate to that market. People with sheep to sell who better understand the culinary interaction of lamb as the companion of wines, beers or spirits, will be better able to articulate how sheep meat (whether whole carcasses, or individual cuts) can serve market demand.

Fine Dining’s Needs

Suzanne Fine Regional Cuisine is a highly-celebrated, farm-to-table restaurant located in Lodi, New York. Since 2003, co-owners Executive Chef Suzanne Stack and her husband, Robert “Bob” Stack, have been the creative powers behind this alluring food establishment, housed in a historic, 1903 farmhouse with a spectacular view of Seneca Lake. Suzanne began self-taught; then studied at The Culinary Institute of America and The French Culinary Institute. She was a James Beard Award Semi-Finalist for Best Chef of the Northeast in 2011. Bob is Wine Director, presiding over an extraordinary wine list, featuring over 100 domestic wines exclusively from the Finger Lakes region, as well as a few, carefully-selected international wines. His wine list at Suzanne’s received Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence seven years in a row.

They operated a nightly-dining restaurant for twelve years. For the past three years however, they instead now host a Cooking School, Special Events (e.g., weddings) and a limited number of set-menu Wine Dinners from May to October. The Wine Dinners are eminently popular. The 3.5-hour, five-course dinners for 35 people are fully booked the day they’re announced.

It was a privilege to speak to Suzanne and Bob about what they seek from purveyors of lamb and to glean knowledge about pairing lamb and wine from seasoned experts.

Fine Dining Starts at the Farm

“We at Suzanne’s make it a big deal to know where products are coming from, whether it is from our own garden or elsewhere. We believe in tailoring our menu so that there is minimal waste, and so that everyone’s hard-earned efforts, including the animal’s, are appreciated.” –Suzanne & Bob Stack.

Both Suzanne and Bob are meticulous about sourcing their protein and vegetables to accommodate their clientele’s demand for certified organic, biodynamic, or better-than-organic products. They maintain a large kitchen garden of herbs, tomatoes, and flowers, to bring maximum freshness to the French-American cuisine they offer.

They’ve found that the flavor of lamb is highly impacted by what a sheep eats and how it’s treated. And they rely on producers to provide a product that is going to be consistent in flavor and availability.

Bob: “As a mom-and-pop establishment, it’s tough for us, but it’s many times harder for a producer—from vegetables to proteins—to accomplish consistency. You want to be able to build a business relationship and wine can be a part of that. But, you can’t start talking about wine if you, as the producer, don’t even know how the animal is being fed.”

If Bob and Suzanne were to interview a lamb provider, they would ask: What you do? How you do it? What do you need from me? How can we build a great business relationship?

If you are a sheep producer, you need to ask the same questions.

Bob: “Trust is a huge factor. It takes a leap of faith. My clients trust me to provide an awesome experience, from the exclusive atmosphere, to flawless food and wine pairings. And I have to trust that the producers I choose to work with are as concerned about the product as I am.

“Without a doubt, the more you, as a shepherd understand about our business, and the more we understand about your sheep business, the more we can both be effective to make a great product for the end customer.”

“In this region, without the wineries there would be no restaurant. There’s a strong sense of community and partnership here. Word-of-mouth is paramount to how our business—and these other businesses—become known quantities, from the local to international level. It’s startling how fast word spreads from one person to another, especially with social media these days.”

Seneca Lake’s moderating effects make wine grapes flourish in dozens of adjacent micro-climates. Two vineyards, still green with grapes can just be seen across a grassy field, just before the woodland. View is from the Suzanne front yard. Vintners and brewers thrive by the healthy, wealthy Finger Lakes region, with tours, connoisseurs and invalids seeking cures.

“Can’t Get Enough U.S. Lamb”

Suzanne has enjoyed preparing and serving lamb since the day they first opened their doors. Bob has personally loved eating lamb since childhood. In the restaurant days, lamb was only second to beef in popularity. They only serve lamb cuts that are historically high-end, such as rack-of-lamb and lamb loin.

Suzanne: “When we had regular service, there were patrons who came regularly for the lamb. You either love lamb, or you don’t. Wine does not sell lamb; trust sells lamb. A good wine director contributes to that trust, by selecting the right wine to pair with the lamb.”

Bob: “Others have appreciated it, because we purchase really top quality lamb. They see that it is paired very nicely with the wines I select. Because our lamb is prepared with care, it’s their best shot at ever liking lamb. Many will enter the wine dinner disliking lamb, but they like it when they leave. At the October wine dinner, when Suzanne prepared lamb loin as the main course, 35 plates went out full, and 35 plates came back empty.”

Suzanne strongly prefers buying domestic lamb whenever possible and has sourced lamb from local farms in the past. Demand outstripped supply, however. And currently they buy lamb from D’Artagnan, (, a food wholesaler and manufacturer based in Union, New Jersey, that offers both Australian and domestic lamb. It’s important to her that the lamb be domestic, mild in flavor, pasture-raised, lightly grain-finished and hormone and antibiotic free. Her current supplier guarantees this to be the case.

and Bob Stack: Rapport with great growers is a cornerstone of dining perfection.

Pairing Techniques—An Art

Bob believes that to facilitate a good food and wine pairing, everything from cooking style and method, to how the protein or vegetable was produced, contributes an effect. He makes the wine pairing decision on the day the dish is prepared, because the wine is being paired to the food. Unless you’re in a situation where a winery poses a question about how their particular wines might pair with food, food isn’t created to match a specific wine.

One major rule Bob uses is if a lamb dish has a base sauce made with red wine, red wine is the only option for pairing.

Bob: “If red wine isn’t used in preparing a lamb dish, there are many wine pairing options from red to white, even Rieslings.

“For example, I have paired a glass of rosé to a lamb loin, encrusted with a layer of herbes de Provence, finished with a tomato vinaigrette. Why? Because rosé and herbes de Provence are linked, taste-wise, to a region of southeastern France.”

Next, wine should stand up to the strongest flavor and texture of the lamb or the dish, depending on the style of dish. Traditionally, food was presented on a plate in separate places by category: A starch, a protein and a vegetable. In this case the lamb would be the main ingredient to which you would pair the wine.

The cut of lamb lends a texture that impacts wine pairing. For example, a tender, melt-in-your-mouth cut wouldn’t need a heavy wine against that soft texture.

The modern trend in fine dining is called the “composed dish,” where the food is the art medium chefs use to create an integrated dish. With that in mind, they don’t necessarily focus on the main ingredient (lamb), but how the lamb fits within the composition of the dish.

Bob: “If the lamb is mild, I often will be pairing with the accents of the dish, not the main protein.

“But if I come across a gamier type of lamb, that lamb might speak louder than anything in that dish. Then I would find a wine that would pair nicely with the gaminess, or earthiness of the dish.”

Another element in wine pairing is acidity: Deciding whether to contrast, or to compliment the dish.

After considering the flavor and texture of the lamb dish, Bob uses that information to narrow down the wine selection. He has personally found that for lamb paired with wines from the Finger Lakes—with its various micro-climates and slate-based terroir—that the acidity in these local wines (especially the reds) captures big flavors and big textures.

Bob: “And that contrast breeds a really nice end product. All those different reds, have very different acidity profiles. The weight and texture of the wine plays a part a lean wine against a lighter dish. A heavy dish, such as a lamb loin covered in a decadent sauce with a lamb stock base, has the option for a heavy wine. But because this dish is already three dimensional, a little acidity would take on the decadence of the sauce.”

Lastly, there’s a visual aspect in the art of any food and wine pairing.

Bob: “Using color affinity as a wine pairing tool was based on the old adage, ‘red wine with red meat and white wine with fish and poultry.’ As more wines have been introduced in the Finger Lakes, there is more latitude to find exciting new pairings. Now, you might see a white wine with a mild, red meat, because of the influence of sauces and vinaigrettes.”

Personal preferences and palates are always in motion. And not every pairing is going to work for everyone. Bob concludes, “But our customers have been as a group supportive, excited, appreciative …and just a bit adventurous when it comes to food and wine pairings.

“They begin to understand three simple words: Wine—Food—Wine.

Metamorphosis! The food changed the wine. The wine changed the food, for the better.”

Suzanne has herbs and specialty vegetables growing right outside in a true kitchen garden. This degree of added labor insures perfect flavor. They work with meat growers to attain the same degree of quality, if not more, in meat grown for fine dining patrons.

For Grower-Marketers

Take this knowledge about what goes on in a fine dining restaurant to better hone your marketing skills.

In direct marketing to restaurants (or wine tasting rooms, breweries, etc.), notice the important elements:

Being open to inspection by chefs

Being knowledgeable and honest about how you raise and feed your sheep

Communicating the availability of your product.

For direct marketing to consumers (farmers market, on-farm sales), your knowledge about wine pairings—and your wine community—can help inspire purchases of various cuts. Read one of the many good books (or websites) on food and wine: Choose a more modern source.

Find out what’s going on in your particular region in terms of wine, craft brewing, and dining. Figure out their various demands (e.g., a tip-to-tail chef is looking for a whole carcass; a fine dining chef is seeking high-end cuts such as rack and loin chops); a wine tasting room or brewery may want cuts suitable for appetizers (ground lamb, lamb for kebabs).

Be open to changing your farming practices, or even the breed of sheep you raise, to meet demand in your area.

Note the importance of personal dealings, product knowledge, business integrity, and word-of-mouth in finding and keeping business partners in the marketplace for lamb.

Jacqueline Harp, freelance writer and fiber artist;

Originally published in the January/February 2018 issue of sheep!.

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