Serious Eats

Meet & Eat: Matt Skinner, 'Heard It Through the Grapevine' Author

"The thing to think about, most importantly, is to match the weight of your wine with the weight of your food."

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This week we chat with Matt Skinner, an Australian wine writer and enthusiast, most recently the author of Heard It Through The Grapevine: The Things You Should Know to Enjoy Wine.

20090701-grapevine.jpgName: Matt Skinner
Location: Melbourne, Australia
Occupation: Wine writer, consultant, and educator

How did you become involved in the wine industry at such a young age?
I didn't know at age 17 what I wanted to do with my life. I got a job in a bottle shop, like a liquor store, in Australia. They specialized in selling cases of beer and boxes of wine, nothing glamorous. We were in a pretty seedy area so we had a rough clientele.

I wasn't a model employee. I got caught on CCTV kind of doing nothing by my boss, and he gave me an ultimatum--either I could leave or I could stay and try to learn something about what we're trying to do. He taught me how to taste, which I found intriguing and frustrating at the same time. He also encouraged me to go into a wine course at night. I wasn't overly enthusiastic, but found it fascinating. I learned that wine was more than liquid in a glass--it was a little bit of art, a little bit of science--history, geography, and Mother Nature colliding.

I finished that course and then worked at a wine specialist, my first real job in wine. I had the chance to visit a vineyard for the first time, talk to the winemaker. That's how it started. I've never considered doing anything else.

Why do you think many people are so intimidated by wine and what advice do you have for those folks?
In a lot of ways it's a subject with its own culture, its own language, its own stereotypes. People have a lot of misconceptions about wine because they see it as a sort of tradition, bound and elitist. Knowing what you like is great, but knowing why you like it will help you to understand wine so much better, and to get to that point doesn't require that you learn a huge amount. What I'd encourage people to do is use the resources they have--the sommeliers, the person behind the counter--it's like an insurance policy against getting bad bottles.

What kinds of things can we tell sommeliers in restaurants, or our local wine shops so that they can help us find the perfect bottle of wine for a particular meal or occasion?
You need to commit to memory some of the things you like--the grape variety, the country, etc. The more information you can give that person, the better. Budget is really important. Knowing what you don't like as well. It can be pretty basic, just enough to help gauge where you're at.

It's also important to go outside your comfort zone; don't stick to the same old, same old. The world of wine is a huge place and life's too short to stick to Australian Shiraz or New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. There's a world of fantastic stuff out there, so try it all.

For those of us who focus on pairing wine with food, what should we be thinking about to create strong pairings?
There are two camps. The traditionalists, who are quite conservative in their approach, say red wine with red meat; white wine with everything else. And then there's a new school coming up now, particularly in Asia and Spain where science and food have collided with art. It's pretty crazy.

The sommeliers are really pushing the boundaries with combinations. I fall somewhere in the middle. I understand why certain wines work with certain foods. The thing to think about, most importantly, is to match the weight of your wine with the weight of your food. Once you've got that down, you'll have a pretty good idea of whether it's going to be red or white. And then, find flavor links between the wine and the food, or contrasts that work. Acidity and tannin are important to navigate texture and to clean your palate. It's a little bit of art, a little bit of science, and some trial and error.

Screw caps vs. corks. Why are we seeing more screw caps these days on higher-end wines, when they used to be associated with cheaper wines? Many winemakers in Australia are using them, right?
Absolutely. In 2000, about 15 of the largest Australian producers switched to screw caps. That was their way of presenting to the public that they believe screw caps help the consumer to drink the wine the way the winemakers intended. About five to seven percent of wine packaged with traditional cork is tainted to some extent, and random oxidation is another problem as well. A lot of producers were originally waiting to see the public's reaction, and now we're seeing higher-end producers using them in Italy and France as well.

What are some of the more overlooked Australian wine varietals? We keep grabbing the Shiraz, but want to try something new.
Riesling, for example. Jeffrey Grosset is one of the biggest Riesling producers in the Southern Hemisphere. Clare Valley produces a steely, austere, dry style of Riesling that has lemon, lime and mineral character as well. Light, dry and beautiful.

Semillion is a classic variety that has been grown for about a hundred years. I wish more people would drink it. We're starting to experiment in Australia with varieties from other parts of the world with similar climates, like Primitivo and Negro Amaro from Southern Italy, Temperanillo, Sangiovese, Malbec--it's great. It forces Australian producers to think about how they make their wines.

Tell us about your new book, Heard it Through the Grapevine. What are the key things we'll learn from reading it?
Hopefully, that wine isn't the scary subject it's often made out to be. I really hope that it inspires a bit more passion, knowledge, and enthusiasm for what I think is an amazing subject. I hope it inspires people to go buy another wine book.

It's not meant to be the definitive guide; it's meant to give people a taste for more. I hope they get a great foundation, fundamental basics, and that they're not intimidated to talk to the sommelier or when they're in a wine shop, to have the courage to walk to the counter and ask for help and advice. I hope that people ask the questions they were afraid to ask.

You manage the wine program at Jamie Oliver's Fifteen Restaurant Group. Do you and Jamie ever get to hang out over a good bottle of wine?
Not often. Our relationship meets in cyberspace. I spend about four months of the year traveling and am in the UK about four times a year. Jamie and I always make grand plans for catch-ups and inevitably our schedules end up changing and not working out. We were friends before we were workmates and we remain that. Last time, we managed to sneak a couple of hours in with a nice bottle of wine, but in less glamorous surroundings--in the office. It was lovely, actually.

Any advice for a serious eater with a limited budget (and storage space) on forming the foundations of a home wine collection?
Find a space in your place that has a stable environment, away from light, excessive change in temperature, and vibration. If you can eliminate those three things, fantastic. If you don't have that, worst case scenario, cardboard is a good insulator. You can use wine boxes, with polystyrene packaging, that hold 12 bottles. You can slide those into a dark spot that's vibration-free with an even temperature and they'll be stable. If you share your apartment, make sure you've got a padlock or a combination lock.

Guilty pleasures?
Anchovies are like my favorite things. I think it stemmed from working in an Italian kind of environment--they lend a lot of depth and flavor to a dish. I'll use one or two when I'm cooking and then eat the rest of the jar while I'm still cooking. And then I'll wonder why I wake up at two in the morning wanting a liter of water.

Food you won't eat? Wine you won't drink?
Nothing springs to mind. Food's as important to me as wine, so I'll happily try anything.

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