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OFF THE CLOCK: Champagne And Corn Flakes With Jason Wagner Of The Gage And Henri

By Erin Drain in Food on Apr 10, 2013 7:00PM

Jason Wagner at Henri.
For the past two editions of Off the Clock, our sommeliers had to pair wines with savory foods that could conceivably be enjoyed with a glass of wine in hand. However, this time we decided to throw Jason Wagner (sommelier at Henri and The Gage) a curveball and ask him to abandon the notion of context just a little bit in order to pair wines from his list with cereal. Neither Henri nor The Gage serve breakfast, and while the latter does have a brunch menu, there's nary a Lucky Charm in sight. Anyway, everyone knows that a bowl of cereal knows no set timeframe; who among us hasn't wolfed one down in front of the TV late at night?

Wagner wants you to explore his wine list, but isn’t going to make you take out a second mortgage to do so. While he jokes that when he's off the clock, he "only eats foie gras tacos," he knows that the trick isn't just the price tag, it's context. At The Gage, he says, “you’re in an Irish gastropub on Michigan Avenue," so the middle of downtown tourist central — not his former home on wine-loving Randolph Street. When pressed further to discuss the balance he seeks for his wine list, he says that he can force people to explore, but “for $45, not $120.” And so with his sub-$50 bottles, he creates a wine list that is accessible because of the price point, but always with a twist: for instance, everyone knows malbec (“which is comfortable to say and tastes like chocolate”) from Argentina, but he hopes to give a little bit of a history lesson by opting to serve an inexpensive malbec from the grape’s native home in southern France.

Of course, when it comes to food and pairing strategies, it’s also all about context. Wagner gives the example of serving a dessert wine in the second course of a long dinner at Henri; to him this would be a terrible decision that would result in “blowing out everyone’s palates” too early and ruining the purpose of the wine, which is to firmly end a meal, or serve as a stand-in for dessert. Traditional in his approach, Jason subscribes to classic tenets of wine pairing: serving like with like; or instead opting for contrasting flavors; lastly, he enjoys the "admittedly corny” old mantra that “what grows together, goes together,” matching wines with dishes local to the region whence they come - for instance a zippy Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley paired with a tangy fresh chevre cheese.

We took away all of this context, which forced Jason to lean back on his other pairing strategies, such as "like with like." With classic, crunchy corn flakes, Wagner recommends a blanc de blancs Champagne, like Leclerc Briant, which has a toasty aroma and "crunchy" minerality that matches with the crisp flakes - as long as you don't dawdle in eating them, that is. Another easy pairing would be Raisin Bran with a Pedro Ximenez sherry; with its intense raisiny flavor (duh) and thick texture to match the milk in the bowl, the sherry would be a sweet-tooth's dream accompaniment to breakfast.

But enough with all the healthy cereal! Wagner's best and most inspired pairing is the Koehler-Ruprecht "Kallstadter Steinacker" 2010 Riesling from Pfalz, Germany with Fruit Loops. The wine, he says, has all the flavors (lime, peach, apricot) that one finds in the cereal. And, while he's hesitant about the curdle factor of such a high acid wine with milk, he says the pairing's worth using soy milk instead. The wine comes in at only $48 per bottle on his list. If only Henri allowed BYO cereal to check out the pairing!