Wine Talk: The taste and flavor guru

Joshua Wesson, author of ‘Red Wine with Fish,’ is the man who, almost single-handedly, changed our views about wine.

Joshua Wesson, author of ‘Red Wine with Fish’ (photo credit: Courtesy)
Joshua Wesson, author of ‘Red Wine with Fish’
(photo credit: Courtesy)
I meet with Joshua Wesson every 10 years.
The first time was through the pages of his book Red Wine with Fish: The New Art of Matching Food and Wine (Simon & Schuster, 1989). This was a book that changed my wine life and opened a whole new world for me. I valued it highly. I lent it to someone still reasonably prominent in Israeli wine. I never got it back, so he must have valued it, too.
Ten years later I met Wesson in person at the Golan Vintage Culinary and Wine Festival when I worked at the Golan Heights Winery. He was invited as a guest speaker, along with celebrity chefs. He revealed himself to be an uproariously funny speaker – witty, pithy, spontaneous – and, in the end, despite many humorous diversions, reasonably on message.
Roughly 10 years later we met again at this year’s IsraWinExpo, the country’s main wine exhibition. I am now working for Carmel and Yatir wineries, and he kindly took time to taste my wines. Regrettably, I show some of the ravages of time, but he still looked annoyingly young. Hard to believe we are the same age.
Wesson’s first lesson in matching food and wine was at age five, drinking Manischewitz Concord Grape with gefilte fish.
His family drew inspiration from “a Jewish cookbook whose primary direction for the fish was ‘bake until brown, then boil it.’” From these nightmarish beginnings, Wesson miraculously emerged to be named as one of the top five sommeliers in the world because he worked hard and had a gift. In 1984 he won the title in the US of Best Sommelier in French Wines and Spirits.
He then wrote his book, co-authored with David Rosengarten. It shattered accepted rules and simplified wine into flavors.
It broke down a complicated world and opened a door in my mind. He was determined to expose wine rules as false, to tear down the disease of wine snobbery and make wine simply a matter of taste and flavors – your taste, not the experts’.
His great expertise was in matching food with wine, or wine with food, understanding what he calls “the building blocks of flavor through practical experience.”
He broke down wines and dishes into components, flavors and texture, and then highlighted similarities and contrasts.
He did not preach, and he scorned those that do. In his own words: “I have always had a democratic and egalitarian view of wines’ place in the world. I never had my pinkie out.”
Wesson became the crusader for spreading common sense in food and wine pairings.
He became a much sought-after lecturer and was in demand on all the television networks whenever food and wines were discussed.
In 1996 the sommelier, author and wine educator metamorphosed into a retailer.
He was co-founder and then executive wine director of the most innovative chain of retail wine stores in America, called Best Cellars, which revolutionized wine retailing. These wine shops were small and inviting. There were no more than 100 wines listed, which equaled the size of a reasonably small wine list in a restaurant, and all the wines were under $10 (the limit was later raised to $15). He did not categorize wines by winery, grape variety or region, as was commonly the case, but chose instead a description. The genius that is Wesson achieved this using one word.
There were eight categories: Fresh, Soft and Luscious for white wines; Juicy, Smooth and Big for reds. Sparkling wines were Fizzy, and dessert wines were Sweet.
Each of these headings was matched by an icon and a color, and the wines were placed in cubby holes in what was known as “the wall.” Sophisticated yet wonderfully simple. The décor and staff were chosen to match the easy, welcoming concept.
Wesson was responding to a need. “I heard the same questions all the time, and they all reduced to ‘How can I make sense of the world of wine without having to master all the details? How can I deal with all these choices when all I want is a wine that goes with pizza?’” He provided the world with a new wine shopping experience. Whereas most people who deal in wine delight in making things as complicated as possible, Wesson was able to strip the subject to the bare essentials. It was, he says, about pleasure and taste rather than the intellectual approach, about terroir, yields and scores.
Looking at the Israeli wine scene now compared with 10 years ago, Wesson says: “It’s evolved 30 years in less than a decade.
The next 10 years will doubtless be even more exciting… but I am not waiting that long between visits!” Red Wine with Fish is out of print, but the Wesson doctrine is clearly outlined in his latest book, Wine & Food: A New Look at Flavor, published by Bonnier Books. I have just bought a copy, but this time I will remember whom not to lend it to!
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in Israeli and international publications.