Pairing wine with food is a world onto itself. A recent dinner at Seven Hills, a San Francisco restaurant, allowed me to rediscover some rules I already knew and one I should have known.

Located in Russian Hill, Seven Hills is one of those hidden neighborhood gems that Michael Bauer, food critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, refers to as “a second tier restaurant that would be first tier in any other city.” It’s a small, 45 seat storefront spot on a quiet, residential block of Hyde Street, cable cars crisscrossing in front. The food is Italian, with a strong touch of California cuisine. 

Julie and I employed our usual wine strategy: two bottles, white and red, two wine glasses per person, mix and match as we please.  It allows for experimentation with unconventional pairings. I had brought a bottle of 1999 Chateau Beauregard, a Bordeaux, with me. From the restaurant’s wine list I picked a 2015 Ciu Ciu Pecorino, a white wine from the Marche region of Italy.

The Beauregard is a serious red. It comes from a historic estate in Pomerol founded in the 11th century by the Knights Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem. Its varietal composition is 70% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Franc, a typical Right Bank mix. ’99 is a vintage that is drinking well nowadays. 

The white wine was a wild leap. I had only known Pecorino as a cheese made of sheep’s milk. I recently learned that it’s also a wine. When it caught my eye on the wine list, I decided to give it a whirl.

We first sampled both. The ’99 Beauregard had a wonderful herbal nose, soft texture on the palate and a pleasantly vegetative finish. Very nice. The Pecorino turned out to be quite aromatic, with bold flavors, crisp acidity and some sweetness in mid palate that we greeted with some alarm. Would it go well with the meal?

Our first courses were appetizer plates. My wife’s snap pea salad, full of fresh vegetables and a yogurt based sauce, went well with the white wine. No surprise.

The other plate, Italian meatballs with melted Fontina in the center, was a revelation. Two giant, baseball sized meatballs were presented in tangy marinara sauce. One would think that the red wine would match well with the red meat. The Beauregard didn’t. The Pecorino was much better.

It should not have been so surprising. The white wine was actually pairing with the marinara sauce rather than the meat. I had just re-discovered a rule I knew: do not match the wine to the meat, match it to the sauce.

The meal continued with a shared plate of tortellini with English peas, excellent with the Pecorino. Then came grilled halibut for me and Wagyu beef for my wife. We tried each wine with each plate. The white disappeared fast. The Bordeaux lingered. It had tasted well by itself. With food, its vegetative qualities became exaggerated, off-putting. 
I thus came to a realization that, when later announced, drew laughs from my wine group colleagues: Bordeaux does not go well with Italian food.

One wine buddy slapped his forehead with his palm. “Now, you discovered?!” They had known this all along. 
If you must drink red with Italian food it’s best to stick to Italian reds. They are, by tradition, made to go with food, lighter in fruit and acidic as they are.

Naturally there are many wines from France or California that share similar qualities. They are not, however, the ones we enjoy as sipping wines, overstated in fruit, featuring high extraction and  alcohol. In this regard, if uncertain, it’s best to consult with a knowledgeable wine steward, if one is available.

Perhaps the best lesson from the experience is the main one I learned by ordering the Pecorino. Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and try something new. More often than not, the effort will be rewarding.