Korean Food: All Signs Point to California!

Honesty is always the best policy! That is why I give you a little back ground on myself. I was raised in Daly City California just south of San Francisco, and while the Bay Area is now considered a culinary destination for Asian cuisine it was not that way in the 1960’s when I was growing up. The extent of my exposure was every year on my father’s birthday; much to the dismay of my brother and me he requested Chinese food and we had to drive two cities away to pick it up.

Fast forward to today, I wear two very different hats. I’m 63 and the Senior Wine Specialist-Bordeaux Expert at K&L Wine Merchants which in itself a bit of a miracle as there was not much fine wine around either in the 1960’s.

I adore the wines of Bordeaux, where I’ve travelled 52 times, evaluated 29 straight vintages and travelled to Asia 12 times now. I’ve tasted over 150,000 wines in my career and that is a conservative estimate. I’m also the consultant for PrimeCellar since day one of the company.

When my colleague Ted Ko asked me to pair our California wines with traditional Korean food I realized that Korean BBQ is all I had ever tasted. Even with my limited knowledge of Korean food I was well aware of the wines that are usually paired with spicy foods, Sparkling wines, Rose, Rieslings and fruity reds.

I pulled out the wines and to be fair also pulled a good bottle of Bordeaux and a Sancerre Rose to pair with the delicious Banchan from HoM Korean Kitchen in Redwood City Ca. We ordered the Tofu, Korean Steak, Pork and Chicken with bean sprouts, broccoli, carrots, cucumber, kimchi, radish, spinach and zucchini and went to work.

The first thing I noticed is the freshness of the healthy-diverse ingredients which is very similar to our California cuisine, producing a wide range of flavors. The major difference is the spice and the heat, and how much of it.

My wife Kim and I eat and tasted thru the different combinations and this is what we found. The 2016 Kokomo Sauvignon with its lovely floral aromas and lively citrus flavors paired very well with the spicy Tofu and the chicken. The Dream Chardonnay was defiantly best with the chicken, its slight richness and tart green apple fruit was a nice pairing and could go with the Tofu. The Sancerre rose also paired nicely with both.

The soft, round, subtle weight and texture of the Dream Pinot Noir also went very well with the chicken but was also very good with the pork and is no problem if you love Pinot with your steak.

Both Cabernet Sauvignon’s the 2012 Tin Soldier Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2016 Kokomo Sonoma County were great with the steak and are very different wines. Tin Soldier is a mountain wine, boldly flavored with zesty acidity and firm structure while the Kokomo 2016 is also bold but much riper, much softer and richly textured.

My Bordeaux selection will remain unnamed so not to throw it under the bus, but it was quite clear that the high acid, much leaner and drier style of Bordeaux did not pair anywhere near as well as the easy drinking, fruit forward, lower acid, warm and richly textured wines from California.

The dramatic differences in the style and taste of these two world famous regions are very simply traced to location, weather and water. Bordeaux is on the 45th parallel, over 400 miles north of Napa which is on the 38th along with Korea. Bordeaux has a maritime climate and can experience wild swings in temperature and is much colder than Napa and so is the soil so Bordeaux is far more dependent on the kindness of Mother Nature.

Summer can be blazing hot in both places! In California if the leaves and vines start to show signs of dehydration; water from drip irrigation solves this problem right away. In Bordeaux you can only water a vine less than 1 year of age and only by hand. If you get caught by the patrolling Fire Departments you go to jail. This is a very big difference!

As I tasted in Bordeaux with a winemaker from Napa, he boastfully told me that making wine in Napa is a “piece of cake” and that he could make his wine from “4000 miles away!” He is referring to incredibly consistently warm weather in California and the fact that he never has to deal with spring frosts and summer rains that are a worry to every wine estate in France.

My family loved our exposure to Banchan and it will definitely be added to our rotation of favorite dinners. For our next Banchan I’m looking forward to trying it with Zinfandel, as this may be the perfect pairing, in any case it will be a California wine.


Ralph Sands

PrimeCellar Consultant

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Mr. Ralph Sands

Wine Consultant

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