Jonathan Waters of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse on Quiet Wines - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Jonathan Waters of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse on Quiet Wines

Jonathan Waters is closing in on his 30th year at Chez Panisse, where he runs the wine program and also often serves as the maître d’ of the upstairs café. When asked what wine often recommends with dishes off Alice Waters’ menu, he responded with “quiet wines.” Joshua Greene asked him what he meant.

If you think of the borders of a tasting impression, there’s acid, there’s fruit, funk, earth. The center of a quiet wine doesn’t announce itself immediately.

If you think of a still pond: The acidity and tannin are all at the edges, but in the middle of the wine, nothing is pushing itself forward. Sometimes the acidity rushes across to meet you, or the fruit is like wind that pushes right across the lake. 

A quiet wine is when you have one or two beats of silence between a musical beat. The silence makes you want to taste the wine again. What’s happening there? It doesn’t tell you right away. Sometimes there is nothing there.

The food itself tends to be still—we don’t use too much spice. I tend to let the wine be a second fiddle to that, to find a wine that will pair gracefully rather than dramatically.

I pair wines that are not too tannic or too acidic. Sometimes one chooses a wine to walk in step with the food, or sometimes a wine to fence with the food. I tend to find wines that flow alongside, rather than contrast or oppose.

The waiters have taken to schiava and it goes really well with lots of our food through the winter…grignolino from Pavia, a wine with the same kind of structure…and the Chez Panisse zin, our house red [made by Green & Red in Chiles Valley]. Those are the glass wines waiters sell a lot here.

Joshua Greene is the editor and publisher of Wine & Spirits magazine.