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The art of pairing wines with spicy food — bringing out the best of both worlds

Wine expert and salesman Joshua Wesson doesn’t hide the fact that he was born in Queens, New York, and grew up in Brooklyn, the product of "a downwardly mobile family."

Nor does he hide the fact that he was raised on a diet of battered, deep fried, and fatty foods, or that he acquired most of his knowledge of wine while working in a restaurant in northern New Jersey.

That’s because he was also raised on wine in the European tradition, and learned to enjoy wine without pretensions – to him, wine was just a drink, something to wash down your dinner with. Some wines were better than others, but none of the wines that graced his own table in those days were what you would call even moderately expensive.

"Some wines would bring out the sweetness of the ketchup, and some would bring out the tartness," remembers Wesson.

His mother was also heavily into ethnic cuisine and loved to try spicy foods. Through trial and error, Wesson learned that certain wines would taste better with Thai food, and other wines would taste better with Mexican. One combination would be refreshing, while another would make you feel like someone lit a fire inside your head.

"It’s not like going to France and pulling into a little roadside restaurant, and ordering a bottle of wine that grew up next to the vegetables on your plate, where the match is a priori," Wesson explained. "Ethnic food, on the other hand, has been largely ignored. Countries like Mexico and Thailand and India don’t have a wine tradition. So what are the people eating Mexican and Thai food drinking? Beer."

Wesson was in Whistler once again as part of the annual Cornucopia Food and Wine Celebration, and once again his seminars took the gourmet low road in promoting the enjoyment of wine for the humble masses, rather than the flashy elite. His second seminar of the festival was called Spicy Ethnic Cuisine: Is There Life After Beer? and featured five different spicy dishes and five varieties of wine.

If you thought that topic was odd, his first seminar was called Fast Food, Fast Wine, where foods like chicken strips, sausage pizza and ice cream were matched with inexpensive wines, and predictably it was sold out.

Wesson believes that wine can complement any culinary experience, whether it’s a five-course meal or a hamburger combo. He even helped to found a chain of stores in the U.S. called Best Cellars that groups wine by taste rather than by region or price – all the wines he stocks are less than $15 a bottle anyway.

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