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A toast to crab

Riesling or chardonnay? Local sommeliers debate which pairs best with Dungeness. 

 An annual gathering of Bay Area wine pros quickly devolves into a bacchanal of crab, wine, and strongly held convictions.

For more than a decade, a group of San Francisco’s top wine professionals have met each December at Alioto’s on Fisherman’s Wharf for what can be described as possibly the city’s most indulgent Dungeness crab lunch. Instigated by Brian Talley, of Arroyo Grande’s Talley Vineyards, and Sara Floyd, owner of Swirl Wine Brokers, this orgy of cracking, slurping, sucking, and scraping lasts the better part of an afternoon. “Every year I swear that it’s going to be tame,” says Floyd, “and it never
happens. It’s always debauchery.”
     Why should you care? Well, this over-the-top lunch has generated a subplot: an epic throwdown over which wine pairs best with the featured dish. If you’re a wine-swilling, crab-cracking San Franciscan, the substance of this debate should interest you. What will you drink with your Dungeness: chardonnay or riesling?
     “We started the lunch as a fun way to bring top San Francisco sommeliers together to have the quintessential San Francisco experience: eating bright, fresh Dungeness crab at a table overlooking the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge,” says Talley, noting that Alioto’s is the ultimate venue not only because of its menu and spectacular view, but also because its proprietor, Nunzio Alioto, is one of the nation’s most respected master sommeliers. “From
the beginning, there were only two instructions,” Talley says. “Show up at noon and bring wine.”
     Most of the attendees instinctively cut to the chase, abandoning such contenders as sauvignon blanc, gewürztraminer, and pinot grigio and instead bringing chardonnay or riesling. And, in a goodnatured fashion, the guests found themselves advocating for one wine or the other.
     “I am 100 percent on the side of chardonnay and white burgundy,” says Floyd, a master sommelier herself. Brian Talley agrees with her, for the most part, though he may be biased: His Talley Vineyards chardonnays are highly prized, especially by sommeliers. On the other hand, Eugenio Jardim, wine director of Jardinière and possessor of one of the finest palates I know, says, “No matter how hard I try to reason against it, I find that still chardonnay is too heavy for crab. I think the two best pairings are Kabinett-level riesling from Germany and bonedry champagne.” In German wine nomenclature, “Kabinett” is applied to the lightest rieslings, which are crisper and fruitier than richer styles. When it comes to bubbly with his crab, Jardim prefers ethereal chardonnay-based champagnes, called
blanc de blancs. “Crab is so light, clean, bright, and subtle. I don’t want wines to get in the way of that.”
     My tastes align with Jardim’s. But we also agree that our choice depends on the situation. “With the addition of butter or cream,” he says, “chardonnay comes into play.” As soon as you start dipping crab in melted butter, the toasty wood notes and creamy undertones of chardonnay become appropriate. It just happens that I’m a purist, and prefer my crab with just a squeeze of lemon. (Lobster, however, requires butter and chardonnay all the way.)
     I doubt that the issue will ever be resolved definitively. Riesling or chardonnay? It’s a question that we must all answer for ourselves. Preferably at Alioto’s, on a crisp December afternoon at a table with a view. If not there, then at home with two good competing bottles of white and a pot of the fattest, freshest crabs our coastline has to offer. 

Additional reading:  Feeling Crabby