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'This is why we're different," says Chris Gluck as he emerges from the kitchen of Wine Vault and Bistro. Gluck is carrying a ramekin, which contains a deep-orange mush. "We've started doing some spirits tastings," he says. "Our first dinner was a flight of six old single-malt Scotches, T-bones, and cigars -- we opened up the patio for smokers." Round two will be martinis. "We've been developing some specialty martini recipes." He holds out the ramekin. "This is eight gallons of freshly squeezed orange juice reduced down to two gallons and simmered with fresh ginger. This is going to be the base of the orange martinis. You can't get that pure orange essence any other way -- this is the real deal. We're going to mix it with Grand Marnier and orange Stoli." Bottles litter the bar -- vanilla, cream, limoncello, vodka. Gluck experiments with the proportions for the Key lime pie martini, upping the citrus to get an acidic bite that cuts through the cream.

Just to be clear -- Gluck is saying that what makes Wine Vault and Bistro different is not that it serves Scotch and martinis. It's the ingredients, the tinkering, the attention to detail. "Even though we're typically open only three days a week, our cooking staff is here five days a week. Those other two days, we're doing recipe experimentation. On a day that we're closed, it's very common to see us sitting at the bar with 12 different bottles of wine open and half a dozen plates of food. We're sampling, tasting, and mixing. The menu is constantly changing. Our chef is a graduate of the culinary school here in San Diego -- very energetic, very creative. I'll say, 'Okay, I want a dish that's going to go with this particular wine, and this is what I think it needs to be. You create something for me.'" From there, "It's a process of trial and error. Sometimes, it'll take us a day or two to perfect one recipe."

The thing that makes a recipe perfect is that bit about its going with a particular wine. The pairing of this wine and that food is why the place exists. "It's all about that light bulb that goes on when you taste French Roquefort with Sauternes. You're saying, 'Oh, my gosh -- I didn't know...' It's just amazing what happens when you taste a wine by itself and then you taste it with a food that pairs well with it and then taste it again. It just completely changes the flavor."

To prepare for a wine-pairing dinner with winemaker Nils Venge, "We sat at the bar with the rep from Venge and just opened up bottles, and I ran back into the kitchen and pulled things out. We tried the Sangiovese. Then we tried some rosemary olive oil -- just dipped some bread into it -- and tasted the Sangiovese again. It was just stunning how different it was. We did a rosemary-olive oil roasted game hen with the wine at the dinner, and people went nuts over it. Then for dessert -- they don't make a dessert wine, so we thought we'd try a Syrah with some cheese. We couldn't get the pairing to work until we tried some baked Brie with a dollop of fresh pesto and a sprinkling of freshly ground black pepper. The light bulb went on -- when it's good, it's good. People just went ballistic over that combination, and now I have those things in my little repertoire. Over the years, that pairing database grows."

Everyone has a database, says Gluck. "A lot of it is palate memory. Everybody knows that a glazed donut and a cup of black coffee is a fantastic food pairing, because you have the sweetness of the sugary donut and the bitterness of the strong black coffee. The two balance each other out. You know that because at some point in your life, you've had a cup of coffee and a donut. You also know that a glass of lemonade and a donut is a horrible combination, because at some point, you probably had a donut and a glass of lemonade -- or grapefruit juice or orange juice." Expertise is, to some extent, a matter of gaining experience and paying attention.

"We find lots of combos that don't work. In fact, there have been some tastings -- where it's more of an educational-type thing -- where we showcase those. One of the classics is chocolate and Champagne as a match made in heaven. It's probably the world's worst food-pairing combination, and we've done tastings where we showed why and then moved on and paired Champagne with sushi or something like that. We explained, 'This is why this works and that doesn't.'"

Gluck and his wife Mary (who is also co-owner) had hosted wine-and-food dinners before opening their own place, and their reputation served them well. "Our first day," recalls Gluck, "we had a dinner with Nicholas Feuillatte Champagne. Their rep knew us from before. They were so blown away by our menu that they flew in bottles of their '96 Reserve Brut and their '97 Reserve Rosé. We served them side by side with the '97 regular Brut and the '99 Rosé. It was a real honor, because the wines, basically, weren't available." Other winemakers followed -- Chris Ringland from Australia, Giuseppe Mazzocolin from Italy's Felsina, Michael Keenan from Napa. The winery behind a particularly allocated Pinot Noir managed to send eight cases down for a tasting.

Those are the big-ticket events, but an ordinary Thursday might see something like a flight of four Australian reds that scored 95--98 points on the Parker scale -- $22. (Thursdays and Fridays generally feature a bistro menu.) An ordinary Saturday wine-pairing dinner runs $45 (plus tax and tip) for five courses and eight to ten wines. "We start with a good product in terms of the wine, but having said that, a good wine does not equal an expensive wine." However thrilling the names and scores, "We really pride ourselves in exposing people to what a wine is supposed to taste like. We go to great pains to drop our red wines to cellar temperature. We'll have customers dining with us who want to buy a bottle off the shelf, and I'll say, 'That's fine, but let me put it in an ice bath for three minutes, to take the temperature from 68 to 58.' The wine just tastes so much better that way."

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