The hallmark of a skilled sommelier is to make drinking something like a glass of seawater appealing. It may be an unconventional approach to selling wine, but it’s also a sign that the sommeliers at Aragona are confident in their wine, their food, and most of all their ability to pair the two. After eating (and drinking) there, I can vouch that their confidence is well-founded.
Spanish wine is still a bit of mystery to most of the dining public. Cava sits alongside prosecco as everyone’s default inexpensive sparkler (though of course it’s capable of much more), albariño is a trendy white, and Rioja has some cachet, but the bulk of the wine made in Spain is thoroughly off the American radar. It might not be a crusade, but Aragona’s master sommelier Chris Tanghe and his teammate Jackson Rohrbaugh are clearly committed to shining a light on some of the country’s hidden gems.
It starts, and sometimes ends, with sherry. One of the world’s great fortified wines (no, we’re not talking about Thunderbird here), it suffers from the association most people make with the heavily sweetened (and low-quality) sherries that the British grew to love over a few centuries. In its true form, sherry is a complex, nuanced, and dry wine that offers a wealth of pairing possibilities. As Tanghe explains, “Sherry goes well with just about everything. It’s almost as versatile as Champagne,” the generally accepted universal pairing.
Aragona’s list doesn’t just include a few glass pours; Tanghe and Rohrbaugh are committed to the idea that a bottle of sherry can be the centerpiece of a meal. “We have some rare and incredible sherries from epic producers,” Tanghe says, “and our goal is to switch the light on for some guests that sherry goes so well with our food.”
Of course that can be a challenge without confident yet approachable sommeliers. Which is where we return to that glass of seawater. Asked for his pairing for a dish of “soupy” rice with geoduck and turnips, his excitement over a semi-sparkling glass of Avinyo Petillant Blanco is palpable. “It’s just like getting a big mouthful of seawater,” he gushes. While that might not sound super-appealing to some, it’s an experience I can’t turn down, and the result is as promised: The combination of the wine’s petillance (or sparkle), the dish’s salinity, and the geoduck’s pronounced “oceany” quality reminds me of some particularly energetic waves I encountered as a child near La Push. It may not be unequivocally delicious, but it’s most definitely memorable.
In the end, that’s Aragona’s promise: a chance to step outside the norms of Seattle’s wine scene and service, to trust in a skilled and creative wine team, and to try the wines of an underappreciated bastion of great vines. I say wade in and taste the surf.