Our chat with Liz Symon began with a wine and wool pairing.
The co-owner and wine maven of Cleveland's Lola and Lolita (chef Michael Symon is her husband) wore a fetching charcoal gray wool scarf with a single pink accent stripe. Symon had practically grabbed it off of her sister Marilyn's knitting needles.
"Wait! I'm not finished! Let me fix a couple things," protested Mare. Wrapping it around her neck, Liz laughed, "No, it's perfect!"
It wasn't the first perfect pairing crafted by Liz's sister. In the late 1980s, it was Mare who took Liz, then visiting from Massachusetts, to dinner at Players Restaurant in Lakewood. Liz was smitten with the place. She soon moved to town and landed a job there.
Symon praises her boss and Players' then-owner Mark Shari as a wine mentor.
"Fascinating," she says. "Mark's staff dinners were absolutely remarkable for the food [Michael Symon was the restaurant's chef at the time] and wines we sampled."
The fascination took hold. When the restaurant was sold, Liz stayed. Then, late one night, she stopped at a convenience store's wine department ("No really, they had a great wine selection!") and ran into Michael Symon, who had moved on to Caxton Café.
Michael asked her if she would come to work with him there and "that's how we started," Liz recalls. "Yes, he had a wine list," she says, grinning. "Let's just say it was red. Big red."
Liz took charge of that wine list and, subsequently, their Tremont restaurants Lola and Lolita. Her selections have snared four Wine Spectator awards " and on the horizon is a new East Fourth Street location for Lola with a fabulous wine bar, which she helped architect Richard Lalli design.
Symon's selections are earnest and without pretension. She's not afraid to go out on a limb, as she did with her highly popular Mediterranean wine list at Lolita. And Liz loves to try wines from smaller, family-owned wineries.
For example, Michael Havens of Havens Wine Cellars in Napa first introduced Symon to the intriguing Albariño varietal. Ask her how it tastes and she's dead-on.
"You know when you're eating a peach and you get to that really red part near the pit" It tastes like that part of the peach; true stone fruit flavor. And then it's got a dry finish; good acid," Liz described
We inquired how she came to be so good at choosing wines and identifying the perfect food pairing. Symon laughed and said that it's just always been that way for her. "Everyone here at the restaurant teases me about it. One day we were sampling a chevre and the staff said, "Hey Liz! What was the goat eating that day? Clover?"
She's always learning, always teaching. "There's lots of times I go to a place and don't recognize a single bottle on the wine list. That?s okay. It's fun to learn about new wines," she says.
You never know when you'll run into the perfect pairing.