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Gulf & Main Magazine

A Perfect Pairing: Two Top Chefs Talk Wine and Chocolate

Nov 21, 2021 06:54PM ● By HOLLY HAMILTON

Chef Harold Balink, owner of the award-winning Harold’s restaurant in Fort Myers, and Chef Norman Love, internationally acclaimed chocolatier, pastry chef, and founder of Norman Love Confections, are two of Southwest Florida’s most creative culinary legends. While they have teamed up over the years to support the area’s top charitable events such as the Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest and nonprofits such as Community Cooperative, they recently paired up to share their passion for food and wine with audiences virtually.  

TOTI sat down with them recently as they discussed the art of wine and chocolate.   

Harold Balink (HB) We’ve been friends forever, so when Covid started, Norman approached me with an opportunity to present virtual wine and chocolate tastings. Zoom had become the predominant communication not just for businesses and schools, but also for creative guys like Norman and me who enjoy sharing our love of wine and chocolate while having fun—there is lots of laughter! During one session, we had 100 couples from all over Florida and other states too. On Zoom, we could see their reactions close up, and that was a different experience for us. 

Norman Love (NL) Many businesses and even small groups of friends were looking for ways to reconnect with their clients, and it was an instant hit. For example, during the Truist merger [combining BB&T and SunTrust banks], the company was looking for ways to connect with customers and entertain them since they couldn’t host in-person dinners or events. Imagine you are in lockdown, social distancing, and someone delivers you multiple bottles of high-end wines with handcrafted, artisanal dark chocolates from around the world. It’s a welcome experience. And while people enjoy the education, it’s really the socialization that we’ve missed, and chocolate and wine bring people together, whether in person or virtual. 

Holly Hamilton (HH) Let’s talk about the pairings. How did you approach selecting the wines and chocolates? 

HB Norman selected single-origin dark chocolates from his BLACK line. He dropped those off to me to start experimenting with different wines. I pulled from my Rolodex of more than 30 years of exploring every grape to find the best wines for his chocolates. Mostly, we nailed it. It’s not always about the marriage of the wine and chocolate. Sometimes, it’s about comparing and contrasting the flavor profiles. Ask Norman—he’s the scientist and I’m the lush (laughing). 

NL (Laughing) He’s not just a big lush in my mind; he brings incredible expertise to the table. Playing matchmaker with chocolate and foods or wines can be a fun taste exploration, but there’s careful thought in pairing. You are bringing together two beautiful fruits—the grapes and the cocoa beans. When looking to bring out the best flavor of the chocolate, I look at the acidity of certain foods such as fruits. Red fruits can accentuate chocolates, which is one of the reasons that red wine pairs so nicely with chocolate. Identifying the wine characteristics can help bring out the underlying chocolate flavors. In fact, wine and chocolate share many similarities such as how the geographic region influences the flavors. Generally, the more bitter the chocolate, such as high-cocoa dark chocolates, the more it needs a sweeter pairing. 

HThe fruits are similar but obviously grown in different regions of our world. It’s all about how they are treated, fermented. It’s about the soil, sunlight, rainfall, elevation. They all play a part. The similarities, though, are tremendous. There are similar roles in playing winemaker and chocolate maker. For our first wine pairing, I picked a port to pair with Norman Love Confections’ 97 percent dark chocolate from El Salvador. Norman’s not a port fan, but it wound up being a good pairing. That 97 percent is my personal favorite.  

NL I’m a big fan of pairing the high-percent cocoa chocolates with a bold red. The higher the cocoa mass, the more bitter the taste. It’s low in sugar, and by itself it can be tough to taste, very bitter. The port adds brandy and sugar to the experience, so on the tongue, the flavors just sync and marry beautifully. As wine has grown in popularity, so has consumer appreciation for ultra-premium chocolates. It’s been exciting over the years to see how diners and consumers have become more adventurous with wine and chocolate. At the same time, chefs have become more resourceful and innovative. It’s truly a match made in heaven. 

HB I’ve been a wino and foodie from the beginning. I’ve executed more wine dinners than I can count, and it’s always so much fun to share our experiences and stories. We have lots of fun with it, and thanks to Zoom, nobody needs to know I’m stealing the 75 percent chocolates behind the scenes, in my shorts.  

HH You both have a busy season ahead as Harold reopens his newly renovated, expanded restaurant in South Fort Myers, and Norman, you’ve expanded your production facility to accommodate continued growth of online sales. How will you keep up with each other? 

NL While we hope to return to in-person events for the charitable causes that we both hold dear to our hearts, I think we are both prepared to remain flexible and may continue offering virtual options. This year, we paired up at the Workshop culinary theater located inside the new Luminary Hotel in Fort Myers. We led two events—one with couples and another that was a girls’ night out. Both sold out. I guess people like old guys when they bring out the wine and chocolate.  


Holly Hamilton is a Southwest Florida-based storyteller focusing on people, places, and partnerships.