They don’t stress much about drinking New Zealand wines in France – there is plenty of great wine in a French person’s backyard. So why is it Americans stress out so much about choosing the right wine with say a French dish like Ratatouille when a French wine from say the Languedoc would work fine? What is it as Americans that we expect from a wine and food pairing – a result of perfection where we can tell all of our compatriots how we successfully completed a veritably impossible task, matching the flavors of a dish with an unknown wine? Maybe we should study up on the world of wine, learn more about the intricacies of Gruner Veltliner from Austria and how it’s put this varietal on the map, or maybe we should read a few books on wine and food pairing to avoid that embarassing faux pas when we mistakenly ordered a Brut Champagne with our P,B &J when it should have been at least Extra-Dry or even sweeter? Oh, why can’t this be so much easier, why can’t they just put little labels on food telling us what goes and doesn’t go, why do we have to use our feeble brains??
That’s because the French eat French food everyday, and guess what wine they drink with it? French – their wine goes great with their dishes, eat up! This is all part of that horrifically difficult to explain “terroir”. Most of what you read and hear about terroir in wine circles relates to the location the vines were grown, but you rarely hear about the producer side of the equation, what I like to call “Pride in Ownership”. The tradition of drinking and eating local products created the pride in ownership that is part of terroir and what makes localities compete to make the best products. Just like a New Yorker will bitch to no end about how bad the bagels are outside of New York (must be the water?), a Frenchman will claim that their regions chevre (goat cheese) is better than even the neighboring villages. That cheese comes from a local goat, which was fed on local grasses and vegetation and its manure was used to fertilize the vines, or possibly it ate the weeds between the vines. The French drink French wine most of the time as do the Italians and the Spanish not only because it’s cheaper for them and readily available, but they connect emotionally with their own produced wine and cuisine. Being fussy about wine doesn’t make sense because it’s something consumed with everyday meals, normally lunch and dinner. You eat local and you drink local because you know what tastes best.
Americans are still developing our pride in our own products and sometimes it embarasses us – once I was at a French Burgundy wine tasting early in my career at TasteDC in Washington, D.C. and I mentioned half-jokingly that one of the wines might taste great with a good cheeseburger and french fries – I got a look like I had just committed a sacrilege! Wine was meant to be consumed with “real” food, not casual foods that were not worthy of their lofty reputations. I had offended the American luxury ethic – thou shalt not enjoy any luxury without tight-lipped apprehension – how dare I, Charlie Adler, a non-wine expert at the time, attempt to create an unofficial food and wine pairing! Call in an expert, food and wine pairing is rocket science, you need a degree in oenology even before you should be allowed to remove the cork!
OK, this seems a bit facetious, but if you had been consuming wine in the 90’s, you met quite a few people with sour puss demeanors. Even the idea that someone would pair wine with something as mundane as a sandwich, much less a PB&J was considered to be preposterous and very uncouth. Times have changed, wine is prevalent and available everywhere from supermarket and in some cases to the corner 7/11. You don’t need a degree to enjoy wine with food, just do what the French do – eat and drink local. So now that I’m serving Virginia ham with some local cheeses, I’ll choose a wine that..wait, isn’t ham salty and that will have a chemical effect on tannin? Well then, I better not choose a wine that’s too tannic, it will..
Charlie “I Drink On the Job” Adler