How important is wine and food pairing as part of the wine tasting/learning experience? Whole chapters have been written about this subject, even books, so one might assume that it’s mandatory for wine drinkers to understand all the nuances of food and wine pairing before they start opening bottles of wine. I mean, you don’t want to be embarrassed like the fellow above in the James Bond From Russia with Love who gave away his lack of sophistication and his cred’s when he chose a red wine to be consumed with fish – a 1960’s faux pas, definitely a sign of poor upbringing, he probably attended public schools, the shame!!
A recent article which was Tweeted to me over at “tastedc” brought new light to the subject or at least rang true to my ears –Perils of Food and Wine Matching. Essentially, this article introduces a classic wine dilemma – what if a wine doesn’t taste very good on its own, but when paired with food, it is fantastic, sort of 1+1=3? Is the wine good or bad? And what about creativity and innovation in wine and food pairing, do we want to have people memorize and repeat like Zombies rules that may be outdated like “white wine with fish, and red wine with meat”, and “Chablis with oysters”? The dilemma seems to be that people often believe that there is in fact a right or wrong wine choice, and if they get it wrong, they will somehow suffer for the mistake. It’s already difficult enough getting started consuming wine, I mean you have unintelligible foreign labels, combined with strange/confusing terminology like “on the lees” or “39% new French Oak”, plus thousands of choices, now you add the question “what food fits best with this wine?” to the equation, and frankly, I can imagine why most people skip wine and stick with beer!
I have a whole chapter on wine and food pairing in my upcoming book I Drink On the Job, but I still want to state for the record that I think wine and food pairing doesn’t matter much – yes, there are excellent pairings, but as often as not, I’ve found by breaking the rules, you can actually discover better pairings. How did I know when I opened a bottle of a $9 bottle (2000 price) Virginia Cabernet Franc that it would go excellent with my Szechuan Beef? Of course I love the traditional Sauvignon Blanc with goat cheese, but one time I had it with a very untart example, and the wine went flat. And how about a wine with a little sweetness like an off-dry German Riesling that went reasonably well with sushi, but really was fantastic when I added the pickled ginger to the equation! How many combinations of food and wine are there anyway, do we actually expect people to memorize them BEFORE they actually unscrew the cap of wine and start imbibing? I think not!
I say, break all the rules and let people start from scratch. I’m no patriot, but the stodgy old wine and food rules are just that, restraints on the individual’s right to experiment and frankly get it wrong. I say purposefully “unmatch” the food and wine, Get a big, bold red wine and pair it with oysters, eat a goat cheese with Port, try a steak with a white Burgundy, see what happens. As part of this experimentation, I taught the wine portion of a TasteDC (www.tastedc.com) class on American Cheese 101 class I put out inexpensive samples of Prosecco, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Chianti and Cabernet Sauvignon and I told the audience that I wouldn’t suggest any combinations until the participants had tried the cheese and wine pairings FIRST! It may have seemed that I was torturing the attendees (I’m notorious for pushing the envelope and getting attendees a tad bit out of their “comfort zone”) but all I was trying to do was see if any light bulb appeared above people’s heads, if anyone jumped out of their seat and yelled “Eureka, this combination is Fantastico!” or if faces looked bitter and unpleasant after an especially bad pairing. Interestingly, neither happened, except for the one wine “pro” in the class who was confident of her decisions (thank you Ellen for your observations!), everyone pretty much looked to the “wine expert” (me!) for a nod of approval or disapproval.
Conclusion: Wine and food pairing is not particularly important, but because most Americans find wine to be pretty much a total enigma, they don’t trust their own senses yet. Time will tell, and hopefully with more Americans consuming wine over the coming years, we will see more interesting wine and food combinations, and for that matter, beer and food, whisky and food, and even Sake and food..Cheers!
Charlie “I Drink On the Job” Adler