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03.12.2008

Food and Wine Pairing is Just a Big Scam

Did I just say that? Yes I did. And increasingly I'm hearing it from wine professionals that I know -- spoken, of course, in hushed tones and off the record. Most professional sommeliers and wine writers wouldn't be caught dead uttering such terms in public, let alone publishing them. So I guess it's up to us bloggers to spread the word: wine drinkers around the world, you've been hoodwinked. Tricked. Bamboozled. Conned.

Before you throw that glass at your monitor, let me explain.ancient_winemaking.jpg

Wine has always gone with food. In fact, one of the first reasons that wine became popular as a beverage was not for its flavor, but because the alcohol helped kill the nasties that often infected pre-refrigerator-technology cuisine. The surest recipe for an unpleasant evening was to forget to drink a bit of wine, usually diluted heavily with water after gnawing on that side of beef that had been hanging in your medieval "kitchen" for weeks.

It didn't take long for the cultural practice of drinking wine with meals to be cemented as part of civilization, and it's stuck for, oh, the last four thousand years or so. Of course, it didn't hurt that wine also gets us drunk. Don't underestimate the power of fun as a driver of cultural traditions.

Along the way to its peak of popularity, wine started tasting a lot better, especially as winemakers learned more about chemistry, viticulture, and aging wine. At some point, most people started drinking wine more for the pleasure of its flavors than for its digestive benefits, not to mention the fact that, yes, it gets us drunk.

I guess at some point, people starting forming opinions that not only was a proper meal incomplete without a bottle of wine, certain wines actually tasted better with certain foods and vice versa.

And that was where everything started to go downhill. Because, on a certain level, these folks were absolutely right. Most people will agree a nice crisp white wine goes better with butter sautéed snapper than a massively tannic red. Such common sensibilities are ultimately what is responsible for the incredible traditions of winemaking and cultivation around the world. Curious wine lovers might wonder just why it is that Tuscan red wines are so brawny, but perceptive wine lovers that have ever had an authentic Florentine steak and grilled vegetables quickly find out that the answer is the same reason that the coastal region of Southern France around Marseille produces such lovely, crisp pink and white wines.

These wines just taste better with what people eat in these places most of the time. Over their centuries of evolution, the regional cuisines of the wine producing areas of the world and the people responsible for their creation have "settled" on the wines that work best for them.

So that's all good, of course. But just like cancers that can grow from seemingly benign cells, these basic sensibilities planted the seeds of a poisonous idea, one that has grown to the point that every evening around the world, wine lovers stand paralyzed in the aisles of grocery stores and in the halls of wine stores, trying desperately to choose the "right" wine for whatever they are making for dinner that night. Many also tremble at the thought of taking responsibility for ordering a wine for an entire table of guests, for fear of wine_that_loves.jpgchoosing a wine that they imagine the sommelier will arch their eyebrows at and ask with a sneer, "are you sure you want to drink THAT with your chicken, Sir?"

The perception that there are "proper" wine pairings is so pervasive now that in addition to the countless books that exist to help the helpless figure out exactly what to cook to match their Albariño, there are now even several wine brands whose sole existence consists of "eliminating the guesswork."

On the other end of the price spectrum from the crappy wines that are brazen enough to call themselves "Goes With Beef" lay the fine dining restaurants of the world, with sommeliers that work hard to put together 8 course flights of wine pairings for $125 to accompany your tasting menu. These pairings, which at the best restaurants are both artfully done (i.e. tasty) and opportunities to try interesting wines, serve to further reinforce a universal belief in three fundamental falsehoods when it comes to pairing food and wine:

Lie #1: For any given food/dish there is a "perfect," "ideal" or "correct" wine pairing.

Lie #2: There are a ton of mistakes and pitfalls out there -- lots of wines just "don't go" with certain foods and vice versa.

Lie #3: Because of #1 and #2, food and wine pairing is an art that is hard to learn, requires deep knowledge, and generally is best left to experts.

And these lies, dear reader, are tacitly supported by the wine establishment around the world, quite possibly because there's a lot more money to be made if everyone acts as if they are true.

I've had a lot of fancy wine pairings, done by people with fancy initials after their names, and six figure salaries in fine restaurants that prove these folks know their shit when it comes to wine (and they most certainly do). But I tell you honestly, for every one of those wine and food combinations that have been great, there have been just as many that were simply ordinary. That's right. The hit rate is really around fifty percent.

And why is this the case? Because the single most important variable in the success of wine and food pairing lies completely out of the control of every sommelier and chef in the world. And that variable is me, you, and every single person that sits down to a mouthful of food and a swig of wine.

We each bring our own unique sensory apparatus to the process of tasting. If everyone in the world could possibly take a bite of one big apple, each of us quite literally tastes something different. What we "taste," -- that is, the story we tell ourselves as our individual, complex, and completely unique brains interpret the signals that they are getting from each of our individual, complex and unique sensory nervous systems -- is ours and ours alone. The biochemical and bioelectrical processes that combine to create the thought, "Hey, this wine goes great with pepperoni pizza" are so staggeringly complex, not to mention situational, that the idea that someone can actually know what they are doing when they prescribe a specific wine with a specific dish is laughable.

Have you ever listened to several serious wine experts share their tasting notes about a wine that you yourself are tasting at the same time? I've had this experience several times, tasting wines with Robert Parker, Karen MacNeil, Andrea Robinson, Anthony Dias Blue, Frank Prial, and more. And every time not only are my tasting notes different from theirs, all of theirs are different from each other. Some taste chestnuts, some taste tobacco, some cedar, and some espresso. So if the world's foremost wine experts can't even agree on what an individual wine tastes like in a controlled setting, how on earth could someone suggest they will know what it will taste like with rosemary and garlic rubbed lamb shank with new potatoes and sautéed Swiss chard?

I hear what you're saying. You're saying, "sure, they might not know exactly what it will taste like for me, but they know that it will generally go well together, don't they?"

And I'm here telling you, yeah, they can probably say that, about to the point of being able to suggest that a nice crisp white will go better with butter sautéed snapper than a massively tannic red. The rest, my friends, is just luck.

So here's what I want you to remember when it comes to wine and food pairing:

Principle #1: There are no right answers. Even the crisp white with fish is bullshit if you don't like crisp white wines. When in doubt, always drink what you like to drink and you'll probably enjoy your food and your wine better than you would if you worried about matching them.


Principle #2: Take advice only when you feel like it, and don't expect it to be right even when the person is some sort of expert. You might like someone's pairings, and you might not. But just because someone else thinks that Gruner Veltliner is the perfect pairing for steamed asparagus with butter and salt, doesn't mean you will.


Principle #3: Since this is all about you (yeah baby), experiment! try different things and figure out what works for you.

And I guarantee what you'll discover, in the course of these explorations, is that for any dish, there are a million and one wines that will taste great with it, and for any wine, there are just as many foods that would be perfect accompaniments. All of which will make you happy, and also prove my point.

Go forth and break free from your chains. The only answer to what to drink with what you eat is, in the end, is everything and anything.

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