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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.

Comments (105)

ryan wrote:
03.13.08 at 5:53 AM

I would have to second that! Wine is something to enjoy, and should not cause stress. While I do enjoy some wines more than others with certain foods, it all comes down to what you like. The perfect match is not perfect if the person drinking does not like it!

Cheers,

03.13.08 at 6:12 AM

Absolutely right, Alder.
In my wine and food pairing classes I compare wine and food pairing to the common hamburger.
Ask a dozen people "What do you like on your hamburger?" and you'll get ten different answers. So why should there be only one right answer for what wine do you like with dinner?
I give my students general guidelines, and let them explore from there.
Kathleen Lisson

Jason Ohmann wrote:
03.13.08 at 8:15 AM

I agree with most of what you said in your article, although I have to admit that I was under the impression that we were coming out of the "dark ages" of food/wine oppression as of late.

Oddly it seems like our liberators are the same people as our captors, but in a different guise. I'm speaking mostly of service professionals who for years put down a totalitarian fist in our restaurants and wine shops over what we "should" and "should not" be doing. Now, at least to me, it seems all the rage to pull improbable pairings out of the blue to wow the same patrons of the same establishments. To me this was all good news as it seemed people were accepting the dynamic and necessarily imperfect nature of a food and wine pairing, as you say. But, as I said before, the people leading this movement seem to be the same that made this backlash necessary. It kind of feels like our prison guards suddenly promising a cake and pie party in that little concrete shack out in the yard.

St. Vini wrote:
03.13.08 at 8:43 AM

Yes! Thank you! I've written about my disdain for wine and food pairings as well. I think its a huge crock, hell, I even prefer beer with my cheese! The notion that a single wine goes with an entire plate of foods and sauces? Its a scam! Drink what you like! Hallelujah!

V

03.13.08 at 9:46 AM

Bravo Alder, Bravo!

I think I am going to change the focus of my blog. Instead of scratching around the dusty attic of my brain for fresh ideas, I will simply keep writing about Vinography.

Mr. Wark, if you're reading this, let's have an award for "post of the year". I nominate this one.

joel wrote:
03.13.08 at 9:59 AM

I agree with most of what you say also. There was an interesting discussion on OpenWine Consortium (you can click my name to go there, I'm not here to try to get cheesy links from Alder's site) that spoke of a related phenomenon known as Information Asymmetry (IA). The discussion focused on wine and retail buying but it applies here as well.

Cutting from the post: "IA occurs when one party in a transaction knows a lot more about the product than the other. The problems for both parties are that the buyer is reluctant to buy because he/she is not sure what he/she is getting and the seller can suffer as well because they cannot get buyers to take a risk. The classic classroom example is the difficulty one has selling a good used car through the classifieds. Since people can't know whether the car in the ad is a lemon, they assume it is and will only pay bottom-dollar. Since one can't realistically sell a nice car this way, sellers pull the good cars from the classifieds, and then the whole thing becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But enough about cars. I think the same thing happens with wine...."

This was followed by a long discussion between retailers that are part of the community.

A similar concept applies to food and wine pairings (that particular post was between retailers discussing how to get consumers to not be intimidated). The consumer feels there is a HUGE knowledge gap between what they know and what the Som knows and therefore is intimidated and shys aways from exploration and either doesn't buy anything or just goes with what the "expert" knows.

Your knowledge (and probably those of other readers here) close the IA gap and make exploration easier. The question is: How do you balance that IA to the general population?

By the way, Jason makes a good point and what he is observing is a rejection of the old norms but STILL there is IA.

Food for thought... Here is the URL directly to the IA post and conversation if anyone is interested:

http://tinyurl.com/2kxobu

03.13.08 at 10:06 AM

Food amplifies wine. It can either enhance or take away from the wine it’s paired with. As eaters, we know this -- it’s the “aha” moment of complementary or contrasting tastes. Unfortunately, there are few goof-proof methods for pairing food and wine.

Scores and ratings don’t help; they provide little indication how a given wine will perform with food. (Ironically, the highest-scoring wines, which tend to be the most fruit-forward, highest in alcohol, are the least versatile when it comes to pairing.)

Tasting notes are obtuse. And even when they are descriptive, they still leave it up to the consumer to connect the dots.

Laissez-faire wine writers who suggest that “anything goes” are simply playing into consumers’ frustration (or an egghead’s idea of fun), not solving the problem. There are meaningful guidelines and they’ve survived the test of time for a reason: they work. They just take time to learn. More time, perhaps, than consumers are willing to invest.

Brands like “Goes With….” were created for people who are eaters first. They are meant to recapture those “basic sensibilities” that you speak of (if it grows together, it goes together) without dragging consumers up the learning curve. They are a starting point for further exploration.

Samantha wrote:
03.13.08 at 10:13 AM

Wow, I didn't realize that there was so much dispute in regards to pairings. I agree that there tends to be an essentialist snobbery with certain combinations being "absolute", but I've experienced some magic with a bottle of Cab and a box of chocolates in the past (this combo in itself might seem sacrilegious to some aformentioned snobs). To get back to the post itself, I think you've hit the nail on the head when it comes to some of the subjective silliness in pairings. That said, I'll still take pairing recommendations any day of the week!

Jeff wrote:
03.13.08 at 10:14 AM

I was nodding my head so hard in agreement I think i sprained my neck.

Fatemeh wrote:
03.13.08 at 11:12 AM

Such a great post, Alder. It seems to me that, as younger, "fresher" sommeliers hit the scene, they are trying to break some of the traditional molds of food and wine pairing.

It's going to be fun watching the next generation learn about wine under the "tutelage" of this younger set of sommeliers, shop owners and writers.

brett wrote:
03.13.08 at 11:56 AM

Great post, Alder. Drink what you like to drink, experiment, and pay attention. That pretty much sums up my own thinking on the topic of wine and food pairing.

-Victor- wrote:
03.13.08 at 12:16 PM

Wow Alder

You sure created a buzz with this one, and I agree, the consumer is overwhelmed. I have been one of those sommeliers creating pairings for tasting menus, and when the synergy was working the customers responded. Wine is food, food is wine. The end-user experience though is absolutely based on physiology(and frame of reference) . There are only two kinds of wine: Wines you like and wines you don't.

winenegress wrote:
03.13.08 at 12:37 PM

Bravo Alder! I had a stunning example of how ridiculous many "rules" of food/wine pairing are when I had a food-wine pairing dinner where the host deliberately paired a brawny beef dish with chardonnay. The match worked very well and from that day forward, I've pretty much ignored standard advice on the pairing front.

03.13.08 at 1:34 PM

This "anti-rhetoric" isn't all that new, though. Karen MacNeil suggests her 3 or 4 basic rules in The Wine Bible. Ed Behr from The Art of Eating has long argued this stance. Most of the wine professionals I know argue this stance. (And, on a much smaller scale, it is what I have always told my students and readers.)

Maybe I'm just not eating at enough nice restaurants, but how widespread is the "you have to have this one wine" philosophy, anyway? How often do you really run across this versus what you consider the "rebellious" argument?

And are the bulk of wine buyers that concerned about it? Obviously not, since they buy a limited number of brands.

Smoking Goat wrote:
03.13.08 at 2:30 PM

Well said.... Since I'm the most wine geeky of my circle of friends, I have people often "defer" to me about what the best wine is to go with a meal. As much as I try to point out that anyone can follow some simple rules (drink what you like, big usually works well with big and light with light, etc) people are still afraid of the "wrong match" and want someone else to choose for them. The only thing I can do is to make sure that if we're having several bottles, the earlier ones won't totally blow out the latter ones...

Alder wrote:
03.13.08 at 2:45 PM

Lots of good comments, so I'll respond to several at once:

Derrick -- I'm making no claims at originality on this one, for sure, but it's quite strange how the professional wine world continues to milk the idea of pairings for every possible buck it can generate. This is partially because there seems to be a huge demand for it in the marketplace. It's a strange chicken and egg phenomenon. But look at how many books continue to be published about specifically food and wine pairing, and how many professional seminars cater to teaching people the "secrets" of this supposed "art" when really there is no magic to it. I've certainly met my share of wine professionals who would say that serving red wine with oysters is just wrong, in some fundamental way, and that people should be prevented, if possible from doing so.

Fred -- the "goes with" wines are hugely problematic for me, not only because they're crappy wines, but also because they reinforce the idea that there are rules that are reducible to something like "Pinot with Chicken" which is totally BS. That wine is going to taste really different with a chicken in cream and caper sauce versus a bacon wrapped chicken breast dusted with provencal herbs. I don't think those who say "anything goes" play into consumer frustrations -- consumers only seek answers because they've been trained to think there ARE answers, with a capital "A."

And everyone, just for the record, you should remember that I offer food pairing recommendations with my wine tasting notes -- either what I DID drink the wine with, or what I would try drinking it with if I was cooking -- my own experimentation of taste.

Mindmuse wrote:
03.13.08 at 2:54 PM

Alder, you done let the cat out of the bag..

Fred Schwartz wrote:
03.13.08 at 3:20 PM

Alder – Just to set the record straight, the “Goes With…” line of wines is deeper than you suggest. For each dish, there are as many as three different blends, depending on the preparation. In poultry, there is one for fried chicken, one for chicken with lemon & capers, and one for . . . I forget. It’s a broad line. But being a supermarket wine, it can never be infinitely broad – there is only so much shelf space.

But that’s really not the point of the brand. The point is get consumers off on the right foot. Which you argue doesn’t exist.

Alder, there are some Answers. Here are two: wines that are high in alcohol or over-oaked do a disservice to any food they are paired with. Is there a som reading this who would disagree?

Alder wrote:
03.13.08 at 3:31 PM

Fred, that particular Answer is one that I personally disagree with, not because I don't generally prefer to drink lower alcohol wines with my food (I do), but because I personally believe no one except for the highest tier of wine connoissuers can actually tell what level of alcohol a wine has to begin with.

This may be the subject of a future rant, but the only people who seem to really dislike high alcohol wines are some super high-end wine geeks, some winemakers, and the wine journalism establishment (many of whom I think secretly like those wines but are now being pressured into saying they don't).

Oh and yes, I do recall having tasted a Goes With Beef wine that supposedly was for Peppercorn Steak.

03.13.08 at 3:51 PM

On the high-alcohol tangent, I also feel like big wines aren't as food-friendly, but how many wine geeks do you know who recommend sherry at the dinner table? A few, I imagine. And that's a pretty boozy wine.

I also don't know if critics secretly like those wines; I think it's pretty open. Though I've never seen evidence to support this, it's pretty accepted that high-alc wines show better in big tastings than their wimpier peers. Even other folks wary of evidence-less truisms seem to accept this, though I'd love to see hard data about it.

Smoking Goat wrote:
03.13.08 at 4:12 PM

Oh dear. I knew my agreeing with Alder wouldn't last. ;-) I would never call my self a "high-end" wine geek, but I have a pretty strong immediate reaction to what I call "gasoline" wines - and it's usually confirmed with a quick look to the bottle (*after* I get the burned nose hairs). And while it tends to be New World wines that suffer this trait, I've had the reverse happen to me a few times - Old Wine car-fuel wines and well-balanced new world wines. Admittedly, maybe what I'm smelling is some other trait, but it lines up pretty consistently with wines above the 14% mark. Maybe, just maybe, I've got "cellar nose" for wines around 13%....

sam grimes wrote:
03.13.08 at 4:32 PM

i have been in fine dining for my entire professional life. my feeling is, about time someone really speaks out. you kinda hit the nail on the head.
in any case, the reason we continue to pair where i work is because clients demand it, not because we cynically try to hoodwink the public. it is 50% of our sales
because clients ask for it. For a lot of people who are afraid to order
wine regardless of how comfortable we try to make them, the pairing offers
them relief plus the opportunity for new tastes.
like a tasting menu, a series of pairings will allow a client to try wines
that they normally would not order on their own. it broadens horizons and if
it is approached by a sommelier with this in mind ("please let me know if
this doesn't suit you.") then there is nothing wrong with the practice. it can be a win-win situation in spite of the "perfect pairing" mythology because of customer satisfaction and margins that allow restaurants to pull corks on interesting bottles that normally would not sell on their own.

Lori wrote:
03.13.08 at 5:48 PM

Right on, my brother.
It is something I always tell my non-wino friends (wino is my way of saying oenophile)who are intimidated by ordering wine: Taste is in the tongue of the drinker! I actually posted something like this on my blog with a link to wine cognoscenti's latest nightmare: the budometer! Fun stuff.

Mike Pollard wrote:
03.13.08 at 7:18 PM

The argument that high alcohol wines don’t go with food does seem quite rampant. But the problem is that I never see the folks who make these comments provide examples beyond some generalization with one or two foods. Such criticism also includes a comment on how much less wine they can drink with their food; do they believe that drinking more wine will improve the flavor of the food?

There really does need to be a wider discourse about whether the outspoken critics of high alcohol wines (>14.5%), (Darrell Corti, Dan Berger, Eric Asimov, Elin McCoy, Randy Dunn) are offering anything constructive to the modern world of wine.

One final point in terms of wine, food and alcohol. Each year the Sydney International Wine Competition gathers a group of highly qualified international wine professionals to assess wine blind beside appropriate food. The SIWC was established in 1982 and the current judging runs to 2,000 wines. How do higher alcohol wines fair in this competition? In the 2007 Fuller Bodied Dry Red Wines category the alcohol levels range from 13 to 15%. The winning wine was the 2004 Neagles Rock One Black Dog Reserve Cabernet Shiraz. The Neagles won the trophy for its category plus trophies for “Best Red Table Wine of Competition” and “Best Wine of Competition”. Weighing in at 15% alcohol only one of the six reviewers found the wine “just a little bit hot”.

03.13.08 at 8:49 PM

Alder,

This post has spun into it's own monster... I love it.

You sort of seem to be laying hard into sommeliers here. I have only a few comments in that regard. First, I think sommeliers know thier list very well, hopefully they have tasted each wine on the list. If I am to wade through a list of wines that I am not familiar with in a very specific way then I sort of need thier help in choosing a wine that I MIGHT LIKE. Second, I see sommeliers as crafts people of sorts and sometimes just want to see what thier ideas are. I have had meals thoughtfully paired with wines, by Soms, that have blown me away and changed the way I think about wine ( an important thing for a winemaker ). Sometimes I just want to let them do thier thing ( I also do this with some chefs ).

I also think you discovered a 'cell' of wine rebels that have not fallen in lock step with some of the more vocal members of the 'low alcohol' community. I have posted perviously on my blog about the difficulty with flatly dismissing wines based on %ABV. There are more factors involved in a wine being 'hot' than just the alcohol level. Go on that rant, please! The vocal 'low alcohol or die crowd' needs shaken up a bit.

03.13.08 at 9:06 PM

I find this thread a little confusing. It would seem natural to think of ways that food and wine might interact in ways that make both the wine and food even more enjoyable than they might be on their own. Knowing that you think about what you're writing, Alder, it's not entirely cleat that you're not condemning efforts to do so.

tom farella wrote:
03.13.08 at 10:46 PM

Seems like this discussion is leaving out matters of degree. I can't see it as a black and white issue and, like voices in harmony, wine and food matches can make something new and thrilling just as they can make you cringe in dis-harmony. I agree wholeheartedly that cornering people on the issue is a serious problem. Easy, played-out answers are the bane of the biz.

That said, to respond to the alcohol thread, yes,!!! I want MORE wine with my meal without getting smashed. High ratings and high alcohol are a match made in heaven and an almost unavoidable response in the review/judging format. It may not have much to do with mealtime, though (not black and white here, either).

I wanna see the other post on the alc. subject!

Alder wrote:
03.13.08 at 10:54 PM

Thanks Jerry.

I'm definitely not trying to lay into sommeliers hard here. I'm very pro sommelier. They are (on the whole) very accomplished people, who know a ton about wine (way more than me!), and who perform a great service to diners and wine lovers everywhere.

I've been turned on to some phenomenal wines that I never would have tried without the help of a friendly sommelier.

The line I'm trying to draw here, though perhaps not as eloquently or effectively as I might like, is that the idea of food and wine pairing as something that you REQUIRE a sommelier to do, or more commnly that you need some special knowledge, training, or rules to get right is totally bogus.

Furthermore, I'm suggesting that sommeliers and others who have the knowledge, training, etc. aren't necessarily going to create combinations of wine and food that you, as an individual will like, just because they know something more about wine.

There is a mystique about the so called "art" of matching food and wine that is perpetuated in the wine and fine dining world (for the most part, not purposefully or maliciously) that isn't helping wine lovers, especially budding ones, gain the confidence they should have in exploring the world of wine.

Alder wrote:
03.13.08 at 11:01 PM

Steve,

Thanks for requesting the clarification. I definitely believe that food + wine = great things. Everyone should eat lots of different things, and try lots of different wines with their food.

My point is that the "rules," the so called "skills," and the very idea that books hundreds of pages long need be written about the subject is indicative of a problem in the wine world.

Arthur wrote:
03.14.08 at 1:22 AM

I think we'll all agree that the 'quality' food pairing depends on what type of culinary experience an individual is seeking.

I tend to agree with Karen MacNeil who says that the best food and wine pairings offer a high synergy of wine and food resulting in a sensory experience which is greater than the sum of the parts.

Consider these categories as a way of thinking about wine and food friendliness:

> There is an ultimate synergy of wine and food resulting in pleasing flavors and textures not present in either the wine or food alone.

> Wine flavors and structure complement the food, enhancing or positively affecting flavor and texture characteristics already present in both food and wine.

> Wine flavors and structure match or reflect the character of the food.

> The wine cleanses the palate for the next mouthful.

> Wine and food flavors and textures stand side-by-side without any negative interaction.

> The wine does nothing for the food. You might as well not be drinking anything with the food.

I wonder if, after a month of thinking in these categories as we have wine with food, could we find that there are some steadfast general rules or not?

Who’s up for an experiment?

andrea gori wrote:
03.14.08 at 5:03 AM

being a sommelier often involved in high level competition about wine pairings this post almost shocked me. But reading it all and the comments made me realize that maybe you got the point.
But, even IF the food/wine pairing is not so scientific (but in Italy our association AIS spend 15 evenings training us to do in some way) you have to admit that the role of the sommelier is important in deciding a wine that can give you than a good cleansing liquid for the food. Only for the images and the feelings that a good sommelier can make you see or feel is worth enough to try to make pairings on any criterion!

Tish wrote:
03.14.08 at 7:06 AM

Fascinating thread. Alder, of course your Principles are absolutely right, but I think we should not fear sommelier proclamations OR dumbed-down pre-paired wines as a real problem. It's all part of the process of this country coming to grips with the truth that wine and food are not simple, but they are delightful in myriad ways.

My take is that there is less skeet-shooting and more horseshoes being played in wine-food circles than eer. In other words, people who are into dining well totally GET the inherently subjective, flexible and context-driven nature of the beast -- and they understand that the best way to "play" with wine and food are by aiming generally than specifically. Unfortunately it is human nature both to dish out specifics and receives specifics when it comes to "advice." Hence we are occasionally forced to deal with assertions like "this wine is perfect for short ribs" when in truth we all know that the same wine would likely go well with a range of full-flavored meat dishes.

Bottom line: this is a debate we should all be happy to live with. It's a sign of progress in a culture whose collective food knowledge and sense of adventure is still way ahead of its wine acumen (and comfort).

Joseph wrote:
03.14.08 at 7:17 AM

Being a biologist and knowing a little of the history of alcohol i will say this: i'm not buying the medieval dissinfection bit. Wines before industrialization and standardization had on average a much lower alcohol content than wines nowadays. You'd be lucky if you could get a 6% wine with the materials and methods of way back when. Most bacteria, even pathogenic ones, in a 6% alcohol environment would just simply turn on their fermentation metabolism and kill the alcohol by turning it into ethanoic acid (thus why even 11-14% alcohol wines nowadays still spoil into vinegar when left out). And from studying a little history, i thought people in medieval times drank fermented beverages because they didn't know how to get just water to be safe. So they mixed it with fruit and yeasts developed, outcompeting any other bacteria in the medium, thus making the drink relatively safe to drink.

But nice article, thanks for pushing for the desnobization of wine culture.

03.14.08 at 7:47 AM

Joseph; it wasn't the alcohol, most likely, but the low pH that did the trick. If the pH is low enough, some of the pathogens don't survive, and wine pH is generally on the low end of things we ingest.

Jamal wrote:
03.14.08 at 8:17 AM

Is food and wine pairing full of shit? Well, maybe not "full" but certainly some. That is, one hits the proverbial barn most of the time, but getting it spot on is often difficult. Yet, it sometimes works - often by accident. I recall a dinner at Blue Hill some years back with the late Bernhard Breuer, proprietor and winemaker at Georg Breuer in the Rheingau. Fantastic wines, overwhelmingly riesling, fantastic dishes that were clearly riesling-sensitive (including venison, I might add). Two wines were served with each course. One of the courses was a diptych of shellfish, each side distinct in its preparation and seasoning. Drink one of Breuer's rieslings with either one yield a successful pairing. Yet, one of the two poured proved to be the absolutely perfect pairing for one of the preparations, the other, perfect for the second. What made them perfect? How the wine's acidity matched that of each dish, how the mineral elements of the each wine responded to salting and spicing of each preparation, how their nuances of fruit tangled with other ingredients in the dish. The perfection of the pairings was uncanny. Yet, truth be told, the chef had not tasted the wines before creating the dish, and, Breuer hadn't tasted any of the dishes before selecting the wines. In the same way the universe turned out as it did - serendipity of sorts rather than Intelligent Design - the wines paired with the food in just the right way. Since, judging from experience, wine "experts" (including every wine writer - I, included) are about as far from being Intelligent Designers as anyone, we just have to try our luck. Sometimes we get it just right, often we get things pretty close, sometimes we flop. For five of seven Wine Guides I wrote for Food & Wine, I was asked to make very specific food pairing suggestions for general categories of wine. In the "other whites" section of my California chapter (WG 2005), I recommended that Roussanne and Marsanne be paired with risotto or chicken blanquette, Pinot Gris with grilled salmon or pan-roasted scallops with wild mushrooms. Lighter Pinot Grigio (a distinction was made for purposes of style), with scampi... Now, these suggestions were based on experience and certainly not wrong, but the idea that any California Pinot Gris would be great with scallops with wild mushrooms (a dish everyone should try) is shall was say, overstating the fact.
During the last two editions (including the current, Wine Guide 2008), pairings become far more general: Merlot (from anywhere in the world! - damn those editors!) pairs with everything from pork chops or roasts to pasta in meat sauces or sausages off the grill. Actually, those "pairings" came down from the top rather than from my pen. But, they're in the book with my name on it. The moral of the story: Merlot goes with some form of meat. Like all good propaganda, it's general enough to be a true statement, if not entirely accurate/honest. Helpful, though, don't you think? Hmm, maybe not.

Fred Schwartz wrote:
03.14.08 at 9:02 AM

In the back of Jay McInerney’s book, Bacchus & Me, he offers two lists of pairings. One traditional, the other less so.
I reprint them here as this thread conspicuously lacks any specific information on its subject. Consider them food for thought . . .

“Traditional Food and Wine Combinations”

Banyuls and chocolate
Barolo and grilled cabreo (aka goat)
Barolo and white truffie risotto
Brunello di Montalcino and cinghale (aka wild boar)
California Cabernet and grilled steak
California Chardonnay and lobster
California Chardonnay arid salmon
Chablis and oysters
champagne and caviar
Chianti and risotto with funghi
Gewurztraminer and Muenster
Port and chocolate
Port and Stilton
Red Bordeaux and Cheddar
Red Bordeaux and lamb Red
Burgundy and pheasant
Red Burgundy and roast beef
Red Hermitage and venison
Red Chateauneuf-du-Pape and daube de boeuf
Riesling and Wiener schnitzel
Sancerre and oysters
Sancerre (or Pouilly-Fume) and Chevre
Sauternes and foie gras
Sauternes and Roquefort
Vin Santo and biscotti
White Burgundy and pike quenelles


“Not Your Grandfather's Food and Wine Combinations”

Australian Chardonnay and Kraft macaroni and cheese. (My kids and I prefer the kind with the squeeze, rather than the dry cheese. Almost any ten-dollar New World Chardonnay will be improved by this dish.)
Australian Semillon and lemongrass chicken
Bandol Rose and barbecue
Barbera d'Alba and pizza
Barbaresco and steak tartare
California Cabernet and grilled eel
Chateauneuf-du-Pape and antelope
champagne and Parmigiano-Reggiano
champagne and sushi
Gewürztraminer and Thai food
Gruner Veltliner and peekytoe crab
Krug Champagne and popcorn
Late harvest zinfandel and chocolate cake
Late harvest Alsatian Pinot Gris (Vendange Tardive) and foie gras
Oregon Pinot Noir and grilled king salmon
Oregon Pinot Gris and grilled king salmon
Old-vine zinfandel and southern fried chicken
Petite Sirah and steak au poivre
Pinot Noir and guinea fowl
Pinot Noir and Arctic char
Riesling and dim sum (or Cantonese food in general)
Riesling and anything

sam wrote:
03.14.08 at 9:37 AM

As someone who lacks confidence in their wine appreciation abilities I have to applaud you for airing what I have assumed to be true all along: The Emperor hath no clothes. I have never been afraid of drinking red wine with fish, for example, or really drinking whatever wine with whatever food. I like to drink my favourite wines with food, not some wine I don't care for so much just because it is meant to go with such and such, even if it is perceived to be a rotten combination. However, sometimes, just sometimes, very rarely and usually by total accident I stumble upon a wine/food pairing which is so mind-blowingly appropriate, then, and only then, do I realise that a Nirvana is possible. I am not really expecting anyone else to find that for me though...

John wrote:
03.14.08 at 9:41 AM

It appears that those who do not find any correlation between the food they are eating and wine they are drinking could just as easily drink Coke with some industrial alcohol in it!!!

03.14.08 at 10:13 AM

Tish's line "My take is that there is less skeet-shooting and more horseshoes being played..." is wonderful. I only wish I had thought of it. Bravo!

Now for my confession:
One evening, with a full moon, I was in the mood for a thick juicy steak. It was August in Texas and very hot. The last thing I wanted was a room temperature red (and let's face it folks, once it comes out of the cellar in Texas in August, it warms up quickly).

I grabbed a bottle of California Chardonnay from the fridge, and proceeded to drink it through the meal, enjoying both the steak and the wine with much pleasure. I’ve always had a little trepidation about the enjoyment I had from that combination. But for some reason, it hit on all cylinders. Who da’ thunk?

Lori wrote:
03.14.08 at 10:44 AM

As I continue to ponder the question of the legitimacy of the now ubiquitous sommelier's food & wine pairing menu for the average diner, I think this:

1) There is no question that certain foods & their preparations can enhance or decrease the inherent characteristics of a particular wine.
Case in point, a Thai green curry sauce prepared with any protein (beef, seafood, poultry) is going to require a wine that's high in alcohol (I disagree that you can't tell which wines are higher in alcohol, one whiff is usually enough)high in acidity with strong fruit & a good dose of residual sugar if it's going to stand up to the heat and assertive flavors of the curry dish. Which is probably why V.T. Alsatians reislings & German Gerwurtztraminers always seem to work well with that style of food.

2) That being said a person who can't abide the taste of residual sugar in their alcohol is going to hate the pairing & would be better off with a Singha beer. Is that person a Neanderthal for not recognizing the beauty of my pairing? No, it's simply a matter of physical characteristics (read up on the budometer, really enlightening) combined with social & environmental factors (how well traveled, how conservative, how concerned about other's opinions, etc.) Short of having each patron or guest take a brief physical exam that will turn their tongue blue followed by a questionnaire summing up their taste memories/experiences and social mores, the wine professional can no more suggest "the perfect" wine pairing with a dish than the average plumber.

However, sommeliers can suggest what they consider to be ideal for themselves which is again the sum total of their personal experiences and preferences.

3) The question of taste can also be an ephemeral one. Like in all industries (fashion, art, etc.), trends come and go. We have the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) crowd as a backlash to the over-oaked, vanilla-soaked stuff that also had its strong advocates; hell, there was a time (before Madame Veuve-Clicqout stirred the lees up a bit with the unintentional help from a poor friar trying to keep his red burgundy wine from carbonating) when Champagne was thin, red & still and as such was considered the red burgundy of kings; much more than those other now revered plots of land in the Cote D'or.

What is valued today maybe considered swill tomorrow. The blue chip wines of today have only been considered as such for a relatively short period of time. Yesterday's "swill" is today's nectar of the gods. Look at the steady climb in the wine charts of all things rose' over the past couple of years. I must admit that Krug rose' champagne & it's brethren are yummy!!!

4) What's my point?

My point is that it is almost impossible to successfully pair a person you don't know with a wine (because that's really what you have to do, pairing with the food isn't enough); particularly, if their wine experience is limited because then they cannot give you an idea of what they might enjoy. So... wine & food pairing menus in general are somewhat superfluous. Mostly because these menus cannot really help their target audience, those with relatively limited wine exposure, enjoy their experience more; unless, of course, the sommelier is willing to freely (& I do mean at no extra charge) substitute wines that a guest doesn't care for while pouring the restaurant's money (as well as those unwanted glasses of wine) down the drain.
Probably not a good business tactic...

However, a sommelier's suggested food and wine menu pairing can be a fun thing for the savvier, more experienced wine consumer when they are feeling a bit experimental. Unfortunately, the same problem holds true i.e. not being familiar with a person's palate but most winos (oenophiles) are gamblers by nature (how else do you explain spending $5000 on a '28 Margaux that may be corked no matter how pristine that bottle looks?) and as such understand that a great glass of wine is the luck of the draw; making them far less likely to be disappointed by what they consider a poor pairing or an unquaffable wine. The problem is these are they very people who are most likely to bring trophy wines from their own cellars to enjoy. So, again, the menu is superfluous.

Is the whole idea a scam? Not entirely, I do believe that most sommeliers just want to showcase their wines especially the ones that are considered more obscure & are less likely to sell. (No one offers La Tache or Marcassin by the glass.) They are trying to show off their skills a bit and capitalize on the by-the-glass trend that helps clear their cellars of stuff that isn't moving but it does provide a little service to those who like to experiment.
On the whole, I agree with you. There can be no rules; mostly, because taste is a matter of opinion. I've had people look at me cockeyed after tasting a glass of '55 Dow's that I offered them a taste of & tell me it was like drinking cough syrup but much worse. There are people in the industry who think Robert Parker's tongue is tastebud-less for rating those super-extracted, alcoholic fruit bombs he loves so highly. (Not that I don't like fruit bombs as long as they have the structure to hold them up.)

So what are the rules?
Drink and eat what you like surrounded by people you love, it's the only way to live! Cheers

sam wrote:
03.14.08 at 10:51 AM

John is incorrect in his assumption we should just as well drink coke and industrial alcohol if we are not so interested in precious pairings. Coke and industrial alcohol doesn't taste anywhere near as good as a nice bottle of wine in our opinion, and you know what - we do actually have taste, despite our apparent bumpkiness. It is so rare that I find a wine/food pairing that really does astound me, that I would rather just drink what i enjoy with my food, rather than what I am told "I should pair my food with". For me it is as rare that a wine pairs awfully with a food as it is that a wine pairs exceptionally with a food and I am happy with the mid ground. Michel Richard, who I am a great fan of usually, in this month's copy of Food & Wine states "The best all-round wine to pair with dessert is Champagne... it goes well with everything". I couldn't agree less. I adore champagne and would paractically bathe in it if I could but I personally think it sucks with most dessert. Which of us is right? Whose taste is better? As long as we are both happy (in our kitchens), who is anyone else to judge our taste?

Blake Gray wrote:
03.14.08 at 11:54 AM

Alder: You have taken an extreme position here. Like most extremists, you have gone too far.
I appreciate your attempt to make people feel better about ordering the wine they like. It's better than the other extreme -- telling someone they shouldn't have Chardonnay with their fish because a Riesling is more appropriate.
But Cabernet Sauvignon simply does not go well with spicy dosas or oysters; neither the food nor the wine benefits from having them together. If drinking Cab with oysters makes somebody happy, than they're happy. And you have validated them. But that doesn't mean they taste good together.
If somebody's happy and validated with that selection, bully for them. But please don't inflict that wine choice on the rest of the table.

Arthur wrote:
03.14.08 at 12:00 PM

Lori

The main oversight of the budometer concept (as I see it from a quick glance of their page) is that they miss the fact that it's not now many taste buds you have that matters, but how well 'represented' in the person's brain they are.

But this goes back to the fact that sensation 'happens' in the brain and that in turn is dependent on experience, learning and how good an observer one is. This is tied into the fact that there is very little real physiological variation between individuals of our species.

But this truth causes most posting on this blog to recoil with indignation.

Arthur wrote:
03.14.08 at 1:02 PM

Interestingly, Hanni's hypothesis seems to not have taken flight:
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/03/14/WIHLVIORN.DTL

It sucks when a 'baby' project tanks, but I think this gives an opportunity to consider experience, learning and the plasticity of the brain as the big players in sensory ability/acuity.

I also found this interesting: http://chemse.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/27/5/425

"The positive influence of experience with a material on detection has been found previously ... experience could differentially induce sensitivity ..."

Alder wrote:
03.14.08 at 1:04 PM

Fred,

Not sure what your point is? We all know what wine pairings are. And that you can do wacky ones, or you can do "traditional" ones.

The point is not that someone can form the opinion that two things go together, its just that the suggestion that this is some sort of "truth" or "correct" pairing that's bogus.

For instance, I think Banyuls and chocolate taste bad together.

Alder wrote:
03.14.08 at 1:13 PM

Blake,

Thank you for helping me perfectly make my point. How on earth can you possible presume to tell someone else what tastes good to them and what tastes bad to them? That's scientifically impossible, not to mention, a bit rude and presumptuous.

You speak about food and wine as if they are people "neither the food nor the wine benefits from having them together." I know you don't actually personify them, but your choice of language shows how our opinions differ here. I say what matters is whether the person drinking benefits. Screw the food and the wine. If someone does not know what to drink with their oysters, and asks your opinion, by all means tell them Muscadet. If they want to drink a Cabernet with their spicy Dosa, AND they think it tastes great, who are you to tell them they're wrong? Sure, to you and me the spiciness of the food accentuates the alcohol in the wine, making for a bitter experience, but maybe that's not the way it tastes to THEM!

Hell, I can't possibly understand why people enjoy drinking and eating all sorts of things, which they say "taste good" but to me, clearly don't.

03.14.08 at 1:37 PM

Alder,

I now have a better idea of where you are comming from. I love wine as much as anyone else that posts on your blog. I also consider myself a foodie, having done time in kitchens all over the country ( anyone who knows me can vouch for my obsession with pork ). I have to say that I agree with you.
Like so many other things in the wine world, we have a population that is absolutely terrified of making some sort of wine mistake and another population that jumps at the opportunity to point out the mistake.
I agree that generalizations and rules fail to hold up under the crushing weight of possibilites; if duck for instance pairs well with Pinot Noir, would it still do so if the duck was covered in ancho chile powder?
I believe that food and wine pairing is an 'art', but only at the highest level. I also consider cooking to be an 'art' but certainly wouldn't discourage ANYONE from doing it for themselves.
What I find interesting is that when dinning, very few people are afraid to comment on what they thought of the food. What is it about wine that is different than food, making people afraid to draw conclusions?
I have some advice about food and wine pairing: 1) Relax! A poor pairing isn't going to kill anyone. 2) the more simple the flavors in a dish are the better it will go with wine, keep it simple 3). have a good time, Drink up!
I also have some advice for those who have long lists of food and wine pairing do and dont's.... lighten up!
I also want to put out more words of encouragement to go on the high alcohol rant... do it Alder do it!

Blake Gray wrote:
03.14.08 at 1:57 PM

Alder: Thank you for your reply, which has an extremist's moral certitude.
Your site is loaded with restaurant reviews and wine reviews. Will you be removing them? Because as it stands, you are presuming to tell people that some foods and wines taste better than others.

Alder wrote:
03.14.08 at 2:14 PM

Ah, but Blake, I'm merely telling the world what I like. Not what they should like. :-)

Blake Gray wrote:
03.14.08 at 2:29 PM

Then why tell us? If your taste experience cannot inform mine or anyone else's, why not rearrange your site to provide more meaningful data? Why rate wines? Why not just give the price and perhaps the harvest date and other statistical information?

03.14.08 at 2:44 PM

I think Blake got you, Alder! :^)

Alder wrote:
03.14.08 at 2:47 PM

Blake,

I can certainly inform, but I can't dictate or predict. Over time you and others can decide whether to use my judgement as a proxy for your own, or more likely just a starting point to your own explorations. But I promise to never tell my readers what they should or should not drink, nor to tell them definitively what they will like or will not like.

As for my site organization, when I review an individual wine, the tasting note and rating are the least important part of the review. There are some posts that just contain ratings, but those are occasional reviews of large tastings.

As for ratings, I rate wines to give people a measuring stick that is relative from one wine to another, so they know that I like "this wine" better than I liked "that wine" since that is sometimes difficult to tell from tasting notes.

Arthur wrote:
03.14.08 at 2:51 PM

Blake,

What is YOUR point of reference on wine assessment?
Are you in the "no two people can possibly sense the same things form the same wine", the "sensory evaluation of wines is absolutely reproducible" camp or somewhere in between?

Feel free to respond outside of this discussion.

el jefe wrote:
03.14.08 at 2:56 PM

Great article. Perhaps there is also an analogy to music - where one listener prefers "Carmen" and another prefers "The Wall".

On the other hand, recently we have more consumers coming in for tasting and asking for pairings with our wines. My impression is that these are relatively "new" wine drinkers looking to expand their wine world.

I totally agree that we can and should say "drink Petite Sirah with your corn flakes if you want!" - but on the other hand people are also looking for that "wow!" that happens when the food and wine hit a perfect chord or riff. To that end, I think it will still be appropriate and helpful to continue offering pairing suggestions (but not pairing dogma.)

Blake Gray wrote:
03.14.08 at 3:43 PM

Arthur: I am against extremism in any direction. There's no reason to reduce this topic to two opposing camps. Save that for the election.

Noah wrote:
03.14.08 at 3:53 PM

I'd have to agree with Blake on this one. Although I appreciate the sentiment that encourages people who are intimidated by wine, I think your position is kind of reductionist and short changes the whole idea of taste. I get what your gist is but you throw a lot of good things under the bus to reason your point. And I'm not really sure that reasoning is entirely sound.

Because I might not like some sommelier's pairing his knowledge/experience means nothing? He has nothing to offer me.

Is everything really entirely subjective and all over the map?

Alder wrote:
03.14.08 at 4:01 PM

Steve,

I do not yield! :-) Seriously, though, I see no contradiction in my arguments against the dogma (thanks for the perfect word, el jefe) of food and wine pairing, and my own wine reviews.

Alder

Blake Gray wrote:
03.14.08 at 4:15 PM

Alder: While I do not expect you to yield to a lowly Earthling like myself on your own blog, when the time comes, I hope you will do the right thing and kneel before Zod.
http://www.zod2008.com/

Alder wrote:
03.14.08 at 4:17 PM

Noah,

You wrote "Because I might not like some sommelier's pairing his knowledge/experience means nothing? He has nothing to offer me."

I think you're getting distracted by some folks who strangely think that I'm railing against the knowledge, experience, and services of sommeliers. Far from it. I've personally had excellent wine recommendations and pairing menus from very talented sommeliers. And even if I didn't like the wine pairings that came with dinner, that doesn't mean that the person who made them doesn't a) probably know more about wine than me and b) have "anything to offer me."

But that is beside the point I am trying to make, which is that the "prevailing wisdom" or the "common sense" out there in the wine world about food and wine pairing creates a psychology among wine consumers that is unhealthy and unproductive to the kind of relationship I think people should have with wine. People are scared and intimidated about wine, and some of it comes from the fact that they think that there are "wrong" choices to be made when pairing food and wine. And I mean "wrong" in a moral sense -- the sense that Blake seems to be arguing from. I'm firmly opposed to this sort of thinking.

Where you do have me right, though is that, yes, everything is really that subjective and all over the map when it comes to food and wine pairing -- which is fundamentally a different exercise than wine criticism (or food criticism for that matter).

Fred Schwartz wrote:
03.14.08 at 4:26 PM

Alder,

To answer your question of why I put up those lists from McInerney’s book, it was to offer your readers help. Something you are consciously –- and as Blake has pointed out, contradictorily –- avoiding. But never mind that.

In your opening post you touched on what maybe the crux of the argument, perhaps without knowing it. Plotting the origins of food and wine parings, you said:

“Such common sensibilities are ultimately what is responsible for the incredible traditions of winemaking and cultivation around the world . . . 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.”

This evolution has indeed taken a turn for the worse. But the problem is not overbearing sommeliers or dumbed-down wines -– those are but symptoms. The problem is our food culture, or lack thereof.

Read this from the introduction of Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” (excerpt available here: http://michaelpollan.com/omnivore.php) and substitute “wine” for “food” and “drink” for “eat” and you’ll see what I’m getting at.

“TO ONE DEGREE or another, the question of what to have for dinner assails every omnivore, and always has. When you can eat just about anything nature has to offer, deciding what you should eat will inevitably stir anxiety . . . This is the omnivore’s dilemma . . . I’ve borrowed his phrase for the title of this book because the omnivore’s dilemma turns out to be a particularly sharp tool for understanding our present predicaments surrounding food.

…. many of the tools with which people historically managed the omnivore’s dilemma have lost their sharpness here — or simply failed. As a relatively new nation drawn from many different immigrant populations, each with its own culture of food, Americans have never had a single, strong, stable culinary tradition to guide us.

The lack of a steadying culture of food leaves us especially vulnerable to the blandishments of the food scientist and the marketer, for whom the omnivore’s dilemma is not so much a dilemma as an opportunity.”

Alder, if you were French or Italian, it never would have occurred to you to write this post.

Alder wrote:
03.14.08 at 4:50 PM

Fred,

I completely agree that America suffers from the lack of a strong culinary tradition, and that this is deeply tied into this issue. I'm not sure if I'm interpreting your last statement about my country of origin correctly, but I think I agree with you, if only because in France and Italy, the idea that there are rules or right and wrong ways for how wine and food should be paired is probably ridiculous. They have traditions, certainly, but those traditions are not "We only drink this wine with this food, and NOT with this food," they are more along the lines of, "well, we make Vermentino and Sangiovese here -- when it's hot we drink our Vermentino and when it's cold, or when we're not eating fish, we drink our Sangiovese." Of course, that's a somewhat reduced, provincial example, but I think that captures the difference in prevailing attitudes.

noah wrote:
03.14.08 at 4:58 PM

I agree that this psychology (that there is some perfect pair out there) is intimidating. But I would argue that for someone who is confused/intimidated by wine/food pairings it would be better to give some guidance as to what generally works (and why) or some specific suggestions than to give them the idea that they should just go with anything.

I think the ominvore's dilema point is perfect. There are certain things that have been generally agreed upon as great pairings not because some Grand Poobah said so but through culture and trial and error. Because most people agreed it worked. Just because there may be lots of options that could work, doesn't mean that some things don't work better. And I don't mean subjectively better either. Imagine you took 100 people and gave them a plate of oysters, a glass of muscadet and a glass of hulking Napa cabernet. Would you really bet your money on that fact that it's going to be a 50/50 split as to who liked which pairing better? And if you serve the same two wines with nice aged steak? I think you would agree that some things work better than others for MOST PEOPLE. So how is taste entirely subjective?

But maybe that's where we differ. I think giving people more guidance and friendly knowledge makes them more comfortable and ultimately will allow them to enjoy wine more.

You seem to argue that removing the idea that knowledge can allow for a more enjoyable wine/food experience, will make people enjoy wine more. And I assume you would say that in the end they would actually learn more because they wouldn't be intimidated in the first place.

Alder wrote:
03.14.08 at 5:28 PM

Noah,

Go waaaay back up there on the page to my post and read it again. Crisp whites generally pair better with fish, red wines with steak.

But things go downhill as soon as you start prescribing more specific wines than that, or forbidding others.

Just because I say everything is subjective, that doesn't mean there aren't things that a lot of people will agree on. Subjectivity and guidelines are friendly. Subjectivity and dogma are not.

John Bubala wrote:
03.14.08 at 7:59 PM

Alder,
Great topic. You said it best, common sense. When I was reading this entry, I thought of an old wine spectator article with a great quote, "Malcolm Forbes once told Wine Spectator that he enjoyed drinking Château Margaux with a hamburger" To each their own.

Alder wrote:
03.14.08 at 10:15 PM

Someone has just brought to my attention that the Wall Street Journal carried an article about wine pairings in restaurants a couple of weeks ago.

Blake Gray wrote:
03.15.08 at 5:17 PM

Enjoyed the WSJ article, but I'd love to see them enable comments. After reading comments from the service community in our local paper, I can anticipate what they might like to say to a couple that intends to stay at their table all night and keeps saying they really want to talk at length about each wine with the sommelier.

winenegress wrote:
03.17.08 at 10:33 AM

I've been distracted by life its own self and just finished slogging through all additional comments on this topic. I'm glad someone posted a link to the WSJ article on pairings gone awry. I would also like to second any and all comments about sommeliers being able to enhance your dining experience with their selections. But I would also say what drinkers do behind closed doors is their business.

03.18.08 at 4:39 AM

Thank you for this realistic, near-to-life point of view.
I hope this will helpful for those who feels that maridage is a life hard science just for an elite.

Leif Sundstrom wrote:
03.18.08 at 1:17 PM

While I will concurr with most of what you have said in this post I do feel that you have over looked (and perhaps with intention) a great element in the process of pairing wine with food (or for my purposes, beverages in general). This element I speak of is the distance between the wine professional recommending a pairing and the person drinking the pairing, and how to know what lies in that separation.

I believe as a Sommelier it is my first duty to read my guests, I can't properly pair anything without deciding what it is that may make them most happy in the present moment, and this of course begins as guess work but is a cultivated intuition that to me is the most exciting part being a professional wine nerd in the restaurant industry.

An example: At a recent chef's menu guests were given an option to have me choose wine pairings for their meal, with the understanding that each would be a surprise and not revealed until after each course. Second course was a delicious seared foie gras with sour cherry and peanut foam. The first couple to be served was a mid-thirties well dressed smiling couple, the man didn't speak much, the woman was giddy in high heels and the first thing she said to me when I asked "how is your evening?" was "I'm wonderful, I was just given this ring for our anniversary." BOOM- that Foie was getting champagne for these people. No, F-ing question. They loved it. NEXT: an older couple (mid 60s), large man in tweed coat, glasses, shrewdy woman with a quiet and dry sense of humor, and their son-visiting home from Harvard (I overheard). They received vintage port with their foie. An opposite wine if you will, that couldn't have satisfied more-especially the woman. Later that evening a small group of cooks came to dine, dressed with tattoo sleeves, chefs burns, and trucker hats. These were guys who knew their shit when it came to food, and loved a dining experience currated for them, and would welcome it with open arms. For their foie--Coca-Cola. And my friends, this is also MY 'perfect' pairing for this dish. The peanut and preserve with coke is reminscent of childhood, and it carries the qualities of both the champagne and port that make them great with foie: a sparkling refresher, and a rich sweet weight to match the delicious fat of the foie. Served in flutes this pairing confused some of them, although they now ask for coke with their foie outside the chef menu.

Point of all this being, pairing is not bull shit. Nor is it a lie. I believe it to only be to basely represented by so many of the so called "experts". There are basic chemical principles that allow certain wines to work well with certain foods, but these options are by no means limited or inflexible. And certain flavor components which dominate a certain regions wines can definitely be imagined as unwelcome with certain foods, just like certain foods would not be prepared with certain spices or herbs blindly thrown in. However it is most essential that we "professional pairers" take everything into account (day, weather, environment, attitude, supposed psychology even) when suggesting the next perfect pairing. Sommeliers have a duty to witness a transcendental phenomenology (see Maurice Merleau-Ponty), and consider the whole study one of Ontology (from the vantage point of Heidegger).

Perhaps this is something more complex than most wine drinkers/consumers choose to acknowledge, or even want to know. However, if we are discussing debunking the pairing myths, perhaps its the ones who tout how to pair whom should get in check, do those who simply want a good time a serve-- take their own selves out of the equation as an arbiter, and recognize the world and moment are much bigger than our selves.

dude wrote:
03.20.08 at 4:30 PM

yeah, so what do you do when you watch four people drink merlot with raw oysters? i laughed. a waste of good oysters.

Alder wrote:
03.20.08 at 5:03 PM

Dude,

We're all free to laugh at that, or shake our heads, or whatever we want to do. But if they're enjoying themselves and they think it tastes good, then no one can tell them they're wrong.

I've got friends from college who still think Kraft Cheese and Macaroni tastes better than one made-from-scratch-with-artisan-cheese and macaroni from a talented chef in San Francisco. I disagree, but I have no right to tell them what they are tasting.

Alder

javier wrote:
03.21.08 at 9:03 AM

Dude, I laugh too, but I laugh at people who think to know what other people should like.

Bee wrote:
03.25.08 at 4:42 PM

I believe in perfect pairings. You would probably have a napa cab with Foie Gras and have no idea how bad it goes together.

Alder wrote:
03.26.08 at 7:32 PM

Bee,

So.... presumably you think that everyone should drink Sauternes with foie gras because that is a perfect pairing?

It's just this sort of singleminded rule that is utterly ridiculous. Foie gras terrine with radishes, fleur de sel, olives, and basil oil will taste COMPLETELY different than seared foie gras with roasted figs and a balsamic, dried cherry reduction. To blindly suggest (as some people do) that Sauternes is the best, only, or proper pairing for both of these dishes is just as ridiculous as saying you always serve Pinot Noir with chicken. Bollocks.

Bobby Bo wrote:
04.01.08 at 10:58 AM

Pairing IS an art, and an extension of both the chef and the vintner. Sommeliers work as intermediaries here, but anyone can do it. There are, of course, many ways to pair dishes, but some ways are just better, just like some recipes are just better. And yes, I will contend that some people just don't have good taste (just come down to North Carolina), and we CAN tell them they are fucking retards (I do it all the time, but I am from NJ where we use "big boy" words and insult people). Sometimes beer should be chosen over wine, and some wines just aren't right for food. Sure, anyone can drink whatever they want, whenever they want and people have their own tastes as well (an idea that would make wine reviewer obsolete by the way). If you taste the wine first, than make dinner, or know enough about the wine to pick it with what was cooked, than you can get the best value out of your meal. Drinking whatever you like all the time is like putting Tabascos sauce on everything that comes out of the kitchen. It is an insult to all the work the chef did you create your dish. If it doesn't work for you, suck it up. Ordering new foods, and the new wines that go with them, is a great way to experiment and learn. Remember your first beer, didnt like it did you. Remember your first beer with Cajun style craw fish boil? Now that rocks, and I dont care who you are.

Big Daub wrote:
04.01.08 at 3:52 PM

Lief,

In your chef's menu guest experiment, you paired wine (or beverage, in the case of the phosphoric acid (not tartaric) weighted Coke) to people. In short you socially profiled them and served what you thought they would have liked with the foie gras. The reason you got three unique epiphanies proves the writer's point.

Next time you're at the table, remember these two simple rules:

1. Red wine has NEVER gone with chocolate. Never. And...
2. Pinot always brings out the "animale" in sautéed monkey scrotum. Always

Big Daub wrote:
04.01.08 at 4:01 PM

Sorry Leif. I misspelled your name in the previous posting.
However, I'm dead serious about the pinot pairing.

Blind Muscat wrote:
04.02.08 at 4:16 PM

Let me join in the chorus of agreement that the whole edifice of "objective" advice about food and wine pairing is a hoax, and one uniquely found in the U.S., where wine drinkers have so much more anxiety about these things than the folks who have grown up in wine-loving cultures.

Last night, I chaired a panel for the San Francisco Professional Food Society about all this at the Westin St. Francis in the city. Speakers included Jon Bonné, editor of the SF Chronicle Wine section; Hildegarde Heymann, sensory analyst at UC Davis; Burke Owens, formerly of COPIA and now doing marketing for Bonny Doon; and Tim Hanni, one of the first American Masters of Wine and now a renegade who rants against the wine establishment and its bogus rules. Hanni argued that everyone’s tastes are so different that rules are insane. Dr. Heymann surveyed the scientific research (almost none) and summarized her own studies, which basically indicate that any food slightly dampens the perception of the characteristics of any wine—makes that wine a little less acidic, a little less sweet, etc. Burke insisted that people should do this pairing stuff to have fun, not to follow orders; and even Jon, whose section goes to great lengths to explore intricate pairing niches, admitted that sommeliers sometimes drive him crazy insisting on pairings that are absurd.

The 90 people in the audience let out a collective sigh of relief at the end—the talking and tasting had the therapeutic effect of letting them relax and stop worrying about right and wrong. It was a hoot. I wish we had it on tape.

Alder wrote:
04.02.08 at 4:23 PM

Can I get an AMEN from the choir?

Robert and Leslie Alexander wrote:
04.05.08 at 2:35 AM

Fantastic, we could not agree more. It's been very refreshing living(currently) and working the wine trade in Barbaresco, Italy, where the subject of pairing almost never comes up at the lunch or dinner table. Thanks for letting this big cat out of the bag.

Doug Glass wrote:
04.14.08 at 6:30 PM

On one of his shows, Justine Wilson was commenting about what wine was proper with a chicken disk. He chose the "wrong" wine saying he drank what he liked and "the chicken don't know". Wine preference is personal, period. Drink what you like and forget what the so-called experts say. They all have a vested interest in the public at large buying into their worthless dribble.

charlie wrote:
04.15.08 at 5:21 AM

this ib bullcrap. i am a profesional cook and i can say for sure that this is a big lie.

Kevin wrote:
04.15.08 at 9:59 PM

I work in the foodservice industry, and we have one simple rule in regards to which wine is better with a given food... Whatever wine the guest is prepared to spend their money on, is the best pairing for whatever food they are eating.

Denise wrote:
08.25.08 at 2:19 PM

Drinking wine is a joy .... pairing it with food is an adventure that is many times a "solo" mission. All tastes are different. The bottom line is the "Life is too short to drink bad wine"!

James wrote:
12.10.08 at 1:08 AM

Wine pairings are usually pretty good suggestions though

02.22.09 at 5:31 AM

Calling food & wine pairing a SCAM is like calling bloging
the Wall Street journal.I did not hear many examples, experiences,training on the art and science of wine pairings.
I did hear in the blogging a lack of understanding and fear,fear and insecure thinking.People can have opinions about anything however,there was no knowledge of anyone [90%] of the people having depth or education on the subject.I would have called this Blog'' I'm clueless About Food and Wine Pairing. Can I hear from THE FROM THE PRO'S who do it well. Then, I think it would have been a different outcome .

Alder wrote:
02.22.09 at 10:37 AM

Tony,

Thanks for the comments. I understand that you would see this post as an attack on your whole career. I think you need to consider the fact that a lot of people, including very successful people (e.g. Michelin starred chefs) with very long careers in the wine and food industry agree with me and have said so in the comments above.

Rahul wrote:
05.08.09 at 2:38 PM

Great article Alder! I can't see how anyone can disagree with your principle #3 above - "Since this is all about you (yeah baby), experiment! try different things and figure out what works for you."

I am all for experimenting and I am also for taking advice from others - it helps me experiment more intelligently. However, I do not see how an expert can absolutely insist that their advice is more "correct" than what your nose and tastebuds tell you, and that you absolutely have to like something if they tell you to.

TWG wrote:
11.09.09 at 6:11 AM

Alder, just came across this post (via your Thanksgiving rec post). Don't know if you're still responding to comments, but don't you think that your principle #1 confuses: (i) what food/drink items (& the elements that make them up) w/ other food/drink items with (ii) what people like?
There are lots of counterexamples to collapsing (i) into (ii). Maybe people are speaking past each other when each of us says "pairs well". For you (and people like you) "pairs well" just means "pairs with what I like/my tastes"; for others "pairs well" means that (the elements in) food/drink item X pair well with (the elements in) food/drink item Y.

Alder wrote:
11.09.09 at 8:32 PM

TWG,

I think I understand your point, and my answer would be all that matters is what people say (to them) tastes good. Lots of very savvy wine people think that "technically" Gruner Veltliner pairs with Asparagus. But if that wine pairing doesn't taste good to YOU then it doesn't matter how technically correct it is, the pairing doesn't work.

While we most certainly face the challenge in the industry that people don't want to try different things, and we need to do everything we can to overcome that, the so-called "rules" of food and wine pairing as well as the suggestion that there is an art or science to it do nothing to further that cause in my opinion, only to create anxiety.

People need to be feel confident that drinking the wine they like is OK no matter what. Not berated because they really do want to have Merlot with their oysters.

Charles wrote:
11.11.09 at 6:45 AM

I've found it easier to cook with the wine, and see if it tastes well in the pan. If it does, usually serving the same wine I used to cook with makes a perfect pairing every single time. It's an easy, and quick way of pairing wine, and you don't have to be a wine snob or sommelier to get it right. That's just my $0.02 and experience.

Tim wrote:
11.23.09 at 4:41 PM

Yay - a fun thread!

Primarily wine and food pairing is a metaphorical exercise based on vivid imagination, bad sciences and distortions of tradition, culture and history. Rarely is anyone in the wine and food matching crowd basing their claims on the actual experience.

The more 'expert' people become the MORE it becomes wild imagination and even less experential. Understanding the vast differences in our sensory physiology, combined with our unique brain programming over time, renders it a primarily cerebral exercise. There are a couple of relatively consistent, replicable interactions that occur:

1. sweetness in food makes wine taste more thin, bitter, astringent and acidic. Thnink 'brush teeth, drink orange juice.'The more taste buds you have the more pronounced the effect.

2. umami taste in food has the same basic effect making wine thin and harsh, depending again on your sensitivity in the first place, and is often the culprit in many of the so-called 'wine enemies': asparagus, tomatoes, ripe cheeses.

3. salt suppresses bitterness in food and also block bitterness in the wine that follows. The entire rationale behind red wine and red meat is only the illusion provided by the salt we put on it. The protein, fat story actually does not happen. Try olive oil then red wine: more bitter, not less. Same with rendered beef fat.

4. acidity in the food causes a neural adaptation in our brain and the wine being served seems correspondingly less acidic. Sensory adaptation is the term.

Salt and acid together make wine milder (and tequila), sweet and umami make wine suck. Learning how to do this well improves food quality overall. Order a bistecca alla Fiorentina and it is a well-salted porterhouse served with lemon. Cepes a la Bordelaise are sauteed, seasoned and lemon juice added at the end. In Burgundy they use verjus and acidic wine reductions for the acidity and vinegar and LOTS of salt in Alsace.

I had dinner with Steven Spurrier (Judgement of Paris, Bottle Shock) last week in Spain at a conference. He is an old friend, we hadn't seen each other in a long time. We had spent 1 1/2 hours talking on the way back from the airport the day before. He asked told me "I still can't quite understand what the hell you are talking about with your anti-wine and food stuff."

I told him to look at the lamb on his plate and the red wines in his glass then tell me what he had been experiencing and why. "Braised lamb, rich sauce need a hearty wine. They are both rather heavy - pair nicely because of the weight and richness. The fat smooths out the tannins."

I asked if it was possible he was just making that up because his brain created those metaphors. "No, I have just tasted them."

I asked him to try the lamb again, consider he did not pay attention to the EXPERIENCE and the possibility his brain was just operating from the metaphors. Taste and pay attention to the experience I asked.

Hed did. His jaw literally dropped. He turned to me and said, "my god - that's awful"

We pulled some lemon out of our water glasses, squeezed a bit on, sprinkled a tiny amount of salt on the lamb. He agreed it tasted better. He tried the lamb, then the wine again and said, "shit. It works."

Tim wrote:
11.23.09 at 4:51 PM

Let me throw another thing into the wash here:

Curious wine lovers might wonder just why it is that Tuscan red wines are so brawny: THEY NEVER USED TO BE. IN FACT LAW REQUIRED CHIANTI TO BE TONED DOWN WITH WHITE GRAPES, JUST AS IT WAS POPULAR NOT SO LONG AGO TO DO THE SAME IN THE RHONE AND IN RED BURGUNDIES; YES RED BURGUNDIES, ESPECIALLY IN THE COTE DE NUITS. THAT COTE D'OR BURGUNDIES CAN ONLY BE MADE WITH PINOT NOIR IS FALSE - UPT TO 15% CHARDONNAY, PINOT BLANC AND/OR PINOT BEUROT 9PINOT GRIS0 CAN BE BLENDED IN!

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. PEOPLE IN THESE CULTURES DRANK SWEET WINES FOR CENTURIES, NOT DRY, AND AS DRY WINES CAME ABOUT THEY WERE NOTHING LIKE ANY WINES WE DRINK TODAY. YOU DRANK THE WINE YOU COULD AFFORED, WITH WHATEVER WAS ON THE TABLE AND QUALITY OF 90% OF THE WINE WAS DETERMINED PRIMARILY BY ALCOHOL LEVEL. AND BY THE WAY, FRANCE IS THE LARGEST IMPORTER OF ITALIAN WINES, IN BULK, AND MOST OF IT ENDS UP IN THE LOCAL COOP IN A TANK TO BE SERVED WITH THE LOCAL CUISINE. THE WHOLE REGIONAL WITH REGIONAL IS BULL SCHEITZ AS WELL.

Jose Silva wrote:
12.05.09 at 5:59 PM

For me, after mother's milk comes the bottle of wine. I applaud you for your blog - the pairing lingo, is absolutely bull shit. The only problem is, we have so many people with this "herd mentality", that the wineries are laughing all the way to the bank along with the so called wine experts. Well, there's a sucker born every minute. Great blog.

Tim wrote:
12.05.09 at 6:18 PM

Mother's milk is VERY high in umami taste - almost 10 times more glutamate than cow's milk. but I digress.

Funny thing is that instead of 'laughing all the way to the bank' there is a lot of evdidence that the whole wine and food matching thing could be COSTING wineries more than adding value. This is an area I have been exploring for over 20 years including formal surveys and in-depth evaluations for hotel and restaurant organizations.

The pairing lingo is metaphorical. So are wine rating systems, numbers, puffs, medals and descriptions.

So is the use of bull sheitz. Come to think of it so am I. Metaphorical, that is, in a blog context. So I guess that renders me analogous to bull sheitz and I know a lot of people who would have no argument there!

Teddy wrote:
11.29.11 at 1:58 PM

Extremely late to this discussion, but kudos to you for coming out and just saying it. Part of the reason I 'pair' the wines I talk about with something cultural is it's semi-satirical of the whole 'pairing necessity', but also that wine can'should be fun and laid back instead of uber-pretentious!

Thanks for the article!

MK Finland wrote:
01.20.12 at 5:46 AM

My comments come from the perspective of getting my money by waiting and serving wine. I have one rule of thumb: the customer pays my bills, so my job is to make the customer happy, BUT sometimes i can help him/her in becoming happy, and sometimes that means i have to guide him/her or even conflict him/her.
Pairing food with wine shouldn't be based on empiristic & subjective findings, nor on text book "laws", but rather on propabilities and facts.
Facts mean certain elements of wine that aren't dependent on who's experiencing them, such as acidity of the wine. It either is there or isn't (and of course in different quantities), and it either affects the food being eaten or it doesn't. (I haven't found studies on this matter, please anyone recommend if you know any!)
Propabilities mean that i have to have some "stone tablets" that i can reference to, so that i have certain processes i can use every time i try to help the customer find the wine that will most propably make him/her happy. If there are some facts based on studies (that are made reliably and are failsafe) that i can use to raise the propability of succeeding in my job, i will use them.
(By the way, i always ask my customers what do they prefer and do they want me to help them with their pairing.)
This means that using some certain processes based on facts, it is more likely that the customer is happy with the products he/she gets for their buck.

M fleet wrote:
05.18.12 at 7:21 AM

! take a 50 50 viewpoint here as a wine waiter in the industry...
i know my wine list to taste better than someone who comes into the restraunt for the 1st time who may have tasted 1 or maybe 2 on the list which they tasted 5 years previous.
the same wine isnt necessaraly going to taste the same as the one the person tasted as I can compare to 3 to 4 vintages of the same wine as the person who walks in is expecting the same wine to taste the same.
2, I as a wine waiter know the ingrediant the chef has cooked with and the method of cooking used.
I agree i would never force a wine on someone if they had made a choice , but sometimes a guest asks i have chosen this wine for x no of years and fancy a change can u help guide me.
now as a wine waiter with my full knowledge over 10 yrs service know points 1 and 2 , I also know the customers usual taste and know what his or her order is.
so step 2 I ask do u have a budget... not like most somellier who try to force the most expensive to boost sales I show
1 i listen
2 i add my knowledge of what I learnt as as u say my tastes compared to the wine my customer usually drinks.
3. shown the customer im flexable and open.
4 the customer knowledge base has been expanded.
I also agree Everyones tastes buds are as individualistic as our fingerprints.
And I know for a fact there is a lot of hoodwinking and kidology in the books and there is also a art in wine food matching aswell if u know what your serving.

I also understand by my knowledge of the areas of wine if the wine is a bargain due to its terrior.
i.e was it handpicked and how it was made
or if it was harvested on flat land and simplified as in a tank methode of producting and millions of bottles are made quickly.
anyone who disagrees i work at thorpe park hotel in Leeds and I welcome u to try my services out and be my 1st complaint in 10 yrs service.

Wilmark wrote:
04.16.13 at 7:22 PM

great Article. But based on what you have said - does wine make food taste better? You have implied that some wines make certain food taste less than good, but doesnt that imply that most food will taste better without ANY wine? Do you have sources for the info at the top about why people drank wine to kill bacteria in pre refrigerator times?

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