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The Albatross That is Food and Wine Pairing

Food and wine pairing is the big bird around the neck, or the monkey on the back of American wine appreciation. How we've gotten to this place I'm not entirely sure. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that as a country our wine drinking and food cultures are imported, and somewhat recently compared to the rest of the world. We lack a native or intuitive sense of wine as food, and of wine as an essential part of the dining experience.

Don't ask me to fully explain how or why this has resulted in Americans' utter obsession with the concept of food and wine pairing as some sort of art, because I can't. Yet somehow, there seems to be an insatiable demand for tips, tricks, rules, examples, guidance, glossaries, and formulas.

I've written at length (and to much controversy) before about the inanity of all this, but It's clear that I'm very much in the minority.

Amazon lists no less than 159 books on food and wine pairing. Of the several hundred apps on the iPhone, more than 100 offer food and wine pairing suggestions, with nearly half that many seeming devoted only to that end.

Could the millions of words, innumerable hours, and millions of dollars spent on this subject be mostly wasted? There's a new research study that suggests as much. Conducted by Wine Opinions this study seems to suggest that a vast majority of the wine purchased in America isn't consumed with food at all. According to the Napa Valley Register, which reported on some of the survey's findings, the survey of core wine drinkers (those who drink daily and who make up 82% of wine consumption in the US) showed that 60% of their wine consumption is done outside of sitting down to a meal.

If this is true, then our food and wine pairing obsession is as unhealthy, not to mention fruitless, as I have suspected. I'm sure that plenty of people regularly, even constantly explore and enjoy the exercise of matching food with wine, but for every glass carefully chosen to go with a specific dish, there appear to eight more consumed in the same way most people drink a scotch.

I can only barely imagine what might happen if wine writing and the attentions of wine lovers actually matched their real behavior. Would a large portion of the critical establishment stop excoriating all wines that are greater than 14.5% alcohol as having no place at the dinner table? Would wine drinkers feel free to not only drink whatever they like, but to explore and experiment in their wine choices without fear of doing something wrong? Would more people actually drink wine because they knew it didn't always HAVE to go with food?

Of course, I haven't seen the detailed study methodology, or results, so my thoughts here are somewhat rash. But a guy can dream, right?

Comments (35)

Greg wrote:
03.30.11 at 1:26 AM

I've noticed on the internet that many people become obsessed by the detail of subjects (like wine) and fail to see the broad picture. People seem to think if they get deeper into detail they will get a better understanding, but unfortunately more detail often obscures a real understanding, and leads people down blind alleys of misconception.
Really, good wine will go with any food, and if you have good wine and good food you shouldn't worry if they exactly match.

Wineguy999 wrote:
03.30.11 at 5:40 AM

You failed to mention what is, in my opinion, an even greater obsession - scores. How often I have seen concern with numbers interfere with basic appreciation. I can recall many times being asked, as a sommelier, "What score did this wine get?" Standard answer? Spout off something in the low 90s while thinking, "Rated by me, just now."

Jason Cohen wrote:
03.30.11 at 6:17 AM

Rats! My search for the perfect wine to pair with roasted albatross continues...

Graeme Davis wrote:
03.30.11 at 6:49 AM

I've got a neighbour who obsesses over this and every time we eat dinner with them the so called perfect wine and food match has been conjured up. Whilst I'm biased about port working with cheese, otherwise I fail to see the need for such precision - stick to red with meat, and white for fish and you can't go far wrong.

John Skupny wrote:
03.30.11 at 7:35 AM

my basic rule, buy on bread - sell on cheese!

Alana Gentry wrote:
03.30.11 at 9:02 AM

I view my daily hobby of food & wine pairing as fun, grand, artistic, playful, thoughtful, inventive, surprising and thought-provoking. For me (and I'm positive there are a few others in my coterie), it's a kick to experiment and share good & horrid pairings with friends. I have gleaned ideas & rudimentary guidance from books and pros like Andrea Immer Robinson who also learned by doing--and that's what I promote--do it & have fun. I think pairing apps and formulas are as interesting as paint-by-numbers kits. For what it's worth, I read the survey hoping it'd reveal something interesting but it just made me shrug.

Sasha wrote:
03.30.11 at 9:15 AM

I agree that the mania for finding the "perfect" food+wine pairing is misguided, particularly given the stats you shared about the % of wine drunk without food. But for some people, food is a good entry point for learning more about wine. I used to do wine pairing videos for a community of great home cooks. They wanted to know what wines would taste great with their lamb recipe...which of course is a nice jumping off point to talk about Bordeaux. Giving people the context of food--something they already know they love and understand and enjoy--can be incredibly helpful. (And a great way to focus on what the wine actually smells and tastes like.)

03.30.11 at 9:17 AM

Well said, Alder. There's a sense in the wine world that food and wine pairing the height of nobility as a wine connoisseur. But when we're talking about really great wines - wines with the power and complexity to hold your attention for an evening - it's sheer idiocy to think you can enhance the experience with stunning food. Good food will always grab more attention than good wine - all it takes is one strong flavor component to throw your palate out of whack. Great wine should be appreciated by itself or with simple food, and I think deep down we all know it.

03.30.11 at 9:42 AM

Christopher Kostow, the brilliant chef at Meadowood, makes the point that he likes to drink one or two wines across an entire meal and that he does not feel the need to pair every course, every time with a different wine.

What a refreshing notion. Good wine can go with a variety of foods because it is good.

John Kelly wrote:
03.30.11 at 9:48 AM

It is a peculiar American obsessiveness: the "perfect" this or that. Never mind that there is no such thing, or that your perfect is not my perfect. Seriously I think that most people understand this at the gut level, but our unhealthy obsession with turning everything into a competition limits our acceptance that there is no single perfect.

Stop taking all the fun out of it! Most wines go with most foods just fine. Some match-ups are better, some worse. Some wines are more versatile, some less so. Don't drink the Syrah I make with beef, but if you pair it with something fatty and porkalicious you will be happy. Drink a good sparkling wine with about anything - same with a dry rose. That 100-pt cult Napa Cab? Don't drink it with anything - it is a "meditation wine" - oh, and don't bother cellaring it either. Just drink it and enjoy.

And roast albatross is pretty fishy - perhaps best enjoyed with the aforementioned sparkler? Or maybe a Finger Lakes Riesling.

Bill McIver wrote:
03.30.11 at 10:03 AM

food and wine pairing hullabaloo probably drove more ordinary consumers from wine than "no wine before its time."

03.30.11 at 10:21 AM

John S: I learned that as "buy on apples, sell on cheese." Jeez, can't we all just get along? :^)

03.30.11 at 11:07 AM

i dont believe it is vital what red wine your pair with your new york strip steak. that stuff is just superficial. eat and drink as you wish, but dont follow some code

Heidi wrote:
03.30.11 at 3:12 PM

This illustrates yet again why ordinary wine consumers are intimidated and confused about buying and drinking wine. Somebody needs to create a game that takes the intimidation out of the process.

Dan D wrote:
03.30.11 at 6:49 PM

Alder, you are scornful of the concept of wine and food pairing yet in all your wine tasting articles you mentioned what food you would like with the particular bottles. What gives?

Alder Yarrow wrote:
03.30.11 at 7:01 PM


Don't mistake my enjoyment of drinking wine with food with support of the obsessive "rules" and mysticism that there is some sort of special "art" to it.

Sarah wrote:
04.01.11 at 3:05 PM

It's a great marketing tool for one thing. A wine company can walk into a restaurant and working with a menu in a way that they can't walk into someone's home.

04.01.11 at 5:08 PM

"'The WineOpinions survey sample size was 800."

To clarify, beyond a certain size, the accuracy of a sample is much more dependent on sampling method than size of the sample. For example the 95% confidence interval ("margin of error") around a 50% response for a sample of 200 is 7%, for 800 it is 3.5%, for 10,000 it is 1%, for 100,000 it is .3%.

Tyler wrote:
04.01.11 at 9:54 PM

We're just trying to sell something that can't be controlled: that perfect moment when you take a sip of some cheap ass wine and it tastes like heaven. Could happen anywhere, with anyone, with any food and wine combination. We don't have control over this moment but that doesn't stop people from trying. As for myself, I prefer to leave the mystery alone and be surprised. May you all have memories of times when you didn't see it coming!

PadrePio wrote:
04.02.11 at 8:02 AM

Are you out of your mind? Who doesn't drink what they like because it doesn't go with something they are NOT EATING? How much did you have to drink before this posting?

david pierson wrote:
04.03.11 at 11:07 PM

Couldn't agree more Alder, Rajat Parr's excellent Secrets of the Sommeliers has a good chapter on how to pair food and wine... but still it was a big epiphany for me when I read that the right wine can elevate a good meal to a great one...

Argyle wrote:
04.04.11 at 7:54 AM

One of the truths about pairing is that there is almost always no "one-best-choice" in pairing. There are many ways of putting together a pairing that will work; insisting that you *must* have any given wine with a given food is stubbonly ignorant. That said, there are some principles to follow (no mineral-driven wines with crawfish, for instance; it brings out metallic tastes) in a more general way.

PRR wrote:
04.04.11 at 8:23 AM

Great conversation.
I think Alder highlighted our cultural need in the first paragraph, by referring to the absence of a 'native' food & wine intuition, or instinct, in the US. All instincts (and therefore intuition) are based on need and reward, food-and-winers are no different in this regard. You can elevate the posh aesthetics of food and wine pairing (or not) all day, but it boils back down to simple chemical tenets in the end.

Kate Morgan wrote:
04.04.11 at 10:38 AM

I think it has to do with the huge wave of interest in everything related to food - from the Food Network, to cookbooks, to the restaurant scene. Many industries have jumped on the band wagon and that includes wine. On the most basic level, if the food and wine tastes better together than apart, it's a pairing - the end

04.04.11 at 12:10 PM

I don't look at wine as one homogeneous endeavor such as "always with food" or always just for sipping. I divide wines for my students into two main groups--"meditation wines" (which you drink without food for the pure enjoyment of the wine); and "food wines" (those which actually taste better with food or bring out flavors of foods). Therefore the survey results do not surprise me because wine drinkers use them for different social situations. The food and wine-pairing obsession belongs mostly with food wines, while the "scored" wines apply to how well you might like them when sipping without food in your easy chair at home.

Who would choose a Soave or a Blaufränkisch as a meditation wine or choose to eat food while sipping a Chateau Petrus or Screaming Eagle? Wines serve different functions for people and obsessions are what winelovers are all about whether it is food pairing or rated scores.

Dan D wrote:
04.04.11 at 5:34 PM

I think more emphasis should be placed on what wine and food pairings DON'T work. In my experience, strong cheese and red wine, sushi with wasabi and soy sauce and cabernet can result in off-taste in the wine. Also, you should think twice about serving your favorite wines with certain traditional wine killers: asparagus, mint, artichoke, even avocado, olive and arugula.

Bruce Schoenfeld wrote:
04.05.11 at 10:46 AM

I wish you'd been at the seminar I did with Raj and Michael Mina at Taste Washington. I said the whole pairing thing was mostly about triage, trying to limit the damage you might do. But once you get past that -- e.g., Merlot with oysters, Sauv Blanc with lamb chops -- you're usually on pretty safe ground. Also, that those matches-of-a-lifetime most often come from (a) a component of the dish that isn't the main protein that happens to play off a note in the wine, and (b) a happy accident. I think I convinced a few people (with the help of Jason Smith), but not many. I could have used the help.

Mac McCarthy wrote:
04.07.11 at 11:18 AM

Dead right! IMHO, what goes best with a glass of, say, Rosenblum Rockpile Road Zinfandel is -- another glass of Rockpile Road Zinfandel!

The obsession with food pairing is a defensive reaction to European disdain for big American wines. But they drink "beverage" wines, which go with meal-oriented situations - like iced tea.

Americans drink "cocktail" wines, meant to be drunk alone, with the *food* as the complement, not the other way around -- the way food at a cocktail party is just intended to clear the palate for the next sip.

Our insistence on getting this wrong drives much ill-considered criticism of American winemaking practices - which commit the crime of making wines that suit the way Americans actually drink wine, rather than the "only correct" way that happens to be how the French and Italians have always drunk their wine.

We aren't Europe and never have been and never will be. We have our own habits and styles. Recognize them and stop apologizing for them! We drink Cocktail Wines! And we love it!

David S wrote:
04.08.11 at 6:34 PM

Julia Child once said something like, "With the possible exception of breakfast, wine goes with food." I'm with her. I think pairings may be a manifestation of our collective Asperger's Syndrome. Although, experience has taught me to never pair a French wine with non-French spices.

Rob wrote:
04.09.11 at 9:46 AM

I agree that we all need to just relax about pairings. I love to experiment with unusual wines, hoping for Bruce's happy accident, but I usually have a back-up bottle in case it's more of a train wreck.

BaroloDude wrote:
04.12.11 at 4:37 PM

Best comments section ever generated by this posting ALder!

Christian Millers comment above reminded me how there is something else just as subjective as food and wine pairings... statistics! ;-)

When I read Rick J's comment re Blaufränkisch, I thought I heard horses whinnying in the distance. (Mel Brooks fans anyone?) And i totally agree with Dan D, thats what this all boils down to, avoiding the disaster, and i think that can be learned very easily.

Occasionally when i am looking for new ideas for a pairing (but not obsessing about it), i consult the site foodandwinepairing.org for some ideas. Good site... gives multiple options...

Renee wrote:
04.13.11 at 2:47 PM

I usually compliment my food with a good wine. I recently hosted a dinner party and served Riesling and Pinot Noir - good compliment with beef, chicken and seafood. Sometimes I will purchase a good red blend, like a Mertiage to serve along with food. Just make it simple and select a good wine and it will usually compliment the food.

Chris wrote:
04.25.11 at 7:23 PM

Maybe the truth stems from your note that wine drinking is an import to America. We don't grow up with wine, and no one wants to make a public mistake especially when wine is associated with luxury and sophistication . It's possible the consumer needs a guide (ie rules) to feel comfortable tasting, testing, and even ordering in a restaurant. It's a fear of failure rather than a need for a perfect match.

wine-base wrote:
04.29.11 at 12:39 PM

That’s definitely an interesting perception as there are endless opinions on the subject. Is wine an essential part of the dining experience, I would like to think yes but not everybody likes wine. It definitely enhances a meal and sometimes makes it better. Actually, when I was in school studying wine, I too used to question the whole wine and food culture. What was it? What was it, that after understanding a dish to it’s entirety you could find a wine somewhere in your arsenal that has the elements to counter the dish with magical balance. Would it be possible? How is it possible? Is it the acidity, the texture, body…could it be DNA or matching molecular structures to find the perfect pairing. As a professional sommelier today I have come to the understanding that wine is very subjective and everybody’s palate reacts differently. However, I still have a job to do and there are some who pay good money to see if can ‘Wow” them. Pairing the food with a wine that I feel will compliment it best. Yes, wine is another alcoholic beverage that is just fine on its own. Actually one of the most difficult things I have to do is build a ‘wines by the glass’ program. Since 70% of our wine sales are by the glass. One must order a wine and enjoy it on its own.
Anyway, enjoy your next glass!

Mike wrote:
06.03.12 at 1:31 PM

I know I am in the minority when I say this but if the food or the wine is cooked/made properly, it shouldnt need anything else. If food makes a wine taste "better" then the wine wasn't made as well as it could have been. Would I ever drink a 100pt wine with food? Absolutely not. I would be adding flavors wholly unintended by the winemaker. If I was at a 3-star michelin restaurant, why would I drink wine? If the chef intended for that flavor, he would have provided it.

The best of food and wine stand on their own. No additions needed.

Now, if I'm not looking for perfection, then I would drink the two together.

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